Did Arnold Schwarzenegger's governorship depend on keeping love child secret?

Even if Arnold Schwarzenegger's public persona was a macho rogue, adultery doesn't play well with voters, especially Republicans. Analysts are aghast at what they see as his reckless behavior.

Matt Sayles/AP
Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks at the Israel 63rd Independence Day Celebration hosted by the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, on May 10. Schwarzenegger admitted on Tuesday, May 17, that he fathered a child over a decade ago with a woman who worked on his household staff.

California's former governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, admitted Tuesday that he fathered a child over a decade ago with a woman who worked on his household staff. Would his political career never have gotten off the ground if this secret had come out prior to his initial run at public office?

It’s possible the man the Golden State came to call “The Governator” would have won that 2003 election anyway. As a movie star/weightlifting champion he played the part of a macho rogue, and an out-of-wedlock child might have fit right into that image. Generally politicians get in trouble when their peccadilloes make them look like hypocrites or otherwise play against type. Exhibit A here is former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who seemed an avenging goodie-two-shoes until he was caught with a high-priced prostitute. His political career ended within days.

Plus, that 2003 race was mostly not about Ahhnold, anyway. It was about Gray Davis, the increasingly unpopular Democratic incumbent at the time. The vote was a recall election, in which 55 percent of voters cast their ballots to dump Davis. Election of a replacement governor was a separate question. Schwarzenegger won over several other candidates with a plurality of 48 percent, despite charges that he had groped and otherwise harassed women.

And it’s California. Who knows what Californians would have done, or will do next, for that matter? For all we know, Christina Aguilera is in the mix for state treasurer.

OK, enough balance. The real answer here is that political professionals are aghast at what they see as Schwarzenegger’s reckless behavior. His political career could have imploded as fast as Governor Spitzer’s at any point during his two terms in Sacramento. After all, this was a secret so explosive he kept it from his own wife until he left office.

“That was a really risky thing he did even getting into politics.... It is a pretty amazing story,” said political consultant James Carville Tuesday in an appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America."

(When James Carville says something is amazing, then it truly is, considering all the stuff he has seen over his decades advising political rogues. We won’t mention the best-known example of this, except to say that his initials are “Bill Clinton.”)

Generally speaking there is a sliding scale when it comes to the political ramifications of marital, or extramarital, behavior. Divorce may have undone the presidential hopes of Nelson Rockefeller in the 1960s, but it is no longer of much concern to voters, according to polls. Only nine percent of respondents in a 2007 Pew survey said that a divorce would make them less likely to support a particular candidate.

Adultery is another matter, however. Thirty-nine percent of respondents in that same survey said that an extramarital affair would make them less likely to support a politician. As a Republican, Schwarzenegger might have been hurt even more than this number suggests, as there Pew found a large partisan split on the issue of politicians who stray, marriage-wise.

“Fully 62 percent of Republicans say they would be less likely to support such a candidate, compared with 25 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of independents,” said a Pew analysis of the poll results.

What about adultery that produces an offspring? Well, there isn’t really polling on that, given that examples are few. John Edwards – who ran for the Democratic nomination in 2008, in case you don’t read either political news or tabloids – has pretty much become a non-public person since the National Enquirer revealed he had a child with a campaign videographer. But his case was made worse by the fact that he went to great lengths to hide this secret and possibly used campaign funds to pay for the upkeep of child and mother. Plus, his late wife Elizabeth had cancer at the time, so he pretty much hit a trifecta of spousal rottenness.

Of course, “Not as Bad as John Edwards” isn’t exactly a great slogan for a political comeback. So we’re guessing that Arnold’s time in elective politics is over – which, given the movie deals he’s been lining up, is probably not his biggest worry at the moment.

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