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California Politics: The recall’s math says it all

A person holds up a "Vote No" sign.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

It’s not that proponents of the campaign to remove Gov. Gavin Newsom from office didn’t know the math needed to pull off a stunning political upset on Tuesday.

Winning would have meant three things: very high Republican turnout; an even split, at worst, among independent voters; and a Democratic base weakened by defections to the “yes” side or voters who didn’t show up.

But in politics, as in life, numbers don’t lie. And early on election night, it was clear that things simply didn’t add up for recall supporters.

While the headline is that Newsom beat back the recall, it’s the size and scope of his accomplishment that is the political story behind the story. After all, the recall’s outcome will reverberate into the 2022 election cycle. And with so many voters choosing to side with the governor and his agenda, an emboldened Newsom might easily scare off any would-be Democratic challengers.

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For Republicans, still lost in California’s electoral wilderness after 15 years of losses, the recall may have left them in worse shape than when they began.

Or to quote the late Michael K. Williams’ most famous character, Omar Little from HBO’s “The Wire”: “You come at the king, you best not miss.”

Newsom ran the table

The numbers are staggering. As of late Thursday, the governor could count 31 of California’s 58 counties in his column, including all of the state’s major population centers. Statewide, Newsom’s apparent 64%-36% victory would be even more decisive than his 2018 gubernatorial win over Republican John Cox, an outcome that was the most lopsided in modern state history. The current split is similar to the California win by President Biden over then-President Donald Trump in November.

The comparison with 2018 is worth a closer look. Newsom’s anti-recall campaign significantly improved his winning percentage in a number of counties he won three years ago — most notably in Bay Area communities, those along the Central Coast and battlegrounds like Orange County.

But even in a few counties where he looks to have lost on Tuesday, the governor narrowed the gap. Current returns show him topping his 2018 numbers in a few counties dominated by Republicans — rural locations such as Shasta and Colusa counties and larger, more urban or suburban places like Placer and Riverside counties.

Another way to view the pro-recall campaign’s collapse: The most populous county in the “yes” column was Fresno County and Newsom trailed there by 679 votes as of late Thursday.

For recall proponents, the math just didn’t work.

It’s the pandemic, stupid

Former President Clinton‘s 1992 campaign team became famous for distilling that election down to one phrase: “It’s the economy, stupid,” a reminder that voters were focused on one topic above all others.

Fast forward to this week, when it’s hard to overstate just how fundamental the COVID-19 pandemic was to the recall. In fact, history books should probably mark the 2021 special election with an asterisk so that campaigns and political scientists alike exercise caution before making assumptions that could apply to future recall campaigns.

It was the pandemic that sparked interest in the recall petition filed only a few weeks before Newsom’s emergency order and gave the effort new life thanks to a decisive ruling by a Sacramento judge in November that extended the amount of time proponents had to gather signatures. When criticism over Newsom’s decisions grew louder — to say nothing of his infamous mask-free moments at a posh Napa Valley restaurant — Republican-backing donors helped push the recall across the qualification finish line.

But anger seemed to subside with the reopening of schools and businesses and after COVID-19 vaccine supplies went from scarce to abundant. And in the campaign’s final weeks, Newsom delivered a knockout blow by painting the recall’s backers and the leading Republican candidates as determined to scrap the state’s efforts.

Public and private polls found a sizable number of voters who supported tougher vaccine rules as well as mask requirements in California schools. Juan Rodriguez, the strategist who led the anti-recall campaign on Newsom’s behalf, said support for pandemic safety measures was so intense that it might have broken through the seemingly impenetrable barriers of partisanship.

“I also think the ultimate analysis is going to show that we’re even able to pick up some Republican vaccinated individuals that actually looked at this and said, ‘You know, we want to get back to what it was like before,’” Rodriguez said during a Wednesday event held by the Sacramento Press Club.

A data analysis by The Times backs up that assertion, as counties with higher COVID-19 vaccination rates were more likely to support Newsom. Those pro-vaccination counties are also home to most of California’s voters, a correlation that already has some speculating that opposition to vaccination mandates by the recall’s GOP candidates could leave a lingering stain for the party’s regional and statewide candidates in California elections next year.

The Elder effect

The final preelection polls captured both the recall’s collapse and the rise of Larry Elder, the conservative talk radio host whose late entry into the replacement race seemed to suck the political oxygen out of the contest for everyone else — including the overarching pro-recall campaign.

