Seven takeaways from California’s recall election

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to union workers and volunteers on election day
Getty Images

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on Tuesday won a broad and renewed mandate from voters who soundly rejected a recall attempt on the strength of a mammoth turnout campaign that targeted Democratic voters.

Newsom is the second governor in American history, after former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), to survive a recall attempt. His victory comes just weeks before the 18th anniversary of a recall that ousted then-California Gov. Gray Davis (D).

Here are seven things we learned from Tuesday’s results.

Newsom’s margin was bigger than expected

With about two-thirds of the expected vote in, 64 percent of California voters had chosen to keep Newsom around for the end of his first term.

That margin is likely to shrink at least a little bit in the coming days, as more votes are counted; votes cast on Election Day are going to be the most conservative cohort, while the first ballots returned — those already counted — were the most favorable for Newsom.

But Newsom’s final margin of victory is going to be somewhere around the widest that any poll projected in recent weeks. Both Emerson and the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies found 60 percent of California voters rejecting the recall, results that their polling directors are going to be happy with.

When the final votes are counted, Newsom is likely to earn close to the 7.7 million votes he won in 2018, when he beat businessman John Cox (R) by a 62 percent to 38 percent margin.

And Newsom has actually improved on his share in several important places — 53 percent of Orange County voters voted against the recall, higher than the 50.1 percent who backed Newsom there in 2018. Cox won Riverside County by about 2,300 votes in 2018, but voters there rejected the recall by a 5-point margin, too.

Donald Trump is hurting the GOP

Former President Trump spent the days before the recall spreading more lies about the results of an election that hadn’t even been run yet. He and Newson’s chief rival, conservative radio host Larry Elder (R), both claimed the election was rigged — charges that go well beyond straining credulity when nearly 2 in 3 voters cast a ballot in one direction.

But Republicans are starting to fear that Trump’s ridiculous allegations are actually hurting their performance in elections. They are especially worried about the damage Trump is doing to mail-in ballot habits of base Republican voters, habits that GOP strategists have spent years building up. Registered Democrats made up a disproportionately high share of ballots returned by mail, while many Republicans appear to have waited for Election Day to vote — if they voted at all.

“Has Trump killed mail ballots to the detriment of the party?” asked Rob Stutzman, a longtime Republican strategist who worked for Arnold Schwarzenegger during the 2003 recall. “If the votes don’t come in, Republicans are really going to have to struggle with how to turn that around.”

The problem goes far beyond California: Republicans already grumble that Trump was all too happy to depress GOP turnout in January’s Georgia Senate runoffs, which handed control of the Senate to Democrats. If Republican voters aren’t confident in the vote-by-mail systems increasingly being used in other states, it makes a Republican campaign’s challenge to track down and chase voters on Election Day all the more difficult.

Vaccinated voters are pro-vaccines

The grandest irony of the entire recall election is that the coronavirus lockdowns that Newsom imposed back in March 2020 got him into this mess, and they also got him out of it.

Recall supporters who collected more than 2.1 million signatures did so on the strength of voter frustration at school closings, economic stagnation and the early wave of COVID-19 cases that disproportionately hit low-income and minority communities.

But by the winter and spring of 2021, Newsom’s approach to combating the virus had changed from encouraging people to stay at home to encouraging people to get a shot. And while some states have experienced challenges with vaccine hesitancy, California is not one of them — 83 percent of those over the age of 18 have received at least one shot, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, higher than all but nine other states.

Newsom spent the final weeks of the campaign contrasting his calls for vaccine mandates as the path back to normalcy with Elder, who opposed the mandates.

As it turns out, those who are vaccinated are just fine with vaccine mandates. Just under one-third of voters told exit pollsters the the coronavirus was the most important issue facing California; Newsom won 4 in 5 of those voters. Just under two-thirds of voters said getting a vaccine is a public health responsibility, rather than a personal choice; Newsom won 83 percent of those voters. And 70 percent said they supported a school mask requirement; Newsom won 80 percent of those voters.

There’s a lesson in those numbers that Democrats hope they can apply going forward. The next test comes in Virginia, where former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has taken up the pro-mandate mantle.

Mobilization works

In July, Newsom looked stuck in a summer slump. Polls showed far more Republican voters were engaged in and interested by the recall than were Democrats, a troubling sign even in a state in which registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans almost 2 to 1.

