An Update on the California Recall

AW
August 31, 2021

By the numbers, the effort to recall Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom should have little to no chance of success. First, there's the fact that California is one of the darkest blue states in the country. As of July, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by more than 22-points (46.5 percent to 24 percent). As a point of reference, the gap between Democratic and Republican registration back in 2003 — the year that Democratic Gov. Gray Davis was recalled — was just under 9 points (44.1 percent to 35.3 percent).

Then there's the money factor. The "No on Recall" forces have dominated the airwaves, outspending GOP candidates hoping to replace Newsom and the hodgepodge of local "Yes on Recall" by a 2-1 margin ($29M to $14M) according to AdImpact. Carl DeMaio, chairman of Reform California, one of the leading organizations supporting the Yes on Recall campaign, has calculated that the No forces are outspending the Yes ones by a 24-1 margin. He told us that his group, for example, has budgeted $500,000 for GOTV; a minuscule sum in a state as big and expensive as California. 

Moreover, compared to the last governor of the Golden State to be recalled, Newsom remains relatively popular. Newsom is also literally handing out money to most state residents this month. Late last week, the Governor announced that another round of stimulus checks of up to $1,000 per person will start to go out to most California residents on September 1. 

As DeMaio, one of the GOP supporters of the Yes on Recall campaign, told me the other day, "With the media, money and numeric advantage how could Newsom NOT win"

However, despite all those advantages, the latest fivethirtyeight.com polling average shows "No" on the recall only slightly ahead of "Yes" to recall 50.6 percent to 46.3 percent. 

While Democrats are unified in opposition to the recall, they are much less interested in voting than Republicans. For example, a mid-July survey from UC Berkeley-IGS found 91 percent of Democrats opposed to the recall. An early August YouGov/CBS poll found Democratic opposition at 85 percent. As a point of comparison, a PPIC poll taken two months before the 2003 Gray Davis recall found just 56 percent of Democrats opposed to recalling the Democratic governor. However, in both the UC Berkeley-IGS and YouGov/CBS surveys, Democratic enthusiasm to vote lagged behind GOP support for the recall. In the UC-Berkeley survey, 93 percent of Trump voters, but only 76 percent of Biden voters said they were very interested in voting in the recall. In the CBS/YouGov survey, 72 percent of Republicans but just 61 percent of Democrats said they were "very motivated to vote" on September 14. 

Back in July, when Newsom announced that the special recall election would be held on September 14, things were looking pretty good for the Governor. COVID cases were down, Newsom's popularity was up. As CalMatters, a non-profit California news organization wrote back in early July: "Delaying a vote until later in the fall would give his opponents more time to mobilize — and raises the possibility that voters could sour on Newsom if conditions in the state worsen due to the pandemic, wildfire season or other unforeseen calamities." Turns out that conditions on both COVID and wildfires worsened much earlier than expected. The Delta resurgence and fears of another economic gut punch to the state provide a ripe environment for the recall. Angry and frustrated people vote. Disillusioned ones don't.

Here's how one plugged-in California strategist describes the challenge for Newsom: "When I first saw the polling, I did a double-take… it was pretty incredible. But I then saw the crazy high Republican interest and turnout that would be required to be that share of the electorate, compared to the anemic interest for Dems suggested in those numbers. That suggested to me that Reps were capped out — the polling basically was saying there weren't any Reps to go to and convince to vote for the recall, they were already there. But there was a whole sea of Dems who could be engaged, motivated, and turned out. The Newsom campaign really has one job: drive up the 'no' turnout." 

Republicans have grumbled for years about the Democrats' superior ground game (what Republicans call "ballot harvesting"). It doesn't help, one GOP strategist told me, that there is no national or state coordinated effort to turn out GOP voters. "Candidly," this person told me, "The state GOP is a dumpster fire." 

To try and motivate Democrats to return their ballots, the No On Recall advertising isn't trying to minimize the Delta surge, but instead is leaning in on the threat of the virus, arguing that leading GOP contender Larry Elder is an "anti-vaccine Trump Republican" who will make the pandemic worse. One "Stop the Republican Recall of Gov. Newsom" ad that has been up for the last two weeks, calls the election "a matter of life and death."

By the numbers, Democrats are returning their ballots (this is an all-mail election) at a much healthier clip than Republicans. As of August 30, according to the ballot tracking tool built by California political data analyst Paul Mitchell, of PoliticaldataInc, just over 4M ballots have been returned, Democrats have cast 2.2M to 974,000 from registered Republicans for a Democratic lead of 1.24M votes. But, independent voters (who polling shows are slightly more supportive of recall than not) have cast more than 900,000 votes. If 52 percent percent of them supported the recall, it would reduce Democrats' vote lead to more like 800,000 votes. 

In addition, both Democrats and Republicans we've spoken with in the state expect to see similar voting behavior to that of 2020 when Democrats returned their ballots early while Republicans waited until Election Day to return their ballots. As such, said one strategist, Democrats need to build up a buffer of at least 1.5M votes before Election Day. We'll also get one last chance to check in on No efforts to boost enthusiasm among their base on September 10 when UCBerkely-IGS releases its final poll on the recall. 

This race is still Newsom/No on Recall’s to lose. Newsom and Democrats have the advantages of registration, money and organization, but the Yes forces/GOP have the benefit of an energized base and a more favorable political environment than they’ve had in the previous couple of years. We are moving the race from Likely Democratic to Lean Democratic. This isn’t to say that the race has suddenly become more competitive this week. It’s more to say that the race REMAINS competitive with just over two weeks to go.