This year’s California Recall special election has felt like a political earthquake with national reverberations. For a spell, some Democrats got the jitters over scary poll numbers and rumors of an “enthusiasm gap” that foretold danger in 2022. But now that multiple media outlets have called the recall election for Governor Gavin Newsom (D), speculation has turned to what Newsom and his fellow California Democrats did right, and which lessons they have for Democrats across America to learn on how to beat back far-right “populist” challenges.
As we make sense of what’s happening in our own political backyard, let’s jump next door to assess what California voters just did and what that might mean for us next year.
Harry Reid, meet Gavin Newsom. Pundits rushed to write both Democrats’ political obituaries way too soon.
At this point a month ago, FiveThirtyEight’s public polling average showed Gavin Newsom clinging onto a mere 1.2% lead in the California Recall special election. At that time, pundits flooded the national media landscape with their “hot takes” on how the “too-close-to-call recall election means trouble for Democrats across the country”. If Gavin Newsom can lose in cobalt-blue California, doesn’t that signify that Democrats across America are in for a world of trouble next year?
At the time, I couldn’t help but think of our own “too close to call” U.S. Senate race in 2010. Outside Nevada, national media pundits loudly opined on then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) as some “political walking dead man” who couldn’t possibly overcome “record high Republican enthusiasm”. Even amongst some Democrats, chatter grew over who would take over the Senate Democratic Caucus “after Reid loses”.
Of course, we now know that Harry Reid actually won that election for what would become his final term in office. Lost amidst the pundits’ “hot takes” based on bad public polling and worse assumptions about “record high Republican enthusiasm” were piles of clear evidence on Nevada’s changing demographics, how Reid shrewdly adapted to Nevada’s changing demographics to bolster his support among voters of color, how Reid quietly yet methodically put together what we now call “The Reid Machine”, and how Sharron Angle (R) and her GOP enablers made zero attempts to broaden her appeal to voters outside the already radicalizing Nevada GOP base.
Let’s fast forward to California in 2021: The California GOP and the leading Republican recall candidates opted for a Sharron Angle-esque “All About the Base” campaign strategy in a state that’s far less enthralled by the Trump-era Republican Party than even Nevada tends to be. Polls like the July Los Angeles Times/UC Berkeley survey gave the impression that this “All About the Base” strategy could work out for Republicans because they were on the right side of the “enthusiasm gap” that made the likely electorate much more Republican than what we normally see in California. But as we’re about to examine in further detail, this just turned out to be a “red mirage” that simply enabled Republicans to get way too high off their own supply.
Like we’ve witnessed here in Nevada before, national media pundits relied too much on faulty data and baseless “hot takes” to make assumptions about the California Recall election.
— Jonathan Brown (@jbpollster) September 10, 2021
Larry Elder isn’t the reason #CArecall looks poised to fail by double digits.
California is a Biden +29, full VBM state. We’ve seen time and again that partisanship of a state tends to revert as election time nears and undecideds realize they like their party and the status quo.
— Lakshya Jain (@lxeagle17) September 12, 2021
One thing that stood out quickly in that July LA Times/UC Berkeley poll was its likely voter composition: Democrats only held a 9% hypothetical turnout lead over Republicans, even though Democrats have a 23% voter registration lead in real life, and even though Republicans probably did not make up that much ground in the 2014 or 2018 midterm election. While this recall election is an off-year and oddly-timed special election, keep in mind that this election has been a universal vote-by-mail (VBM) election similar to Nevada’s new formula for conducting elections, so voters have had an easier time participating than ever before.
Interestingly enough, the final LA Times/UC Berkeley poll released last Friday better reflected this reality: They estimated a final 19% Democratic turnout lead for the recall election that better aligns with the robust Democratic turnout lead that we can see in the Political Data Inc. (PDI) election turnout tracker. While the shift from a mere 3% Newsom lead in July to a 21% Newsom lead last week may have signaled “big movement” to the untrained eye, what really happened was a mere reshaping of the LA Times’ and UC Berkeley’s likely voter model, as their full registered voter samples consistently showed Newsom comfortably ahead since January. And in regards to the less reputable polls that turbocharged the pundits’ “‘tightening!’ hot takes”, these pundits spent too much time searching for signals amidst the cacophonous noise.