But Newsom’s team launched a massive get-out-the-vote effort, one that roped in the biggest names in the Democratic Party, from Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to President Biden, Vice President Harris and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).

The campaign outspent Republicans on television, but it also spent eight figures on turnout operations in conjunction with state labor unions, Hispanic and Asian American and Pacific Islander communities and other community groups.

Newsom and his allies warned Democratic voters of the consequences of a Republican win — that a progressive, pro-vaccine climate change foe would be replaced by an opponent he painted as Trump’s clone. It worked, and by late August as many as 80 percent of Democrats said they were enthusiastic about voting.

Ahead of next year’s midterm elections, Democrats across the country took note of Newsom’s focus on a turnout operation.

Polling averages are better than individual polls

In July and early August, a theme emerged in polls of the California electorate: Voters were frustrated, and Newsom wasn’t in the clear. The pro-recall share of voters ticked up to 47 percent in a late July UC Berkeley IGS poll, to 46 percent in an Emerson poll around the same time and to 48 percent in a CBS News poll in early August.

One poll, conducted by SurveyUSA for KABC News, even found the recall succeeding by a 51 percent to 40 percent margin — the only survey conducted since the beginning of the year that found Newsom poised to be recalled.

Then Newsom hit the gas, Democrats got excited and the pro-recall share plummeted to the low 40s or high 30s.

The lesson: Watch the trends, not the individual polls. There was a clear apathy among Democratic voters in the spring and summer, one that gave way to excitement and action by the early fall. If a poll, like the one conducted by SurveyUSA, looks like a massive outlier, it probably is. 

Newsom is back in the national conversation

California is a very Democratic state. Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by an almost 2-to-1 margin. But Newsom’s win was significant enough on Tuesday that he didn’t just claim the right to finish his first term, he virtually guaranteed he will win a second term next year.

For a few years, as Republicans have sought any port in stormy blue California waters, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer (R) has been seen as the GOP’s best chance at winning statewide office, even if he was a long shot. Faulconer ran in the recall election — and managed an embarrassing third-place finish, at just 8.7 percent of the vote.

How does he — or any Republican not named Elder — convince donors he is capable of mounting a credible statewide race now? Newsom’s margin, and the very conservative Elder’s dominance of the rest of the field, means the governor is on a glide path to a second term.

But is that it? Or is Newsom headed even higher? In remarks at the California Democratic Party’s headquarters in Sacramento, Newsom seemed to look beyond the Golden State.

“We said yes to all those things that we hold dear as Californians and I would argue as Americans — economic justice, social justice, racial justice, environmental justice,” Newsom said. Later, he added: “We may have defeated Trump, but Trumpism is not dead in this country.”

“Gavin Newsom still has Washington, D.C., in his gaze,” said Thad Kousser, chair of the political science department at the University of California, San Diego. “And this recall, rather than tripping up his national ambitions, has elevated his visibility across the country.”

Democrats have cover to pursue recall reforms

Legislative Democrats have been considering ways to reform California’s century-old, Progressive-era recall law. Their first step, in a bill they sent to Newsom’s desk last week: barring signature gatherers who are paid by the autograph.

But to make deeper reforms, legislators will have to go to the people to seek approval of a constitutional amendment or amendments. Those might include raising the threshold of the number of signatures a recall campaign has to collect or changing the order of succession to put the lieutenant governor in charge if a governor is ousted.

“It really is time to take a hard look at the recall provisions in the California constitution and assess that and see is it still serving its purpose,” said state Sen. Josh Newman (D), who was recalled himself in 2018 before winning his seat back two years later. “There’s a number of legislators in both houses that have been having conversations about this.”

It wouldn’t have looked great if legislators changed the rules right after Newsom was recalled — a big part of the reason no changes were made after the 2003 recall in which Davis was replaced by Schwarzenegger. It probably wouldn’t have looked great if Democrats made changes after Newsom narrowly survived a challenge.

But a huge win like Newsom just scored gives Democrats the cover they need to put an amendment on the ballot, even if not one that totally eliminates Hiram Johnson’s Progressive-era legacy.

Tags Amy Klobuchar Bernie Sanders California California recall Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Gavin Newsom Gray Davis Joe Biden Kevin Faulconer Larry Elder Paul Mitchell
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video