California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, has been fighting off a recall effort for months. The end of balloting this week will tell whether he survives – and increasingly, it looks like he will.
Newsom, first elected in 2018 by a yawning 24-point margin, was forced into a recall election just a year and a half before the regularly scheduled 2022 election, thanks to California’s unusual recall provision.
The recall law establishes a recall vote if opponents can collect enough valid signatures to equal 12% of those who voted in the most recent election for the office. For Newsom’s recall, that meant collecting about 1.5 million signatures. The recall’s backers managed to collect more than enough signatures, thanks to a court ruling that extended the signature-gathering for 120 days due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The questions on the ballot are unusual. The first asks whether the governor should be recalled. If this question garners a majority backing a recall, then the governor is out. At that point, the second question comes into play: Who should replace him?
The ballot lists 46 candidates, most of them Republican. (More on that later.) With so many candidates, the voting could end up heavily split, meaning that the winner on the second question could end up receiving far fewer votes than the number supporting Newsom’s retention of the governorship.
Election results will begin to be released after the balloting ends on Sept. 14, though it could take days to feel certainty about the results, given the lag in receiving ballots postmarked by the deadline.
The recall of a California governor happened as recently as 18 years ago. In 2003, voters recalled Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in 2003 and chose Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger on the second question. Schwarzenegger went on to win election to a full term in 2006.
But analysts say it’s wrong to assume that history will repeat itself in 2021, for a few reasons.
First, California is a much more heavily Democratic state now than it was in 2003, which should aid Newsom. In the most recent presidential election prior to the 2003 recall, California voters backed the Democratic nominee, Al Gore, by a margin of less than 12 points. In 2020, the state backed Joe Biden by more than 29 points.
Second, Newsom – despite facing numerous challenges in office, including the coronavirus, homelessness, weather-fueled disasters, and the self-inflicted wound of attending a fancy, unmasked dinner with lobbyists during the pandemic – is nowhere near as unpopular as Davis was on the eve of his recall. Newsom’s approval ratings have been in the 50s, while Davis’ were in the 20s.
After a period in August when polls showed the race tightening almost to a coin flip, the margins have widened in recent weeks. Within a few days of the Sept. 14 deadline for ballots to be postmarked, the FiveThirtyEight polling average found “no” on the recall at about 56% and “yes” on the recall at less than 42%.
“The governor and his team have every reason to be optimistic,” says Sonoma State University political scientist David McCuan.
Democrats have also been pleased with what the ongoing tally of ballots received is showing.
Through Sept. 9, the breakdown in party registration for received ballots was 53% Democratic, 25% Republican, and 23% without a major-party affiliation, according to tabulations by Ryan Matsumoto of the nonpartisan website Inside Elections. That’s slightly better for Republicans than for the ballots returned at a similar point in the 2020 election cycle, but it’s unlikely to be good enough for Republicans to be able to oust Newsom, as long as Democratic voters don’t defect to being pro-recall in large numbers.
While Republicans are expected to turn out disproportionately on the final day of voting – as they did in most states in 2020 due to criticism of mail voting by then-President Donald Trump – Newsom may have banked enough early votes to secure a victory.
So how did Newsom get to the verge of beating the recall? Here are a half-dozen reasons.
In today’s hyper-partisan political environment, partisans of either party rarely consider voting for someone of the opposite party. And in California, there are nearly twice as many registered Democrats as there are registered Republicans. Even the independents – who come close to outnumbering Republicans – lean modestly toward the Democrats.
While there has been much discussion about California Republicans being energized to vote in the recall election and Democrats being blasé, “Math doesn’t give a damn about ‘Republican enthusiasm’ when Republicans are less than one-fourth of the electorate,” says California Democratic strategist Garry South.
In a state as large as California – and covering as many expensive media markets – having money helps, and Newsom has benefited from the loose rules governing what incumbents can raise for recall elections. All told, Newsom and allied groups raised $81.6 million through Sept. 9, compared to a collective $43.8 million supporting the recall and all of the replacement candidates, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Newsom’s position has been to ask Californians to vote no on the recall while leaving the replacement question blank. While this may sound like a risky strategy, it helped cement strong party unity on the Democratic side, which in turn has been a sign of strength for the governor. Only one Democrat, YouTube personality Kevin Paffrath, has attracted any attention as a replacement candidate; none of the most credible Democratic officeholders even announced a run.
