Five things to watch in the California recall election

California voters will render a verdict Tuesday on whether Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomDemocrats lean into vaccine mandates ahead of midterms Republicans caught in California's recall trap Two of Newsom's four children test positive for COVID-19 MORE (D) will get to keep his job for another year.

On the ballot will be two questions: whether Newsom should be recalled as governor and, if so, who should replace him. Conservative radio host Larry Elder (R) has emerged as the top prospect to succeed Newsom if the recall effort is successful.

Recent polling shows the recall vote likely to fail. But an upset wouldn’t be unprecedented, and members of both parties are watching eagerly to see what voters in the nation’s largest Democratic stronghold will do.


Here are five things to watch for in the California recall election.


What’s turnout like?

Given how blue a state California is, Newsom’s political fate may very well come down to voter turnout.

Polling has consistently found that most Californians want to keep Newsom in the governor’s mansion. The FiveThirtyEight average shows that 57.5 percent oppose recalling the governor, while 40.8 percent want to boot him from office.

That would usually bode well for Newsom. What makes it difficult to forecast is the fact that the election is taking place in September of an off year. If Democrats fail to turn out in high enough numbers, it could give Newsom’s opponents the advantage they need to win the recall question asking whether the governor should be removed from office.

Of course, Newsom and his allies have invested millions in an aggressive turnout operation. In a sign that those efforts may have paid off, a poll released Friday by the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies found that 80 percent of registered Democrats say they have a high level of interest in voting in the recall.



Does Democrats’ strategy pay off?

Newsom and his allies have sought to cast the recall election as a Republican power grab in the country’s largest Democratic stronghold, all the while channeling a familiar political bogeyman for Democrats: former President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger says Trump 'winning' because so many Republicans 'have remained silent' Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol MORE.

Newsom has also been boosted in recent days by campaign appearances by national Democratic heavyweights, such as President BidenJoe BidenSunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as country struggles with delta variant Did President Biden institute a vaccine mandate for only half the nation's teachers? Democrats lean into vaccine mandates ahead of midterms MORE, Vice President Harris and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenFederal Reserve officials' stock trading sparks ethics review Manchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants Warren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack MORE (D-Mass.). Former President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaOur remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Clinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Chelsea Manning tests positive for COVID-19 MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as country struggles with delta variant Democrats urge Biden to commute sentences of 4K people on home confinement Briahna Joy Gray: Push toward major social spending amid pandemic was 'short-lived' MORE (I-Vt.) have also cut ads on Newsom’s behalf, urging voters to reject the recall.

In effect, Democrats are seeking to make the recall election less about Newsom’s tenure as governor and his policies and more a referendum on Trump and the current state of the Republican Party, much of which remains in the former president’s grasp.

The success of Newsom’s messaging is being watched carefully by Democrats nationwide, who see the strategy as a potentially valuable one in the 2022 midterms elections when the party’s narrow House and Senate majorities will also be on the line.


Were the polls right?

Earlier this summer, Newsom looked like he was in real jeopardy in the recall election. But a spate of more recent polling has him pulling ahead, with the FiveThirtyEight average showing him leading in the recall by 16.6 percentage points.

That’s not to say the polling is spot-on. Surveys taken ahead of California’s last gubernatorial recall in 2003 showed the recall succeeding by an average of 19 points. Then-Gov. Gray Davis (D) ultimately lost that recall by about 10 points.

At the same time, the polling industry has faced some skepticism over the past few years and, again, the odd timing of the recall election makes it particularly difficult to draw conclusions about how the election will turn out.

Still, if the recall succeeds Tuesday, it would be seen as an extraordinary polling failure — and one likely to spark a new round of scrutiny.


What does the result tell us about the state of politics in California and nationwide?


If the recall succeeds — or even if it fails by a narrow margin — Republicans would surely tout the vote as a sign of strength heading into next year’s midterms. It would also likely be seen as a repudiation of the pandemic-era policies and restrictions put in place by Newsom and maligned by many Republicans.

But a statewide recall in California isn’t necessarily representative of how future elections will unfold. For one, the timing of the election is odd, and gubernatorial races don’t always reflect the dynamics at play in federal races.

If Newsom defeats the recall, on the other hand, it wouldn’t exactly be surprising. California is more Democratic-leaning than it was less than 20 years ago during the last gubernatorial recall, and Democrats outnumber Republicans in voting registration by a nearly 2-1 margin.

A win for Elder would likely mean a quick reversal for many of Newsom’s pandemic policies, such as mask mandates. What’s more, the recall would decide who gets to appoint a replacement to one of the state’s two U.S. Senate seats should a vacancy arise. That’s a powerful position to be in, given Democrats’ ultra-narrow majority.


How does scrutiny affect Elder?

Elder has emerged as the favorite to replace Newsom if the initial ballot question — whether the governor should be removed from office — does indeed succeed.


With 46 candidates appearing on the ballot to replace Newsom should he be recalled, Elder is highly unlikely to win majority support in the election. That hasn’t spared him from the scrutiny that any front-runner would usually face, though.

Democrats have attacked Elder as a Trump acolyte and the face of an attempted Republican power grab in California. They’ve warned that, if selected to replace Newsom, Elder would unwind the progress the state has made in combating COVID-19 after a surge in infections this summer.

At the same time, Elder has faced claims by an ex-girlfriend that he brandished a gun during a 2015 breakup. Elder has denied that accusation, tweeting last month that he “never brandished a gun at anyone” and would not “dignify” the allegation with a response.