By Maeve Reston, CNN
All eyes are on a state that backed President Joe Biden by nearly 30 points, where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-to-1, to see if voters will oust their Democratic governor. At first glance, the numbers wouldn’t seem to make it possible, but the political climate has created some unpredictable crosswinds for Gov. Gavin Newsom this year.
In a poll from the Public Policy Institute of California released Thursday, 58% of likely voters said they would vote against recalling Newsom, while 39% said they would vote for the recall. That’s certainly good news for Newsom — and in line with the institute’s May polling — after some polls last month showed that support for keeping him in office only narrowly outpaced support for removing him, a stunning reversal of fortune for a Democrat who won with a 24-point margin in 2018.
But Thursday’s poll isn’t all good news for the governor. Of those planning to vote for the recall, 63% said they’re more enthusiastic than usual about voting, compared with just 37% of those planning to vote against the recall. As the GOP effort to recall Newsom gained steam over the past year, Democrats have been nervous that apathy on their side could mitigate their strong advantage in voter registration. At the most basic level, the nightmare scenario for Newsom is a recall election where there is unusually high Republican turnout and very low Democratic turnout in a contest where all 22 million of the state’s registered voters have received ballots in the mail.
CNN spoke to more than a half-dozen California political strategists and data gurus to try to understand just what it would take for that Democratic nightmare to become a reality — and the key metrics to keep an eye on ahead of the September 14 election to see if that might actually be happening.
As of Tuesday, more than 4.6 million Californians had returned their ballots — about 21% of all ballots mailed — according to Political Data Inc., a firm that does work for Democratic candidates, progressive organizations and nonpartisan campaigns and is tracking ballots returned in real time. An early analysis of those ballots indicates that Democrats may have shaken off some of their apathy about this special election, but Republicans are also turning in their ballots at a strong clip despite the party’s deep aversion to voting by mail.
It is too early to extrapolate major predictions from ballots returned so far, in part because many strategists expect more Republicans to turn their ballots in toward the end of the voting period or to vote in person on Election Day. The high level of indecision among voters about whom to support as a replacement candidate for Newsom may also drag out the process.
With unusual variables in this pandemic year, many Democratic strategists have been playing out different scenarios to understand exactly how Republicans could pull off the unlikeliest of wins in this deep blue state. Not every consultant has the same calculus about how Republicans successfully recall Newsom — and neither of the state parties or the Newsom campaign would share what their exact targets are in order for their respective sides to win. But CNN asked some of California’s political data experts to explain what it would take for Republicans to overcome their math problem in the Golden State.
How to read the tea leaves
First, the basics. To keep his job, Newsom needs a majority of voters to vote “no” on whether they want to oust him, which is the first question on the ballot. The second question on the ballot asks voters to choose from a list of more than 40 names indicating whom they would like to replace him — a race determined by the highest vote-getter. That means that if the recall of Newsom succeeds on the first question, a leading Republican candidate — such as conservative talk radio host Larry Elder — could become governor by winning a small plurality of the vote on the second question. Newsom and his allies have urged voters to just vote “no” and return their ballots, skipping the second question altogether — a strategy intended to make the voting process less complicated for Democrats, but one that could have the practical effect of making it easier for a Republican to win on that second question.
In this weeks-long election, the first metric that offers some clues about where things are headed is the partisan composition of the electorate taking part in the recall. Of the 4.6 million ballots returned as of Tuesday, 54% were returned by registered Democrats and 24% were returned by registered Republicans — a ratio that indicates there has been some payoff for the Democrats’ intense advertising campaign to convince their party’s voters to return ballots right away.
A second metric to follow closely is how much Democrats and Republicans are overperforming or underperforming their registration level in the state as ballots continue to flood back into county registrars. In mid-July, the California secretary of state reported that 46.5% of the state’s voters were Democratic, 24.1% were Republican, 23.3% said they had “no party preference” and 6.2% said “other.” When considering those thresholds, Democrats are overperforming statewide right now — in other words, the percentage of ballots returned by Democrats (54%) is higher than their registration level in the state (46.5%). But that is to be expected at this early stage, given that their party is much more comfortable with voting by mail than Republicans are.
Former President Donald Trump bashed voting by mail during the 2020 election, spinning falsehoods about the integrity of elections that some Republicans think cost them — especially Georgia’s two Senate seats. But despite that barrage of misinformation about voting by mail from the GOP’s most influential figure, the latest data from Political Data Inc. on returned California recall ballots shows that Republicans are currently matching their registration level in the state. That says a lot about how strongly GOP voters feel about this election. The new Public Policy Institute of California poll shows that, among likely voters, 54% of Republicans said they felt more enthusiastic than usual about voting in the recall election, compared with just 40% of Democrats.
Still, proponents of the recall will need a big surge of Republicans returning ballots — blowing out the current Democratic advantage — in combination with high in-person GOP turnout on Election Day to get the final math working in their favor. With about 10.3 million Democratic voters and 5.3 million Republican voters in California, Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc., says he thinks Democrats will be able to breathe easier if they can maintain about a million-vote cushion over Republicans as ballots are returned.
