Los Angeles — California voters' decision to oust Gov. Gray Davis and replace him with Arnold Schwarzenegger reflected a deep sense of anger and a craving for leadership in troubled times that more than trumped concerns about the actor's lack of experience or allegations about his personal behavior.
Throughout the campaign, supporters of the Democratic incumbent attempted to frame the election as a sour-grapes power grab by Republicans trying to undermine the results of last year's gubernatorial election.
That argument held little sway with voters, many still angry at Davis for spending millions of dollars to try to knock former Los Angeles Mayor Dick Riordan -- his potentially most threatening rival in the general election -- out of the Republican primary. Davis then edged out millionaire businessman Bill Simon in November.
"Gray Davis was a tremendously ineffective and incompetent governor who planted the seeds of his own destruction," said Republican analyst Kevin Spillane. "He was estranged from his own party and alienated from regular people. It's fair to call it a populist revolt."
Elected in a landslide in 1998, Davis quickly fell out of favor among voters for his handling of the state's energy crisis and a budget deficit that ballooned to $38 billion last year. An avowed moderate who often tangled with key Democratic constituencies like Hispanics and teachers unions, he also was criticized for an aloof style and lack of political charisma.
Exit polls showed about a quarter of Democrats voted to recall Davis, and other key party constituencies abandoned him as well. Six in 10 voters in union households voted yes on the recall, as did almost half of Hispanic voters.
"His failure to tend his own base left him in a position that once the recall was initiated, he had a terribly difficult challenge in getting Democrats to come home," said former Davis communications director Phil Trounstine.
The exit polls showed Schwarzenegger was able to capitalize on voter anger by projecting strong leadership skills rather than detailing specific positions on the many challenges facing the state. Voters surveyed said they agreed with Davis on key issues, including abortion rights and domestic partnerships for gays and lesbians.
The polls were conducted for The Associated Press and other news organizations by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International.
Former Clinton White House chief of staff Leon Panetta called the recall result a warning shot to all incumbent officeholders, rather than a message sent squarely to Davis.
"It's a revolt of people who are increasingly angry at the crises that face them, and at the failure of leadership," Panetta said. "If I were a Republican, I wouldn't get too cocky about what happened."
After the results of this historic recall election are certified, Schwarzenegger will be stuck with the same economic headaches and political gridlock that triggered the recall in the first place.
Here's the reality: a severe recession in a state that has never recovered from the dot-com crash; a state now deemed by Wall Street to be less creditworthy than Mississippi; budgetary red ink that stands at $8 billion and climbing; a choice of wildly unpopular solutions, ranging from big tax increases to draconian spending cuts; and a state legislature that is dominated by ideological partisans on the right and left.
Amid this polarization, even a skilled politician would be severely challenged by the tough choices that lie ahead. California analysts say there's no way that the books can be balanced without big tax increases and spending cuts -- but that none of the major recall candidates, including Schwarzenegger, prepared the electorate for the bad news.