California Governor Recall: Advantage Newsom in Final Stretch

by Ryan Matsumoto September 14, 2021 · 9:45 AM EDT

It’s Election Day, but more than eight million Californians have already voted in the recall election. Since our last update two weeks ago, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has strengthened his position and is increasingly likely to defeat the recall attempt.

The FiveThirtyEight polling average currently gives Newsom a 16-point advantage in his effort to remain in office. At the high end are polls from the University of California at Berkeley and Emerson College, which give Newsom 22 and 20 point leads, respectively. At the low end are polls from Trafalgar Group and YouGov, which give Newsom 9 and 12 point leads, respectively.

While polls can sometimes miss the mark, a 16 point lead in a polling average is substantial — polling errors are rarely that large. If we take a look at some of the most notorious polling misses in recent years, we find that they were all much smaller. In the 2020 presidential election, the polling error in Wisconsin was about 8 points while the polling error in Florida was about 6 points. In the 2018 Florida gubernatorial election, the polling error was about 4 points. And in the 2016 presidential election, polling errors in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania were between 4 and 6 points.

As CNN’s Harry Enten noted, only four of the last 243 gubernatorial elections (1.6 percent) with at least two polls in the final three weeks had a polling error of 15 points or more. And it’s important to note that polls can also underestimate Democrats too, like they did in the 2003 California recall election and the 2018 California gubernatorial election. Republicans would need a polling error near the top of the distribution to pull off the upset.

Returned Ballots Data
As of September 13, there were 8,354,033 returned ballots accounted for statewide, according to Political Data Intelligence, an election data firm. The party registration breakdown of these returned ballots was 52 percent Democrats, 25 percent Republicans, and 23 percent No Party Preference or Other.

At the equivalent point in the 2020 election cycle, there were 12,092,774 returned ballots statewide that broke down 51 percent Democrats, 24 percent Republicans, and 25 percent No Party Preference or Other.

In general, it is good to be wary of making  predictions based on early voting numbers. They  only tell us who voted, not how they voted. Registered Democrats could vote against Newsom, and vice versa for registered Republicans. And it’s possible that Election Day turnout may substantially alter the partisan makeup of the final electorate.

Still, it’s notable that in a state where 87 percent of general election voters voted by mail last November, Democrats are currently keeping pace with their share of the electorate that year. At the moment, it doesn’t look like Republicans have a huge turnout advantage. That means they would need a big share of Democratic-leaning voters to vote yes on the recall, something the polls do not suggest.

The Bottom Line
In the end, the trajectory of the recall election is converging with the state’s fundamentals. As we have noted in several articles since April, California has become substantially more Democratic since Republicans’ successful recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in 2003. The state voted for President Joe Biden by 29 points in 2020, a significant increase from Al Gore’s 12-point margin in 2000.

And Newsom’s job approval rating remains strong — an Aug. 27-Sept. 1 YouGov poll found that 53 percent of likely voters approved of his performance, with 38 percent disapproving. An Aug. 20-29 Public Policy Institute of California poll found a similar result, with 53 percent approving and 43 percent disapproving.

The polls, returned ballots data, and fundamentals all point to the same conclusion — Newsom is likely to survive the recall attempt, probably by a sizable margin.