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Just What the Heck Happened In California?

How did Newsom pull it off? What was with that margin? Just what the heck happened in California? A lot of things did, but sometimes the easiest answer is actually, the answer.

I’ve been asked by a lot lately about the California recall election. It is understandable why some are asking how Newsom was able to so easily escape the threat of the recall. I want to answer this the way I usually do, which is strategically.

However, let me first state this, which should help provide context. The California recall election wasn’t a complete loss for Republicans. Sure, Newsom was not recalled, but in terms of policy Republicans and conservatives were able to kill a lot of progressive bills at the end of session as well as extract maybe the maximum they could have hoped for when it comes to a progressive Governor. The recall itself at least brought Newsom from the far left closer to the middle. Masks went away for a while, and California did open up. So let’s first acknowledge some success here.

Now let's talk about why they didn’t achieve the full desired outcome here. The answer is actually quite simple: TIMING. But since that probably sounds far too simple, I’ll give you three more after that as well. I’ll dive into each.


When the recall first started, not many took it seriously. It felt more like a statement than an actual potential victory. Frankly, this is what recalls usually end up being, but I will address that in the last point. So, as I often do, let’s go to the polls, courtesy of Real Clear Politics

We see in January a poll from Berkley IGS showing a +13 for Newsome. Other than the Emerson poll in March, we see this number about the same all the way through May, at anywhere from +11 to +17. So from January through May, we see little appetite for a full recall despite Newsome’s low popularity. Then July hits, and we see a drastic turn, even having one poll show voters favoring a recall (KABC/Survey USA). Even if you don’t believe polls, let’s just notice the difference in the Berkley poll, which went from +13 in January all the way down to +3 by July 24th.

That represents a 10 point drop from when the recall talk first started. The Survey USA poll saw a whopping 22 point swing between that same time. This was incredibly relevant because ballots were slated to mail out on August 16th, less than a month after this series of unfavorable polls. Either way, it’s clear that voters who thought one way in January seemed to be thinking differently in July.

“Last week, an Emerson College/Nexstar media poll showed the Gavin Newsom recall election within five points, which came as a surprise since previous polling in May found opposition to the recall beating support by double digits.”
-San Francisco Gate, 7/21/2021

There were a lot of reasons the polling got this close, wildfires, drought, crime, homelessness, and of course, Covid restrictions. The short version was they weren’t fans of how Newsom was handling things. Voters, at the time, believed the worst of the virus was over and much like 2020, Californians began softening their stance on the virus itself.

Here is my point, had the recall been held around this time, it’s tough to say Newsom would have won. At the very least, it would have been awfully close. However, he went on to survive by a huge margin, and the polls leading up to September 14th all showed the same thing.

So what changed in such a short time? Some of that will be in my three other answers below, but here I want to point to the same thing that sunk Donald Trump in the end, Covid, this time in the form of the Delta variant.

A key factor in Newsom’s strength appears to be the overwhelming concerns about Covid-19 as the Delta variant drives increasing infection rates and hospitalizations. Newsom’s approval versus disapproval numbers on his handling of Covid are identical to the recall breakdown — both at 58-39 percent, the poll showed. The poll showed Californians name Covid-19 as the top issue facing the state today, and most support the governor's recent policies
-Politico, 9/2/2021

That’s right. The Delta variant motivated Democrats and also cut into Republican enthusiasm just enough. More Democrats (90%) were now in support of Newsom than Republicans were against him (82%). The bottom line was the voters who were on the fence about restrictions before now began worrying again. On election day, it was no contest, Covid was the number one issue, and the majority supported Newsom’s policies.

"A Pew Research Center poll taken last month found that 62% of Americans believed the public health benefits because of coronavirus restrictions have been worth the cost. This compares to just 37% who say they haven't been."
-CNN, 9/19/2021

Covid killed the recall. Democrats and Newsom just rode the wave.

Now let me bring up some other points that I think also help bring perspective as well and dive into some specifics within some of the points I have already cited. Mainly, the next three have a lot to do with strategy, and the bottom line is that Democrats executed theirs a heck of a lot better than Republicans did.

The Why - Democrats Eliminated the Enthusiasm Gap

"The findings signal a lack of enthusiasm among Democratic voters in the left-leaning state to actually vote in the election, as nearly 90% of Republican voters “expressed a high level of interest” in the election versus only 58% of Democrats and 53% of Independents."
-Forbes, 7/21/2021

In the beginning, Republicans were in near unanimous agreement to recall Newsom. As I mentioned earlier, this number sat at 90%. Democrats, well, they didn’t seem to really care at that point. Half of Democrats and Independents weren’t even expressing an interest to vote at all, even after Newsom’s May ad blitz.

