Column: Larry Elder joining the recall race was the best thing that could’ve happened to Newsom

Gov. Gavin Newsom greets a crowd in Sun Valley.
Gov. Gavin Newsom greets the crowd after his campaign rally Sunday in Sun Valley, where he urged a no vote on the recall.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

When radio talk show host Larry Elder leaped into the gubernatorial recall race, it couldn’t have worked out better — for Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Elder carried with him three decades of provocative right-wing rhetoric that Newsom turned into a scary wake-up alarm for snoozing Democrats. It jarred them into voting against Newsom’s ouster out of fear that Elder would replace him as governor.

Not just voting but doing it early by mailing in or dropping off their ballots. That was a big help for Newsom.


What difference does it make whether a vote is cast early or on election day? Plenty. An early vote is worth more for a candidate.

That’s because if you’ve already voted, the candidate can save money and time by not bothering to solicit your vote. The campaign can hold back on mailers, phone calls and door-knocks and redirect those dollars and volunteers to people who haven’t voted.

“We can cross the voters off our list and use the resources in a more targeted way,” says Juan Rodriguez, Newsom’s anti-recall campaign manager. “It allows us to double down on target areas.”

Updated information about who has voted is readily available from county voter registrars.

“The idea of Republicans not trusting the mail, that’s crazy,” says Dave Gilliard, a veteran GOP consultant and a recall strategist. “The people who tell them not to trust the mail are just as crazy.”

Many Republican leaders realize this despite former President Trump fitting into the “crazy” category.

California GOP Chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson tried to promote early drop-off of mail ballots last year even while Trump was telling Republicans that mail balloting reeked of fraud.

In November, 87% of the California electorate voted by mail.

As of Friday, a third of the recall ballots mailed to every registered voter had been returned, according to Political Data Inc., which tracks voting.

Democrats had returned 39% of their ballots, Republicans 36% and independents 27%.

But of the total returned ballots, 53% were from Democrats and 25% from Republicans. That’s because there are nearly twice as many Democratic voters as Republicans in California.


In a poll published last week by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, 39% of those surveyed reported that they’d already voted. Of those, 70% voted with Newsom against his recall. And among the 61% who had not voted yet, 54% opposed the recall.

Overall, Newsom was beating the recall by a landslide margin — roughly 60% to 39%.

California will have its second gubernatorial recall in 18 years. Why is this liberal state so recall crazy?

May 10, 2021

Other independent polls have reported essentially the same thing — a very comfortable lead for the Democratic governor.

Just two months ago, Newsom and his allies were worried about Democratic voter apathy. Many Democrats were lukewarm toward the governor and didn’t give a rip about the recall election, if they even knew about it.

Steve Smith, communications strategist for the California Labor Federation, sounded the alarm after conducting some focus groups.

“People have a lot of other things on their minds,” he told me then. “If there’s not a big turnout, things could get interesting.”


Smith helped organize what he calls “the largest field campaign ever run in the state. Our goal was 10,000 volunteers. We have well over 20,000.”

That recruitment of Newsom volunteers was greatly aided by Elder’s late entry into the race in July.

“He gave us a lot of material,” Smith says.

Elder advocated zero minimum wage, had disparaged women over the years, suggested that descendants of slave owners be paid reparations for loss of their ancestors’ property, opposed abortion rights — and most damaging to him, vowed to repeal state mandates on mask wearing and vaccinations for public employees and schoolteachers.

Academics and activists alike say that improvements to the rules and reasons for a recall contest are long overdue. And polling indicates voters might be ready for changes too.

Sept. 13, 2021

This came at an optimum time for Newsom. Voters were becoming increasingly concerned about the Delta variant of the coronavirus. The governor ran TV ads proclaiming that the voters’ choice of him or Elder was a matter of “life and death.”

Elder’s candidacy was a game changer. It switched the question in voters’ minds from whether Newsom should be recalled to Newsom vs. Elder as governor.


“When Elder became the leader of the recall movement, that’s when Democrats started getting fired up,” Rodriguez says.

Gilliard acknowledges: “Once Newsom was able to take the focus off himself and put it on a single opponent, the dynamics of the election changed to his advantage.”

Evidence of that is in the IGS polls. A late July survey showed the recall question practically dead even with Newsom just slightly ahead.

And only 58% of Democrats expressed high interest in the election, compared with 80% in the latest poll.

Poll director Mark DiCamillo says many Democratic voters “fear a conservative Republican becoming governor. That would upset the whole well-established applecart.

“That really resonated with voters and got them off their butts. A moderate Republican wouldn’t have aroused nearly as much fear.”

The poll found that 51% of voters who oppose the recall were skipping the question about who should replace Newsom.


“That was striking to me,” DiCamillo says.

Among those who already had voted, their main reasons for leaving the replacement question blank were that they “didn’t feel comfortable” with any of the candidates and choosing one “would be detrimental to Newsom.”

How they arrived at that last conclusion is mystifying since the replacement question had nothing to do with whether Newsom was recalled. Except that Newsom encouraged it — perhaps to elevate Elder as a punching bag.

In the poll, Elder held a large lead over other candidates and was backed by 69% of Republicans.

“If Democrats voted, Elders’ percentage [38%] would go way down,” DiCamillo says. “It really makes him seem more popular than he is.”

Elder is very popular, however, within the Newsom camp.