For weeks local experts – such as data analyst Lakshya Jain, political strategist Robb Korinke, and Democratic pollster Jonathan Brown – were pointing to actual facts and figures to explain why national media pundits probably had it all wrong in rushing to assume that “Republicans’ enthusiasm advantage will make all the difference in the California Recall election”. In a more partisan and polarized environment like ours, and in an all-VBM election that makes it easier for voters across party lines to participate, California Republicans were always playing with fire by just assuming that they only needed to fire up their own base to win this “low-turnout special election”.
Policy Matters, California Recall edition: Just because they say it’s “populist” doesn’t mean it’s actually popular.
Here’s another terrible assumption about the California Recall that far too many media pundits rushed into: “It’s a grassroots populist revolt against the ‘liberal establishment elites’!” In reality, the pro-recall campaign was formed and funded by a coalition of wealthy hedge fund titans, similarly wealthy real estate developers, and Christian Dominionists who couldn’t operate further from the majority of California voters. While Gavin Newsom’s Republican opponents decry his own massive campaign fundraising advantage, that doesn’t negate the fact that the pro-recall campaign warchest is itself anything but “overwhelmingly grassroots and populist”.
Now, let’s dissect the supposedly “populist” platform of the pro-recall effort and the leading Republican recall candidates. Data from the most recent LA Times/UC Berkeley, Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), Suffolk University, and YouGov polls all showed net positive approval of Newsom’s job as governor, support for Newsom’s COVID-19 public health safety agenda, and support for more progressive positions on matters like climate change, immigration reform, and abortion rights. From the outset recall proponents cited a French Laundry menu of the typical Republican complaints against Democratic policy agendas, and they later decried “lockdowns!” as they collected recall petition signatures during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic last year.
Though former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer (R) once positioned himself as more of a Brian Sandoval style moderate Republican from a bygone era, he quickly remade himself into a Donald Trump supporter upon announcing his recall election gubernatorial campaign. California Assembly Member Kevin Kiley (R) and repeat gubernatorial candidate John Cox (R) always championed the most fervently fascist wing of the California GOP. And then, there’s talk radio polemicist Larry Elder (R): He celebrated Trump throughout his 2016 campaign and his presidency, then briefly tried to reinvent himself as “libertarian” and avoid public association with Trump, then reverted to a more Trump-esque far-right platform that included minimum wage abolition, automatic cancellation of all COVID-19 health safety rules, hard-line opposition to legal abortion, promises to strike down California’s famed environmental safety laws, and pre-loaded and baseless “voter fraud” allegations.
It’s easy for us in the media to just go along with candidates’ and parties’ preferred descriptions of themselves as “populist” and “anti-establishment”. But when we’re confronted with evidence that these campaigns espouse unpopular policy platforms that only really represent the interests of the very privileged few, are we really serving our readers’ and viewers’ best interest by allowing these candidates to misrepresent themselves by way of meaningless labels and slogans?
How did Gavin Newsom beat the recall?
The GOP disinformation campaign led by Fox News and right wing media is literally killing people.
First of all, let’s keep in mind that California has been a rock-solid blue state for the past two decades. Gavin Newsom himself scored a historic 23.9% landslide victory in 2018, and President Joe Biden scored an even larger 29.2% landslide victory in 2020. And while the last recall election resulted in the successful installation of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) in 2003, California is a much bluer state now than it was in 2003.
