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Editorial: Will the unvaccinated doom Gov. Newsom?

Gov. Gavin Newsom listens to speakers at a news conference in Oakland on Monday.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

A new poll of California voters shows why national Republicans have poured so much money and attention into this state’s gubernatorial recall campaign, despite the seemingly impossible odds of ousting a popular Democratic incumbent. It’s because Gov. Gavin Newsom’s supporters simply aren’t as determined to vote as his opponents.

The poll by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, which this newspaper co-sponsored, is the latest in a series of surveys of the people most likely to vote in September’s election. It showed that since May, undecided voters have swung sharply into the pro-recall camp. Statistically speaking, the recall is now a toss-up.

You can insert all the usual caveats here — it’s just one poll, the figures reflect a lot of assumptions, and so on. But what we’ve seen consistently in these measures is a wide gap between what the general public thinks about Newsom’s performance and what likely voters think.

Ponder that for a moment. Most Californians recognize the recall for what it is: a Hail Mary pass by a minority faction that can’t seem to win a general election in this state. But in off-year and special elections, most Californians don’t vote.

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The poll also found that Larry Elder, a conservative lawyer and radio talk show host best known for his provocative views on race and personal responsibility, with a wide lead among those who would replace Newsom. After four disastrous years with a reality TV star in the White House, California — the world’s fifth-largest economy — could soon be led by a radio personality.

With any luck, the poll’s results will shake Californians out of their torpor and drive up turnout for the recall, so the outcome will truly reflect the sentiments of this state’s residents. Otherwise, the most important factor may well be the Delta variant of COVID-19, which is keeping the anti-Newsom fires burning among recall proponents.

It’s hard to imagine that there would be much enthusiasm for the recall if not for the latest uptick in infections. After the state began vaccinating its residents en masse in the spring, the pandemic faded and the restrictions on schools, businesses and activities gradually lifted, dissipating much of the anti-Newsom energy.

But the highly infectious Delta variant has prompted yet another surge, predominantly among unvaccinated people — many of the same folks who chafed at the state’s efforts to limit the spread of COVID. And now Newsom and other state officials are taking steps to quell the infections, stirring the embers of resentment at the state’s public health mandates. It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The emergence of COVID-19 was a once-in-a-generation challenge, and Newsom’s handling of it wasn’t perfect. But as we have said before, recall elections aren’t for officials who were imperfect, or even for ones who performed badly. They’re designed for egregiously unethical, incompetent or dangerous people whose extreme behavior can’t be tolerated until the next regular election.

Setting aside the hyperbole, the complaints voiced by Newsom’s opponents boil down to run-of-the-mill policy disputes, even if some of them have been magnified by the unusual circumstances of the pandemic. They can and should be decided in next year’s general election.

Before we get there, though, we have to deal with the recall and whether the highly motivated minority will assert its will over a majority that’s inclined to sit this one out. That should be a wake-up call too. All registered voters will be receiving a ballot by mail. Fill yours out, return it, and help make sure the majority rules.


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