California Politics: The recall electorate has changed

Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at Culver City High School
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Imagine for a moment that the many subgroups of California voters are like a set of Russian nesting dolls.

The outermost doll is the state’s eligible electorate, every citizen age 18 or over who has the right to vote and totaling about 25 million people. Open that doll and you arrive at the registered electorate of California, now standing at slightly more than 22 million voters.

But inside that second nesting doll of registered voters are the people who actually decide elections: the likely electorate, voters who either dutifully show up for every election or those motivated by a candidate or a cause that’s on the current ballot.


It’s this final nesting doll of voters, to complete the analogy, that has dramatically changed in the recall election facing Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Over the course of the last month, the governor and his supporters have expanded and reconfigured the likely electorate — adding so many more Democrats to the mix that Newsom has a real chance to handily beat back the effort to remove him from office.

Newsom’s September surge

The UC Berkeley-L.A. Times poll that was conducted in late July sent shock waves through the political world, concluding that likely voters were almost evenly split on whether to keep Newsom or fire him.

But lost in the frenzy was pollster Mark DiCamillo’s assessment that the traditional partisan split of California’s registered electorate had been upended by the apathy among Democrats and an outsize intensity by Republicans.

The mid-summer survey concluded that if the election were held then, only 42% of likely voters would be Democrats, even though they are 47% of the state’s voters. Republicans, meanwhile, made up one-third of the July poll’s likely voters — 9 percentage points higher than their share of the registered electorate.

Which brings us to the new poll and a sweeping change in the size and makeup of the electoral field for the Sept. 14 recall.

Democrats have improved their share of likely recall voters since late July from 42% to 47%, a shift that has diluted the earlier strength of Republican recall voters from 33% to 29% of those expected to cast ballots.

(In both polls, the share of unaffiliated voters is smaller than their percentage of registered voters.)

The end result is the new poll finds 60.1% of likely voters oppose the recall and only 38.5% support it, a finding in line with other recent polls and suggesting the governor has the wind at his back in the home stretch.

By the way, the poll also offers a curious bit of political symmetry: Its results largely mirror the final tally in the 2018 governor’s race, when Newsom handily defeated Republican John Cox.

Lots of Democrats and early voters

The new poll finds that overall voter interest has sharply risen to 80% of all registered voters who were surveyed, compared with 54% who expressed high interest in late July.


“It’s hitting home that there’s an election coming up,” DiCamillo said.

The poll also reveals an awakening particularly among Democrats — a 33-percentage-point boost in their interest from the July poll to now. And there’s some real-world data to back that up: The latest report of ballots received by elections officials, compiled by Political Data, Inc., shows that 53% of the ballots that have already been cast came from Democrats.

That share will likely shrink a bit as election day approaches, as the new poll finds a sizable number of Republicans say they plan to vote in person. But the lopsidedness of the early voting in Newsom’s favor could be hard to surmount.

DiCamillo collaborated with the team at Political Data, Inc. to confirm that Californians in the poll who said they had already voted had actually done so, what he likened to “a little version of an exit poll,” the traditional election day surveys used to get an early glimpse of the outcome. Among those voters, the recall was even less popular: 70% of voters who had already cast ballots said they voted to retain Newsom.

“It’s a tall order to make that up” for recall supporters, DiCamillo said.

No, it really isn’t the 2003 recall

It’s been hard to get some national political watchers to understand just how different the recall facing Newsom is from the state’s first gubernatorial recall in 2003, which ended with then-Gov. Gray Davis’ removal from office and the election of former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

No difference between the two recall efforts is more notable than the allegiances of California voters. In 2003, Democrats held an 8-percentage-point advantage in voter registration over Republicans. Today, Democrats outnumber GOP voters by more than 22 percentage points.

Add to that the new UC Berkeley-L.A. Times poll’s finding that Newsom is succeeding in framing the election as more about his challengers than himself.

The poll asked voters how much they agreed or disagreed with a variety of pro-recall and anti-recall statements. About 65% of all likely voters agreed with this statement: “If a conservative Republican were to become governor as a result of the recall election, it would threaten many of the state’s well-established policies on issues like climate change, immigration, health care and abortion.”

It’s not only liberal Democrats who felt that way — 62% of self-described moderates and 64% of independent “no party preference voters” also said they agreed with that statement.

Davis, on the other hand, could never fully turn voters’ attention to anything other than his own record. Strategists who worked on the 2003 recall campaigns said Davis lost because voters demanded change, something they don’t seem to want this time — at least the kind of change being promised by the GOP contenders.

Two candidates in double digits

Of course Republicans very much want that kind of change. And the new poll shows that most GOP voters continue to support Larry Elder, the conservative talk radio host who leads the replacement candidates with 38% of likely voters’ support, growing to 67% of those who say they support the recall of Newsom.

Among Republicans, Elder is favored by 69% of likely voters. Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a distant third among all likely voters with 8% support, was chosen by only 6% of Republicans. Nor was there much support in the poll for Assemblyman Kevin Kiley or Cox, the 2018 candidate.

The only other candidate to break into double digits in the poll was Democrat Kevin Paffrath with 10% of likely voters. But that’s probably because 21% of likely Democratic voters chose him as a backup. More than twice as many Democrats — 48% — said they were taking Newsom’s advice and skipping the replacement election.

An election day special edition

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Recall roundup

— Newsom received a boost from a familiar face Wednesday when his longtime political ally Vice President Kamala Harris returned to the Bay Area to campaign for him. The two San Francisco Democrats are, it seems, “frenemies” no more.

President Biden will fly to California on Monday and urge voters to reject the recall during an appearance in Long Beach.

— The Los Angeles Police Department is investigating an altercation Wednesday in Venice involving a group of homeless people and supporters of Elder.

— From taxation and environmental regulations to strict COVID-19 protocols, the recall’s GOP candidates vow major changes if elected.

— Faulconer is the most experienced politician heading into the Sept. 14 election but has struggled to gain traction in a campaign driven by extremes.

— Democrats and Republicans alike are downplaying their ballot collection operations for the recall, after the process drew attention and criticism in 2020.

The most fervent support for recalling Newsom has come from rural Northern California, where Republicans are still angry about urban liberals, mail-in ballots and the 2020 election.

— As candidates crisscross California during this election season, faith communities have become a central place for them to proselytize voters.

— A shaman, a rapper and a surgeon: Meet the lesser-known names on your recall ballot.

California politics lightning round

— New COVID-19 vaccine mandates faltered in the final days of the California Legislature’s 2021 session as protesters gather in Sacramento.

— The California Senate voted to regulate warehouse performance metrics that will require companies such as Amazon to disclose productivity quotas, among other standards meant to make warehouse work safer.

— California is preparing to spend billions of dollars on new Medi-Cal services for homeless people and others.

— Meet David Sacks, Newsom’s loudest critic in Silicon Valley.

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