That would change in September after Democrats went hard after Larry Elder. They told all of California their health was at stake, and went on a full on attack. They brought in the Calvary and had celebrities and President Obama chime in. They didn’t make the election about Newsom, they made it a referendum on Republicans. The strategy worked and the result was clear.

"There remains a strong partisan split, with nearly all Democratic likely voters (90 percent) and about half of independent likely voters (49 percent) saying they would keep Newsom in office, while the vast majority of Republican likely voters (82 percent) say they would remove him."
-Politico, 9/2/2021

And there it is. Democrats and Covid closed the enthusiasm gap that had existed since the beginning of the year. Democrats were now, at the very least, just as motivated as Republicans when it came to the recall. This is another political lesson I’ve learned over the years. Momentum means a lot, just like in sports. The momentum, well, it didn’t favor this recall by the time votes were cast. Republicans lost what had made this possible in the first place, a massive enthusiasm advantage.

The How - It was the Candidate...Or Lack of One

"The biggest red flag for Newsom was the poll's question, "Regardless of the recall effort, would you vote to re-elect Gov. Newsom in 2022 or do you think it is time for someone new?" in which a whopping 58% of voters wanted someone new, while only 42% were happy with Newsom — suggesting the governor could be in serious danger in 2022 if his opponent is a Democrat, independent with enough name recognition or a Republican not closely tied to former President Donald Trump and the National Republican Party."
-SF Gate, 7/22/2021

Did you see that? 58% of voters (granted, this was in the favorable July polls) said that they wanted Newsome out….in 2022. If they wanted him out in 22, then why not just vote him out now? Well, it goes back to something, or rather someone, I reference above. So let’s double back on Larry Elder for a moment.

To be clear, Elder is not the sole reason Republicans lost or why Newsom was re-elected. If you blame Elder, you would also have to credit him for Republican enthusiasm that led to just how close this thing got at one point. That being said, the bottom line is that voters did not feel there was a viable alternative to Newsom, and that was one massive contributing factor in this election. Not only that, but it played right into the Newsom narrative.

"The results indicate Newsom’s strategy to brand the recall as Republican worked: 65% of likely voters said they thought replacing Newsom with a conservative candidate would undermine California’s policies on climate change, immigration, health care and abortion."
-Sacramento Bee, 9/22/2021

You’ll notice above that this was not specific to Elder, it was asked as “a conservative candidate.” So let’s be honest, Democrats would have used this strategy with anyone, and they should have. As I talked about earlier, they had to motivate their base. The problem for Republicans was that they didn’t have what Independents and Democrats saw as a reasonable alternative. They didn’t have what California did the last time they managed to successfully recall their Governor.

"The recall also lacks a prominent Democrat hoping to replace Newsom or the celebrity of a GOP candidate such as Hollywood action star and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who ousted then-Gov. Gray Davis in the 2003 recall election, which became a worldwide spectacle."
-Los Angeles Times, 9/22/2021

There are two points within that quote. The first is that Arnold Schwarzenegger is undoubtedly a bigger name than Larry Elder. He was better funded and a moderate who was far less controversial. The second, which you can’t underestimate, is that this race lacked a formidable Democrat on the ballot who Democrats that were not willing to hold their nose for a conservative, could stomach. Remember, a candidate didn’t need to get a big number to win, they just had to get more than the others.

It would seem to stand that a big Democrat on the ballot might have been able to do better than Elder did. This was the one thing Newsom and Democrats gambled on and got right. In the 2003 recall election, Democrats were concerned so they put a contingency plan in place. This time, Newsom didn’t have one, and that was by design.

"The 2003 recall didn't exactly draw a field of world-beaters, though on the Democratic side you did have the state's lieutenant governor, Cruz Bustamante, who ran as a kind of "insurance policy" -- "No on the recall, Yes on Bustamante" was his slogan. In the end, folks said "Yes" to the recall and "No" to Bustamante, who many Democrats blame for muddling the anti-recall message. In a victory for Newsom, no major Democratic candidate has stepped forward to offer voters an alternative -- which is a gamble of sorts."
-CNN, 7/19/2021

This was a big gamble, but again, it paid off. We know that because, as I showed above, it turns out Newsom is pretty darn vulnerable when it comes to 2022. With no solid Democrat alternative on the ballot, it was even more imperative for Republicans to find the perfect candidate and have a unified front. They of course, did not, and in the end it cost them.

With this in mind, one last point below, which has less to do with strategy and speaks more into why recalls are uphill battles in general.

