Among the remaining Republican presidential contenders, Senator John McCain is certainly the most compatible with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. They both relish their role as political mavericks who are willing to speak bluntly and carry a bi-partisan stick. While Senator McCain has never referred to opponents as “girly men,” he’s probably wanted to — and has earned his reputation as being a bit on the testy side. Senator McCain is a real war hero and Governor Schwarzenegger has played the role in movies. And they’re personal friends. So it’s not surprising that, with the departure from the race by the other Friend of Arnold, former Mayor Giuliani, Governor Schwarzenegger endorsed the Senator prior to the February 5th primary in California.
Some have questioned whether the endorsement will help much. True, Governor Schwarzenegger’s approval rate among Republicans in the state hovers around 70 percent. However, it’s no doubt much lower among the GOP lawmakers in Sacramento he has effectively marginalized. For example, the compromise health care reform plan the Govenor pushed for the past 13 months (and which died in a State Senate Committee just last week) was negotiated with Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez. No legislative Republicans were at the table. (Ironically, you could replace Senator Hillary Clinton’s health care reform proposal with Governor Schwarzenegger’s plan and it would be weeks before anyone noticed; he dismissed out-of-hand proposals similar to what Senator McCain is offering).
Of course, it’s voters who matter in the primary, not legislators. And in his current budget the Governor has sought to address the state’s $14.5 billion deficit almost entirely with spending cuts. No new taxes are on the table. This has great appeal to the GOP base in the state.
However, the Governor’s ability to transfer his personal popularity into support for his ballot initiatives has been mixed. He’s had more than his share of defeats in those battles — and there’s a good chance he’ll experience another on February 5th. He recently endorsed a change to California’s term limits law. Polls show it currently is supported by well below 50 percent of likely voters with many still undecided. If the historical tendency of undecided voters to break against ballot measures holds true in this case, the initiative is going to fail.
Interestingly, the Governor’s endorsement could have greater influence with voters outside of California whose opinions are unsullied by news coverage of his problems with other Republicans back home.
Yet the greatest value may have nothing to do with voters casting their ballot based on Governor Schwarzenegger’s recommendation. Instead it may stem from the Oscar-worthy coverage the endorsement has generated. And when you’re running against a well funded opponent like former Governor Mitt Romney, that of kind nationwide free publicity is worth millions.