Next, let’s take stock of what Newsom’s doing on public health. Like the rest of America, California suffered a setback following the late spring/early summer rush to drop nearly all remaining public health safety rules. But while states like Florida and Texas made headlines (again) for their alarmingly severe COVID-19 outbreaks, California managed to avoid as severe of a setback thanks to the combination of their more robust vaccination strategy and local governments’ (such as Los Angeles County’s) quick-on-their-feet decisions to reimpose stronger public health safety rules. And as Republican Governors like Texas’ Greg Abbott and Florida’s Ron DeSantis made more headlines with their efforts to crack down on local authorities’ attempts to impose stronger health safety rules, Newsom has been taking California in a very different direction by developing a growing portfolio of vaccination requirements.
Vaccines are how we end this thing.
As we noted above, most Californians seem to prefer Newsom’s handling of COVID-19 over that of Abbott and DeSantis. And for all the Republicans’ attacks over California’s allegedly “disastrous” economy, the state’s budget surplus and overall economic landscape tell a very different story. Ultimately, Larry Elder and the other prominent Republican candidates provided so much fodder for Newsom’s TV and internet ads.
Once we examine all these factors and assess the big picture of the Golden State in 2021, it’s not that hard to figure out how Newsom defeated the recall. Newsom already had partisan polarization working in his favor thanks to the (D) next to his name. The state of the state’s economy and public health did not really give most voters any compelling reasons to remove Newsom from office. And despite the flood of reports from red states like Texas and Florida showing how their laissez-faire non-handling of COVID-19 have led to deadly consequences, Newsom’s supposedly “populist” Republican opponents promised to do to California what Ron DeSantis is doing in Florida and Greg Abbott is doing in Texas.
What else can we learn from this California Recall election?
This is an absolutely perfect response from Gov. Gavin Newson to the results in CA tonight. It could not have been written better. pic.twitter.com/JsYJKX7aXE
— Charlotte Clymer 🏳️🌈 (@cmclymer) September 15, 2021
In some ways, the California Recall special election operated in a world unto its own – a wild convergence of California’s love for direct democracy, California Democrats’ gradual ascendance into total dominance over the Golden State’s politics, Gavin Newsom’s remarkable and sometimes controversial political career, and Republicans’ attempt to use a very special election to spark a very Trumpy revival. But while there’s plenty to the California Recall that can not be properly duplicated elsewhere, we nonetheless have some valuable lessons that Democrats can apply here in Nevada and nationally.
Nationally and here in Nevada, voters support stronger public health safety policies despite Republicans’ insistence otherwise. Yet until very recently, Republicans dominated the traditional media spin cycle and the social media landscape with their increasingly strident anti-vaccine and anti-public health platform. At the same time Democrats have been putting together a package of two infrastructure bills that may yet mark a monumental shift of America’s economic trajectory, yet this all too often has been lost amidst the public discourse over former President Donald Trump’s 2024 campaign plans, the ongoing blame game over Afghanistan and the remains of America’s “Global War on Terror”, and Republican efforts to reframe public health safety policies as “tyrannical lockdowns!”
For their own sake, Democrats must figure out how to translate their policy offerings that actually draw broad public support into stronger support for their party and their candidates. They really can’t afford to just assume that the vast majority of voters who don’t regularly watch cable news, don’t religiously follow #ElectionTwitter and #PoliticsTwitter, and don’t subscribe to multiple “prestige media” publications just automatically know who’s doing what in Congress. They also can’t afford to just run on vague West Wing-esque “moral character arguments” when most voters are so disillusioned with America’s status quo that they don’t have the time or patience for such vague “moral character arguments”.
There’s a reason why California Republicans increasingly abandoned their own “populist anti-lockdown platform” during the final days of the recall campaign to instead focus on eggs thrown in Venice, unfounded accusations against Newsom’s spouse that they tried to connect to the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and a bumper crop of Trump-esque and totally baseless “voter fraud” allegations. Here’s a hint: It’s the same reason why Newsom successfully steered the public’s focus back to his policy platform during the final weeks of the California Recall campaign. The quicker Newsom’s fellow Democrats grasp these lessons and apply this knowledge to their own work, the better they can prepare for 2022 and beyond.
The cover photo was taken by Gage Skidmore, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Flickr.