Elder was closing in on half of the votes cast on the recall ballot’s second question in returns as of Thursday. Democrat and runner-up Kevin Paffrath had close to one-fifth as much support, followed by Republican Kevin Faulconer, the former mayor of San Diego, with around one-sixth the number of Elder’s votes.

The GOP front-runner, who pledged before election day to stick around in 2022 should Newsom prevail, might hold all the cards when it comes to Republican politics next year.

“I have now become a political force here in California in general and particularly within the Republican Party,” he told a Fresno radio station Tuesday. “And I’m not going to leave the stage.”

But wait, maybe not. In an excerpt of an interview with the TV show “Inside California Politics” released Thursday, Elder hedged.

“It’s hard for me to see how the outcome would be any different unless I was able to raise at least as much money” as Newsom, he said. “But even then the thing is daunting.”

And it seems certain Elder’s effect on Republican politics will be a hot topic at the state party’s convention next weekend. There’s clearly rancor in some GOP circles, displayed in a nasty exchange during Wednesday’s postelection Zoom meeting of the Sacramento Press Club.

It began when Ron Nehring, a former state Republican Party chairman and now a top advisor to Faulconer, lashed out at Elder’s message in the campaign’s final weeks.

“He kept on saying things that just didn’t make any sense if you actually wanted to become governor,” Nehring said. “And the Faulconer campaign, every single day we were out there running for governor while Larry Elder was out there running for influencer.”

Nehring then sparred with Jeff Corliss, Elder’s campaign manager, over an “election integrity” petition that appeared on the talk show host’s website, alleging a fraudulent victory for Newsom before the ballots had ever been counted. Corliss insisted that the goal was only to bring attention to voters’ concerns and that there was “nothing wrong with documenting things that people see that may seem irregular, or need to be fixed.”

Nehring’s response: “Lying to Republicans, claiming an election was stolen before a single vote or result has been published is grossly irresponsible.”

Newsom vs. Elder, et al.

While the recall election didn’t really pit Newsom against any of the 46 candidates listed on the ballot’s second question, it did get a lot of political observers wondering how the prominent hopefuls would fare in a head-to-head contest with the Democratic governor.

The answer, for now: not very well.

A poll conducted by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and co-sponsored by The Times asked more than 9,800 registered voters to choose sides in a series of hypothetical matchups between Newsom and the four most talked-about Republican challengers: Elder, Faulconer, Cox and Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin).

In all four scenarios, Newsom holds sizable leads. The poll’s measurement of the contest with Elder will get most of the attention — Newsom leads with 52% of voters surveyed compared with 30% who back Elder.

The skipped question and calls for reform

As the results get more complete over the next few days, keep an eye on how many voters skipped the ballot’s second question, following Newsom’s advice of “vote ‘no’ and go.” It remains one of the most talked-about facets of the campaign, with a number of political strategists insisting it was an effective way to ensure Democrats, in particular, didn’t stray.

By Thursday afternoon, there were 4.1 million ballots that had left the recall’s second question blank with an additional 2.9 million ballots still to be processed. And the undervote didn’t just happen in Democratic counties; 37% of ballots in Riverside County registered no vote in the replacement election and vote totals in Placer County were 35% smaller on the second question than for the Newsom recall.

Rob Pyers, the research director for the nonpartisan California Target Book, noted Thursday that Elder’s vote total in the GOP’s ancestral home of Orange County was running just four-tenths of a percentage point ahead of the ballots that skipped the replacement contest.

Meanwhile, efforts are now underway to take a new look at the rules governing recall elections, though Republicans are less likely to support some of the talked-about ideas. Look for legislative hearings on the topic this year.

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California recall roundup

— Bookmark this one: How California neighborhoods voted in the recall.

— With some of those closest to Newsom hoping for humility in the recall’s aftermath, the governor returns to work facing the same big challenges that have been on his plate all along.

— Our Times reporters fanned out to see what voters were saying about the effort to remove Newsom from office.

— Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says the field of GOP recall candidates was “disastrous.”

— Can the Newsom strategy of talking tough on COVID-19 and vaccinations be exported by Democrats to elections across the country next year?

— In the GOP-dominated Central Valley, there were loud voices of support for the recall while some election workers had to deal with taunts over unfounded conservative claims of election fraud.

— The gubernatorial recall election demonstrated a truth about modern California: We have lost patience amid many crises, and any proposal that doesn’t lead to a fix is a reason to mobilize.

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