Recalling the California Recall

by Jacob Rubashkin September 15, 2021 · 1:52 PM EDT

In the end, it wasn’t even close.

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom of California easily turned back the effort to remove him from office on Tuesday. With two-thirds of the vote counted already, 64 percent of voters opted to keep the first-term incumbent, compared to just 36 percent who wanted him out. The margin will probably close by a few points as more ballots are counted, but not by much.

That result looks a lot like Newsom’s initial victory in 2018, when he won by 23 points against Republican John Cox (who placed fifth in the recall on Tuesday). Or Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown’s victory in 2014, when he beat Neel Kashkari, 60-40 percent. Or Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s 63-37 percent victory over Emily Emken in the 2012 Senate race. Or Inside Elections’ California Baseline of 60 percent Democratic, 39 percent Republican. 

You get the picture.

The California recall may have been the biggest electoral event of the year, but it was ultimately a long-winded, expensive way of confirming what we already knew about the state’s politics.

In February, Inside Elections warned readers not to “be tempted into thinking this is 2003 all over again.” When the recall became all-but-official at the end of April, Inside Elections moved California Governor Recall from Solid Democratic to Likely Democratic, where it remained. The uncertainty surrounding the format and timing of the recall meant that there was the possibility Newsom could lose, but that it was pretty unlikely.

That assessment never changed, despite a lot of discussion in the intervening months about whether Democrats were on the ropes.

The Inside Elections Record
In April, I again made the case for why it was wrong to compare 2021’s recall with the successful effort to remove Gov. Gray Davis in 2003. Others, including the winner of the 2003 election — you may have heard of him — thought otherwise. But even at that early moment, the fundamentals were loud, clear, and pointing in Newsom’s favor.

Despite some superficial similarities, California is so different politically than it was 18 years ago. While it’s long been a blue state, the extent of the Democratic edge is far greater now than it was then. And though they are both Democrats who faced recall efforts, the similarities between Newsom, a moderately well-liked incumbent who won a landslide victory in 2018, and Davis, the deeply unpopular governor who limped to re-election in 2002, end there. Elsewhere, Inside Elections noted the massive spending advantage Newsom enjoyed over his would-be replacements, another key distinction from 2003, when Republicans went dollar-for-dollar with Davis and the Democrats.

I did get one thing half-wrong. The role I expected to be played by former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner was instead filled by conservative talk radio host Larry Elder.

When Jenner entered the race, I wrote that she could actually help Newsom because it was “in Newsom’s interest for the recall field — the alternatives — to be as unpopular and unserious as possible.” I noted that while Jenner was a well-known public figure able to draw significant media attention to her campaign, she didn’t belong on the same level as Arnold Schwarzenegger. Not only was Schwarzenegger one of the most famous people in the world, he was popular and his mere presence as a candidate boosted the recall effort.

Moreover, I wrote that Jenner provided a high-profile conservative foil that enabled Newsom to run against a “Republican who could never win a normal election” rather than just trying to make the race about Trump. 

That’s pretty close to what ended up happening, but with Elder and not Jenner. Elder provided Democrats the opportunity to make the election “a choice between Newsom and a less popular alternative,” and he had the added bonus of shooting to the top of the polls and injecting more urgency into the race for Democrats, something the floundering Jenner probably never could have done.

What the Coverage Got Wrong
The August after a presidential election year is the slowest time in electoral politics. The next presidential race is still three years off, and even the most adventurous candidates won’t announce for more than a year. The midterms are still a year away. Off-cycle gubernatorial contests in New Jersey and Virginia hardly make news, and the focus in Washington is on the new administration’s legislative efforts more than anything else.

It was into that vacuum the California recall emerged, and no wonder it became the object of national fascination. 

The largest state in the union, home of Hollywood, a Democratic bastion, might throw out its governor in favor of a conservative radio host? The headlines practically wrote themselves. 

And when the very limited polling over the summer showed a tighter-than-expected race, the proliferation of “Is Newsom Blowing it?” articles reached a fever pitch.

As I wrote in August, “the storylines are alluring: the largest state, a brewing upset, a meshuga system, a controversial radio host leading the polls, all while danger signs flash for Dems nationally...But don’t let the storylines cloud the story.”

Now, those pundits and reporters weren’t wrong to look at the polling. As political handicappers, polling is incredibly important. But it isn’t the be-all-end-all of prognostication (if it were, we’d all be looking for new jobs). What we do is put the polls in their proper context. 

Too often the stories about how Newsom could lose undersold the importance of the fundamentals — partisan lean and voter registration — and the structural hurdles faced by any GOP effort, even a recall, in a state as Democratic as Idaho is Republican.

California Republicans haven’t run a credible statewide campaign in over a decade. Their candidates often struggle to make it out of the all-party primary and into the general election.The state party didn’t even endorse a candidate on the replacement question, and the national Republican Party kept studious distance from the recall effort. And California Republicans are repeatedly out-organized by Democrats on the ground, only recently investing in a ballot collection operation to compete with Democrats in the crucial mail-in voting process.

None of that means that a Republican-led recall effort was doomed to fail. But it was important context to understand why a Republican-led recall effort might begin to falter once the Democratic apparatus began to kick into high gear ahead of the Sept. 14 election.

And that’s exactly what happened. Newsom built up a massive financial advantage and started flexing it over the summer, while on-the-ground organizing ramped up once ballots started arriving in the mailbox of every registered voter.

Party luminaries from across the country — everyone from President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — poured in to help, drawing attention to the election and making the partisan contours of the race all the more clear.

The Bottom Line
Tuesday was a win for Democrats. Newsom successfully mobilized his party for an off-year, mid-September election that only appeared on the calendar in July. That can’t be denied, even if some of the shine of the party’s victory comes from the artificially low expectations of the last three months. 

Democrats are already looking at California and seeing glimpses of hope for 2022. Newsom’s messaging strategy, from his persistent efforts to tie the recall to Republicans and Trump to his late push on vaccine mandates, will likely be replicated by other Democratic candidates moving forward. Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee in the Virginia gubernatorial race, has already adopted that strategy. And the party’s success at on-the-ground organizing is the latest piece of evidence that in-person field efforts were a key missing ingredient in the 2020 elections.

But the recall — and California — are very much their own beasts, so be wary of extrapolating Tuesday’s results to other upcoming elections elsewhere. The national environment is still dangerous for Democrats, Biden is still facing the strongest headwinds of his presidency, and the House and Senate majorities still rest on a knife’s edge. 

That was the case before Tuesday, and it’s still the case afterward. 

Looking ahead, our rating for the “normal” California gubernatorial election is Solid Democratic, and has been for the entirety of the recall saga. Even if Republicans had been successful with the recall, GOP Gov. Larry Elder would have been a significant underdog in 2022. And Newsom’s strong showing is tangible evidence he’s the clear favorite for re-election.