Network exit poll projections early on Wednesday showed that when all votes are counted, Governor Gray Davis would be swept out of office in stunning defeat as Californians vented their unhappiness with the career politician.
It was an unexpected end for the man once mentioned as a possible presidential candidate. He had called the recall a "right-wing power grab" and boasted that he would survive.
But the political veteran with 30 years of climbing the statehouse ladder was beaten by a man who never spent a day in government.
The historic recall election that only months ago was written off as a circus with 135 candidates - including a porn star, a smut peddler, a sumo wrestler and a muscleman with a foreign accent - has become a watershed political moment.
Davis - reelected only last November - became the first governor of California essentially fired by the people who put him in office. Republicans gained a critical advantage in a heavily Democratic state with the 2004 presidential election looming.
Governor Davis casts his ballot
but angry voters chose his rival
Schwarzenegger also appeared headed for a commanding victory from voters, who embraced his lack of political experience and outsider status and shrugged off a blizzard of last-minute sexual harassment allegations by 15 women.
An estimated 10 million California voters cast ballots in the special election, 30% more than voted in the governor's race that reelected Davis last year. It was the biggest turnout for any nonpresidential contest in state history, according to Field Research.
Analysts said that despite the news media's fixation on Schwarzenegger, the key to the election was Davis - a profoundly uncharismatic man who seemed passionate only about raising campaign funds and was estranged from many state leaders.
While some pundits ascribed Schwarzenegger's success to his movie star status and populist rhetoric, analysts said much of the actor's strength came from his centrist message. The Republican staked out socially liberal and fiscally conservative positions that appealed to most Californians.
"You had Cruz Bustamante on the left talking about $8 billion in new taxes and more rights for illegal immigrants and Tom McClintock on the right and they gave the entire middle to Arnold Schwarzenegger," said Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican political consultant.
Although results seemed clear Tuesday night after polls closed it could be weeks until the state certifies the official result. Some observers held out the prospect of a recount or court challenge.