Governor Newsom defeated the effort to recall him resoundingly. Here’s why.

Edelstein Gilbert Robson & Smith

Governor Newsom defeated the effort to recall him resoundingly. The September 14 election saw 44% voter turnout, lower than the 61.2% turnout seen in the 2003 recall of Governor Davis. Ultimately, 63.8% of those who voted chose to keep Newsom in office while 36.2% voted to oust him.

Though they lost the election, the race between Republican candidates vying to replace the Governor was far from competitive. Larry Elder secured a whopping 47% of the vote with Kevin Faulconer, John Cox, and Kevin Kiley trailing far behind at 8.6%, 4.4%, and 3.2% respectively. 

At the end of the day, the Governor won because he successfully convinced Democrats to vote.

The overwhelming fundraising advantage Democrats enjoy helped propel him to that point and their advantage in voter registration did the rest of the work. Special appearances by national Democratic figures such as the President, Vice President, and Senators Sanders and Warren may have helped with turnout in California’s deep blue urban centers.

We continue to think that the Governor’s recall opponents may have done some of the work for him. All of his major opponents opposed mask and vaccine mandates. Exit polling conducted by the New York Times suggested that the pandemic was a major issue for voters, and there appears to have been a strong correlation between vaccine rates and rejection of the recall.

More than that, Larry Elder was an opponent who gave democrats a reason to show up beyond the Governor’s fate. An outspoken opponent of abortion, gun control, and the minimum wage, Mr. Elder’s beliefs don’t align with moderate Democrats, let alone the state’s more progressive base. His stances and scandals likely galvanized many Democrats to vote against Elder as much or more than they voted for Newsom. 

Any way you cut it, the Governor overwhelmingly defeated the recall. In a statement following his victory, the Governor represented the win as an affirmation of Democratic values and his approach to the pandemic. Others have been quick to call the win a mandate. Is it?

Mandate to Keep the Governor’s Office

Governor Newsom will face re-election in November 2022. Unless he makes big mistakes between now and then, it’s hard to see how he could lose that election after winning so handedly on September 14. Not only will he continue to enjoy large advantages in fundraising and registration, he has likely put to bed any possible challenge from within his own party. 

The Governor will also enjoy company on ballot. While he ran alone in the recall, Democrats up and down the ballot will be running in the 2022 general election. Money will flow to win seats and defend them. High profile initiatives will draw voters to the polls. All of this is good for the Governor who simply needs to get Democrats to show up.

Republicans will continue to struggle to overcome these issues. The 47% of votes Elder received to replace the Governor will not translate to a general election. You may recall that an essential part of Newsom’s strategy was to convince Democrats that the only question on the ballot was whether he should be recalled. His campaign urged Democrats to turnout, reject the recall, and ignore the second question. In doing so, he avoided the pitfall of Democrats believing they could recall Newsom and retain the Governor’s Office. 9.2 million Californians voted on whether the Governor should be recalled and only 5.1 million voted on who should replace the Governor. 47% on the second question in September 2021 won’t translate to November 2022.

Mandate on Policy

As a matter of the vote statewide, the Governor won in a landslide. This will likely embolden him to advance an aggressive agenda. Many Democrats in the Legislature will also feel more confident in pursuing that agenda. The Governor didn’t win a mandate everywhere though.

Suburban counties like Orange, Riverside, and San Bernadino rejected the recall by only 52%. That is not a healthy margin let alone a mandate. San Diego and San Joaquin counties were marginally better, rejecting the recall by 58% and 56% respectively. Proponents of the recall won Central Valley counties by larger margins.

Decades ago, these areas were Republican strongholds. Moderate Democrats have now turned them purple if not blue. In the state legislature, these moderates will have to grapple with a Governor who won a statewide mandate even though he may not have in their districts.

That said, perception is often more important than reality in politics. The perception of a mandate and the very likely fact that these legislators will be contending with the Governor for five more years could easily persuade some of them to keep an open mind about what he proposes. We expect 2022 to be a busy year.

Mandate to Rewrite Recall Rules

Absent a tectonic shift in California’s political landscape, the recall was likely the last serious chance Republicans had to win the Governor’s Office. Democrats in the Legislature are eager to shore that up even more.

Assemblymember Marc Berman and Senator Steve Glazer, who Chair the Elections Committees in the Assembly and Senate, have already announced a series of informational hearings aimed at revising California’s election rules. Democrats have floated various ideas including increasing the threshold of signatures required to qualify a recall, requiring cause for a recall, and altering the rules for how a replacement is selected.

Any change to these rules would require a 2/3 vote of the Legislature to make it on the November 2022 ballot for the voters’ consideration.