That’s one reason Democrats are excited that Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has already appeared in one ad on Newsom’s behalf, will campaign in Los Angeles this weekend to rally progressives. The White House has also said that President Joe Biden intends to campaign with the governor, though no date has been set.
But even with anxiety among Newsom allies that their voters won’t be as motivated as those who want to recall him, California Democratic consultant Robb Korinke said it’s still difficult for him to chart a path to victory for Republicans — and he often explains the GOP’s challenge using a citrus analogy.
“If I’ve got an orange and a lime, and you tell me, I’m going to squeeze every ounce of juice out of this lime and then just give the orange a kind of a nudge and hope that less than half the juice comes out — that’s kind of what they’re looking at,” Korinke said. “Because there’s twice as many Democrats as Republicans in California. Even if you put all the independents, the third parties and so forth together with the Republicans, you would barely edge out the Democratic registration.”
“What it would require for the recall to be successful is fundamentally a historic turnout for Republicans — as good or better than they have ever done in a general election — and then an utter collapse on the Democratic side of the aisle, such that it would have to look like a pretty ho-hum primary election turnout,” Korinke added. “It’s something that is totally irreconcilable with anything we’ve ever seen in California politics before.”
It’s important to note that partisanship is certainly not a perfect predictor in this election, because neither Democrats nor Republicans are a monolith on the question of removing Newsom. But it is a good cue. In the new PPIC poll, 90% of likely Democratic voters said they would vote “no” on the recall and 7% said they would vote “yes.” Meanwhile, 82% of Republican likely voters said they would vote “yes” on ejecting Newsom and 17% were a “no.” Independents were roughly split with 44% favoring removing Newsom and 49% saying they’d keep him in office.
“If you believe the existing polls,” said Dan Rottenstreich, a San Diego-based Democratic consultant who is advising some of the allied groups attempting to stop the recall effort, “then Republicans need to turn out 20 percentage points higher than Democrats in order to win the race. That’s really high, but I’m not sure it’s beyond the realm of possibility.”
Jessica Millan Patterson, chair of the California Republican Party, points to GOP strength in November 2020 congressional races — where Republicans flipped three Democratic-held US House seats in the state — as evidence that her party can overcome the odds. “Registration disadvantages, money disadvantages, these aren’t new to us,” she said. “And I think what 2020 proved for us here in California was that we could win despite those things — we win on the ideas and we win on the issues.”
One of the reasons California’s political data gurus are watching the early ballot returns so closely is because it’s difficult to predict what overall turnout will look like in the recall, because there is no prior election that can serve as a true model.
The 2003 recall — where turnout topped 61% with 9.4 million voters participating — occurred in a very different California, when Republicans composed a larger slice of the electorate than they do now and voters had a celebrity candidate they were excited to vote for in Arnold Schwarzenegger. Turnout soared in the 2020 presidential election to 70.8% of eligible voters — the highest since the 1950s — but that was driven in part by Trump’s presence on the ballot, because many progressive voters loathed him and turned out in large numbers to show their disdain. (President Joe Biden defeated Trump in the Golden State 63.5% to 34.3%).
Predicting the turnout universe in this recall has been an unusual challenge. Although the ability to drop one’s ballot in the mailbox should make it easier for Californians to participate, interviews with voters throughout the state have suggested that some are simply tuning out the details of this election, a problem that has been magnified for Democrats by the fact that it is taking place at a time when voters aren’t accustomed to having an election. It’s hard to know how many of those 22 million ballots will simply end up in the trash.
That means that despite the favorable polling for Newsom — with 58% of likely voters, for example, in the Public Policy Institute of California poll approving of his handling of the coronavirus outbreak, one of his opponents’ key criticisms of his leadership — this election remains deeply unpredictable.
Voters are divided over a potential replacement candidate and many have not made up their minds on that question, which may lead them to hold on to their ballots longer. Only about half of likely voters said they had a preference for a replacement candidate: Elder has the lead, with support from 26% of likely voters, with the four other GOP candidates named in the survey all polling in the single digits: former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer (5%), businessman John Cox (3%), Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (3%), and reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner (1%).
The level of discontent is a potent factor in this race, with fewer than half of Californians saying the state is headed in the right direction, according to the institute’s poll.
Longtime California Democratic strategist Rose Kapolczynski noted last week that compelling Democrats to vote has presented a huge challenge when they are distracted by the Delta variant, their kids going back to school, the disruptions of delayed work reopenings and the threat of wildfires that have been coursing across the state.
“There are just many more important things on people’s minds right now, and they’re frustrated with the performance of government,” said Kapolczynski, who ran all four of former US Sen. Barbara Boxer’s campaigns in California. “Things are seriously off track. Because of that, we have the perfect ingredients for voters taking out their frustration on the incumbent.”
The fact that so many elements of a potential backlash are in place has made this election a nerve-wracking journey for Newsom, in what — by the state’s party registration numbers alone — should be a glide path to victory.
“It’s pretty easy, (the ballot) is sitting there on your kitchen table,” Kapolczynski added. “But when voters are feeling frustrated about how things are going, it’s hard to get them to give the governor a gold star — and that’s basically what you’re asking for in the recall.”
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