Forging this degree of unity was a huge boost to Newsom’s chances, says Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University-Los Angeles. “When incumbents lose, it usually starts from fractures in their own party,” he says.
California became a heavily vote-by-mail state starting with the pandemic in 2020. Being able to send in a ballot (or drop one in a local drop box or at a nearby election office) lowers the logistical bar for Democrats who might otherwise be too lukewarm about Newsom to venture out to the polls in person. Receiving a ballot in the mail also serves as official notice to voters who may not be politically tuned in that there’s an unscheduled, off-year election underway.
The Emergence of Larry Elder
The replacement field includes such Republicans as 2018 gubernatorial nominee John Cox, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, state Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, and reality television personality Caitlyn Jenner. But only one replacement candidate caught fire as the deadline approached: talk radio host Larry Elder.
Elder’s emergence turned the tide in the recall election, analysts say, by enabling Newsom to turn the contest into something approaching a more conventional two-candidate race. Elder became a valuable foil for Newsom, a candidate whose views on hot-button issues – offered in public over many years – are at odds with those of many residents of this generally blue state. (Elder was also accused by a former fiancee of pulling a loaded gun on her during an argument.)
“Elder’s emergence is the best thing that has happened to Newsom,” says Lou Cannon, a veteran California-based political journalist. “He has tried to scare voters with the idea of an Elder governorship, and that seems to be working.”
Comparing himself to Elder became “an alternative look at what life might be like under a Republican governor, and it motivated Democrats and independents, especially women, to vote against the recall,” says Harvey Englander, a longtime lobbyist and public-affairs specialist in Los Angeles.
The effort to recall Newsom was turbocharged by the revelation that he had attended an unmasked dinner at the ritzy French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley, contrary to his own coronavirus policies for the state. Ultimately, though, the pandemic may end up helping Newsom, thanks to the contrast he’s been drawing with Republican governors of other states who have loosened public health restrictions and seen infections and hospitalizations from the delta variant skyrocket. On the eve of the election, California ranked among the states with the lowest per-capita coronavirus case counts in the nation.
“There is no more consequential decision to the health and safety of the people of the state of California than voting no on this Republican-backed recall,” Newsom said at an event in Oakland.
The Supreme Court’s decision not to block a controversial Texas abortion law has energized abortion-rights supporters who are worried that the justices could soon overturn Roe v. Wade. Newsom has tried to harness the issue as well, mentioning it multiple times in the home stretch of the recall campaign.
If there’s one cloud on the horizon for Newsom in the campaign’s closing days, it’s that the degree of turnout among Latinos – who are numerically a key group for Democrats – is uncertain.
Since nothing else is on the ballot beyond the recall, it’s been up to Newsom to convince Latinos to vote.
“The voters who are less likely to be reached are Latinos – in presidential elections too, but especially in this kind of race,” says Mindy Romero, director of the University of Southern California’s Center for Inclusive Democracy. Without other offices and measures on the ballot, volunteers from other contests can’t pick up any slack in get-out-the-vote efforts.
In the event that Newsom is recalled and a Republican wins the replacement vote, the new governor won’t have an easy time in office. Democrats in the legislature have veto-proof majorities. In addition, Newsom will remain governor until the election is certified, giving him several weeks to sign bills passed by the legislature even if he’s recalled, says Marcia Godwin, a professor of public administration at the University of La Verne.
If, however, Newsom survives the recall, the key factor for his own political future, and for Democrats in the state, will likely be his margin of victory. A margin above 14 points would be a “solid landslide,” McCuan says, and an even stronger win than that could bolster Newsom’s political standing on the national stage. Winning by less than 10 points would be, by contrast, “a hollow, moral victory,” McCuan says.
Meanwhile, McCuan says, some Democrats wouldn’t mind seeing Newsom defeat the recall, but do so underwhelmingly.
“Privately, many Democrats want to see his nose punched, but not him losing,” he says. “They’d like to see a dose of humility out of the recall vote and a change in manner and disposition about how the Newsom team operates.”