The critical question left in the California recall election that could remove Gov. Gavin Newsom isn’t whether someone likes the first-term Democrat — it’s who is going to take the time to vote.
At this point, it’s all about turnout.
Mail-in ballots went to all 22 million registered voters in mid-August for the unusual, late-summer election. More than 4.6 million have been returned so far and while it's not known how they voted, information is available on their political affiliation, age and ethnicity.
The data shows Democrats are off to an encouraging start, turning in more than twice the number submitted by Republicans, a rate that largely mirrors the party's registration edge in the state. More than a third of those who have voted are 65 or older.
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But with less than two weeks left before the Sept. 14 election, many unknowns remain.
Some of the state’s most inconsistent voters – younger people and Latinos who lean Democratic – aren’t showing up in expected numbers. Will that change? And will many Republicans wait to vote in person rather than send in mailed ballots? That's what happened in 2020 and it helped the GOP re-capture several U.S. House seats in the heavily Democratic state.
Because of the oddly timed election — scheduled at the tail end of summer amid a pandemic — it's difficult to be confident about who will vote. “The exact number is really anybody’s guess,” said Mindy Romero, director of the University of Southern California’s Center for Inclusive Democracy. She called a recall election “its own unique animal.”
Driving voter turnout is a crucial factor but it’s not a precise science. Newsom and his Republican rivals, including conservative talk radio host Larry Elder and former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, are competing with a host of distractions as they seek to win over votes, from back-to-school preparations to massive wildfires burning in Northern California.
Celebrities, political and not, are being enlisted in the fight, with former progressive presidential candidates and U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren cutting ads opposing the recall while Elder counts actors Chuck Norris and Dean Cain among his supporters.
Potential voters are being hailed with texts, digital ads, emails and TV commercials — and visits at their front doors from volunteers — all in hopes of spurring them to fill out the two-question ballot that could end Newsom’s term and replace him with one of dozens of candidates. His rivals range from the obscure to the famous, notably, former Olympian and reality TV personality Caitlyn Jenner.
In an email this week, the Orange County Republican Party warned that Democrats were leading in turnout in the critical swing county by 8% and called on volunteers to knock on voters’ doors or make phone calls in the closing sprint to Election Day.
“This campaign will be won by turnout,” the party said, noting that 175,000 voters had been reached with a recent digital ad campaign flogging Newsom. The party was aiming for an election day stampede to the polls.
“This is where Republicans have traditionally turned the tide: in person,” the email said.
The recall was largely driven by frustration with whipsaw coronavirus restrictions that shuttered businesses and schools. Those who want Newsom removed turned in more than 1.7 million valid signatures to get the question before voters.
The embattled Newsom remains a prohibitive favorite in liberal-leaning California, where Democrats hold every statewide office and a super-majority in the Legislature.
In the recall, voters are asked two questions: Should Newsom be removed? And who should replace him?
In a deeply polarized political environment similar to the 2020 presidential election, “Democrats are more likely to vote for Newsom and Republicans are more likely to vote against (him),” said Joshua Spivak, senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College who specializes in recall elections. With a huge advantage for Democrats in registration “the more polarized the electorate, the better for Newsom.”
Polling released Wednesday by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California was encouraging for the incumbent.
The survey found 58% of likely voters oppose the recall, with 39% supporting it. The survey also found 60% approve of the way he's handled the pandemic.
Newsom's comfortable margin in the poll of 1,706 adults conducted Aug. 20–29 stood out among other findings that suggested mixed views of his leadership. For example, voters were about equally divided on whether the state was headed in the right or wrong direction.
Among potential replacement picks, Elder held a commanding edge, piling up 26% support among likely voters. Faulconer was far back at 5%, followed by businessman John Cox and state Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, each with 3%, the poll found. Jenner received just 1%.
Newsom has urged his supporters to vote no on the recall and leave the second question blank. The idea is to not provide any sense there's a suitable replacement among the 46 candidates. The survey found 25% said they will not vote for a possible successor.
Despite Newsom's edge on the recall question, the poll found Democrats are less energized than Republicans and independents. When asked if they are more enthusiastic than usual about voting in the election, 54% of GOP voters and 53% of independents said yes, compared to 40% among Democrats.
In another push to round up support, campaigns are dispatching regiments of door-knockers, hoping to make a connection with indifferent or wavering voters in the run-up to the election.
In Sacramento last weekend, volunteers opposed to the recall were distributing flyers that featured a silhouette of former President Donald Trump and the plea, “Stop the Republican power grab!” Another volunteer crew gathered there Monday, planning to target Democrats who hadn’t submitted their ballots.
Volma Volcy, field director for the Sacramento Central Labor Council, said he recently encountered a barber who didn’t know about the recall — or even that he’d been mailed a ballot. Volcy later instructed him on the steps to vote, after the barber located the missing ballot.
“A lot of people are not paying attention, which is why we’ve got to talk to people seven to 10 times,” Volcy told a group of organizers.
Volunteer and union member Mitchell Bechtel has been warning members of his ironworkers union that women’s rights could be endangered if Elder takes charge. One of his messages: “You might not love Gavin, but the alternative is infinitely worse.”
Instagram has become another popular platform to influence voters, especially for celebrities. Singer Katy Perry recently posted a slideshow warning “Red Alert! CA is about to get a Republican governor. Vote No on the recall.” It warns California’s progressive stances on climate change, gun control and health care are at risk.
Elder has been sharpening his message to lure Latino voters and residents alarmed over rising crime rates, saying he would push back against efforts to “defund” police departments.
“I want to do something about the outrageous rise in crime,” he told reporters Wednesday. “Crime disproportionately affects people living in the inner city; many of those are Hispanic.”