It’s official: For only the fourth time in U.S. history, a state will hold an election on whether to recall its governor midterm. The long-expected gubernatorial recall election in California is set for Sept. 14, and 46 candidates (not including the governor himself, Democrat Gavin Newsom) have officially qualified to run. But perhaps the most intriguing development in the race has come in recent polling. After the recall looked uncompetitive for months, evidence has emerged that the race is tightening.
Until last week, there had been no new polls of the recall election in about a month. But since then, we’ve gotten two — and both showed Newsom in danger of being recalled. First, an Emerson College/Nexstar Media survey found that 48 percent of registered voters in California wanted to keep Newsom in office, while 43 percent wanted to recall him. Then, a poll from the University of California, Berkeley, Institute of Governmental Studies co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times found that 50 percent of likely recall voters wanted to keep Newsom and 47 percent wanted to oust him. These fresh polls — both within the margin of error — differed markedly from a handful of surveys released in May and June that found the recall effort trailing by at least 10 percentage points.
Who casts a ballot in this unusually timed election could be pivotal. The UC Berkeley IGS/Los Angeles Times poll underscored why: Among registered voters, Republicans were far more likely to say they’d vote than Democrats or independents. Eighty percent of Republican registered voters said they were absolutely certain to vote, compared with only 55 percent of Democrats and about half of independents. As such, likely voters were opposed to removing Newsom by only 3 points, while the spread was much wider among all registered voters — 51 percent were opposed to removing him compared with just 36 percent in favor (in line with the pollster’s findings in early May and late January). In fact, Republicans’ enthusiasm for this race is so high that they make up roughly one-third of the survey’s likely electorate, even though they constitute only about one-quarter of California’s registered voters.
Irregularly timed elections, like a gubernatorial recall held in September of an odd year, can produce unexpected results and lopsided electorates. However, there’s one reason why that might not happen in this race: California has extended its pandemic-inspired election-law changes that require ballots to be automatically mailed to all active registered voters through the end of 2021. Mail elections don’t inherently help the Democratic Party, but studies have found that they do increase turnout, which could help insulate Newsom from a scenario where only his most fervent opponents bother to cast a ballot.
It’s tempting to point to COVID-19 as the chief cause for why Newsom is in hot water since the pandemic helped galvanize the recall effort in the first place. The highly contagious delta variant has led to an uptick in cases of COVID-19 in California, and Newsom is now weighing whether to impose statewide restrictions, which could further energize his opposition. (Los Angeles County has already reinstated an indoor mask mandate.) The governor has also had disputes with teachers unions and school administrators over the reopening of schools, and many Californians are still frustrated by the state’s continually changing vaccination-distribution plan. Yet Newsom’s handling of the pandemic might not be his biggest liability. A slightly greater share of likely voters in the Berkeley poll agreed with the statement that Newsom should be recalled “because he has failed to adequately address many of the state’s longstanding problems,” such as homelessness, income inequality and wildfires (48 percent), than agreed with the statement that he should be recalled “because he greatly overstepped his authority as governor when responding to the COVID-19 pandemic” (44 percent).1
In other words, California voters may be displeased with conditions related to COVID-19, but other problems in the state are troubling them, too. Thus, the pandemic may not be solely responsible for what we’ve seen in the polls.
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For his part, Newsom is painting the recall as a contest between him and a rash of Trump-supporting Republicans (for instance, the governor has tried to pin the growing number of COVID-19 cases on Republicans and conservative media and their misinformation on vaccines). But this strategy may be complicated by a judge’s ruling on July 12 that Newsom won’t be listed as a Democrat on the official recall ballot.2 Most Californians are probably aware that Newsom is a Democrat, but having his party affiliation spelled out in black and white could have helped him on the margins in this very blue state.
Recent developments in the recall haven’t been all bad news for Newsom. Crucially, his efforts to discourage other prominent Democrats from running in the recall seem to have paid off. Of the 46 candidates running to replace him, only nine are Democrats — and none are established politicians. By contrast, 24 Republican candidates are in the race, as well as two Green Party candidates, one Libertarian Party candidate and 10 independents. This means that, in the event that Newsom is recalled, it’s very likely a Republican will win the race to replace him (the second question on the recall ballot).
If California does get a new governor, which Republican is it likely to be? According to both recent polls, conservative talk-radio host Larry Elder has the most support (16 percent per Emerson, 18 percent per Berkeley). Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and perennial candidate John Cox make up the second tier, each receiving 6 percent in the Emerson survey and 10 percent in the Berkeley poll. Reality-TV star Caitlyn Jenner, despite getting a lot of media coverage, barely registered in either poll. At this point, though, the race is still very fluid, with the plurality of voters (53 percent per Emerson, 40 percent per Berkeley) still undecided on who should replace Newsom.
And, of course, that question will only come into play if Newsom is recalled. The latest polls suggest real danger for Newsom, but he’s still not in the same troubled territory Democratic Gov. Gray Davis was back in 2003, when Californians voted by 11 points to recall him from office. Surveys conducted around the same time in that election cycle found Davis in very bad shape: The vote to recall him led by about 20 points or more in most surveys, and his approval rating was in the 20s. By comparison, Californians are more inclined to retain Newsom, and they tend to approve of his job performance somewhat more than they disapprove (among registered voters, the Emerson and Berkeley polls put Newsom’s job approval at about 50 percent and disapproval at 42 percent).
Still, Newsom clearly has his work cut out to raise Democratic interest in the recall vote. And if he fails on that front, an unusual off-year electorate might be just Republican-leaning enough to boot him out of office.
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