The Reality - Voters Just Aren't Fans of Recalls

"The exclusive new statewide poll of more than 1,000 registered voters, which has a margin of error of +/-2.9%, shows while Californians support keeping Newsom in office after the recall election, more than half think it’s time for new leadership in 2022, when he is up for re-election."
-KTLA TV, 7/19/2021

I may sound like a broken record, but I like to think I’m just playing my favorite song on repeat, which is, voters aren’t big fans of Newsom. I mentioned that in my reasoning for why Republicans needed to be united behind a stronger candidate, but I want to mention it here as it relates to how voters feel when it comes to recall elections. I’ll support this statistically, but the below quote, in regards to how Scott Walker survived his recall elections in Wisconsin is as indicative as it comes to how voters feel about recall elections.

"I voted for him (Walker) in the recall because I don’t believe recall elections are meant for what they’re doing with it,” said Katy Tomlanovich, who teaches at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. She said recall elections should be reserved for politicians who commit gross malfeasance, not for those who make unpopular decisions."
-The Washington Post, 2012

Folks, it may sound weird, but it’s true. There are a lot of voters out there, who even if they don’t like the candidate, dislike recalls even more. The truth is that recall elections have always been intended for extreme examples, and they have never been meant to be about policy. I mean, that’s what elections are for! However, we’ve seen here in Nevada and in other states, parties using recall elections strategically as opposed to the mechanism they were meant to be. And voters in California? Well, it sure appears they felt a lot like Kathy did.

"Sixty percent of likely voters said they would favor changing the state's rules so officials can only be recalled because of illegal or unethical activity. Fifty-five percent would support doubling the number of signatures that are required to hold a recall election."
-The Washington Post, 2012

Look, the reality is that most politicians resign before they have to be recalled. There are not a ton of examples of politicians being recalled unless it has to do with an ethical issue. To be fair, a lot of Californians did see an ethical issue with Newsom at one time. They were definitely upset and felt it was hypocritical to have a fundraiser and not wear a mask. However, that was a small window that just didn’t last and reinforces the timing argument.

"Nineteen states allow recall elections, but even in them, the odds of success are slim. Only two gubernatorial recall votes have ever been successful — one aimed at California Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, in 2003 after voters blamed him for a state electricity crisis and a faltering economy. Another turned out North Dakota Gov. Lynn Frazier in 1921. In 1988, Arizona Republican Gov. Evan Mecham would have faced a recall vote had he not first been removed after being impeached and convicted by the Legislature.”
-NPR, 9/15/2021

Two successful recalls in a hundred years. Those aren’t great odds. As a political consultant who has gathered enough signatures successfully in two differing local recall elections, I can tell you two things. One, it isn’t easy, and second, the writing is usually on the wall.

In 1988, Mecham was impeached before he could be recalled. In 1921, Frazier lost 51-49 in a squeaker to one candidate who had the financial backing and support in addition to a united front. Even in the successful Davis recall in 2013, Arnold got less than half the votes. That number wouldn’t have been enough to recall a Governor in most of those other 18 states that allow for recalls.

So there you have it. And that is the short version! This recall brings a lot more questions afterwards as well. What does this say about the 2022 elections? Did Democrats score a huge win here? How should Republicans handle the Covid issue (hint: they haven’t handled it well at all)?

If you have a follow up, let me know, and maybe I’ll answer it in my next post.

Notes and Things to Pick At

In an attempt to be as honest and forthright as possible, this is the area where I mention certain facts that can influence an article and how you look at it. So here are some things you should know:

1. I use Covid as one of the motivating factors for the Newsom rebound. I use this based off my knowledge from surveying voters myself and watching how the trend worked in 2020. That trend is simple. People are OK with restrictions for a period of time, but sooner or later, they get antsy and want action. I can't guarantee the Delta variant was the key factor with the timing, but it is my belief.

2. I did talk about strategy, but not about money in this post. I mention this because let's not forget that Newsom has a boatload of cash to spend, and he spent it well. Although I am a Republican political consultant, I am also fascinated by strategy. In this case, although Newsome and Democrats gambled a little, they executed their strategy incredibly well. You have to give them credit for that.

3. Finally, I mentioned momentum. I feel the need to point out here that momentum never truly shows itself until 90 days or less from just about any election. Voters sleep early, but they almost always wake up late. Sometimes, races are about not waking a sleeping giant. In this case, it's my belief that a large portion of those unmotivated Democrats were always going to wake up in the end, they, like all voters, just needed a reminder why and they got one after Newsom hit the Elder panic button.

That is all for now folks, thanks for reading, and feel free to shoot me a note on why you agree or disagree, or with a follow up question you might have.

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