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Trump still wins elections — for Democrats — and other California recall lessons

President Biden, wearing sunglasses, smiles as he greets Gov. Gavin Newsom at Mather Airport on Monday.
President Biden talks with Gov. Gavin Newsom at Mather Airport east of Sacramento on Monday, as he arrived for a briefing on the state’s wildfires.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press )

Let’s get this much out of the way: An off-year recall election in a deep-blue state like California can’t tell us how midterm elections nationwide will turn out more than a year from now.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Gov. Gavin Newsom‘s sweeping victory Tuesday night has no lessons to teach about the state of national politics. Political operatives have paid keen attention to the recall not only because of the high stakes, but because Newsom’s campaign tested themes that Democrats are already using elsewhere.

Those same techniques may not work as well in a less Democratic state, and they hardly negate the problems that Democrats face, both in California and Washington, in turning their ideas into governing policy. But the campaign offered insights that will inform strategies over the next 14 months. Here are three:

Trump still wins elections — for Democrats

“All of you know that last year I got to run against the real Donald Trump,” President Biden said Monday evening, making the sign of the cross as if to ward off an evil spirit as he appeared with Newsom at Long Beach City College.

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“Well, this year, this year, the leading Republican running for governor is the closest thing to a Trump clone that I’ve ever seen.”

That pretty much encapsulated the number-one theme of Newsom’s campaign ever since he had the good luck to have talk-show host Larry Elder emerge as the leading Republican candidate against him.

“Trumpism is still on the ballot in California,” Newsom repeatedly told voters.

Newsom is hardly alone in running against the former president.

In Virginia, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe is seeking a return to the statehouse, and he’s been working overtime to tie Trump to his Republican opponent, Glenn Youngkin, a wealthy private-equity executive. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, running for reelection this year, has done the same against his opponent, businessman and former state lawmaker Jack Ciattarelli.

All three Democrats have placed two related bets: that Trump remains a huge motivating tool for getting core Democratic voters to the polls, and that he also continues to alienate suburban swing voters.

Many Republicans worry about that, too. A recent poll for CNN found that while 63% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they wanted Trump to lead their party, they split closely on whether they felt that having him as their nominee again would be an advantage: 49% said the party would have a better shot with someone else.

Keeping Trump at the center of voter attention can put Republican candidates in a bind — something that both McAuliffe and Murphy have exploited.

If Republican candidates stand firmly with Trump, as Elder did, they run the risk of losing centrist voters. If they criticize the former president, they risk the opposite — attacks from his acolytes, as both Youngkin and Ciattarelli have encountered.

Of the three states voting this fall, California provided the easiest test of an anti-Trump strategy: The former president lost the state by 29 points a year ago.

If the playbook works in November’s two elections for governor, however, especially in Virginia, which remains something of a swing state, expect to see Democrats step up their use of it nationwide. Even in a red state like Texas, running against Trump could help Democrats in some closely contested suburban districts.

That will be especially true if Trump interjects himself into the midterm races, a temptation he likely won’t resist.

After the Great Depression, Democrats successfully ran against President Herbert Hoover for more than a generation. Trump’s utility for his opponents may not last that long, but if this summer’s campaign teaches us anything, it’s that keeping his name figuratively on the ballot hasn’t yet worn out its charms.

The politics of vaccination

A year ago, when Trump was touting Operation Warp Speed’s efforts to develop a coronavirus vaccine, few would have predicted that opposition to vaccinations would have turned into an article of belief for much of his party.

To be sure, many prominent Republicans, notably Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who suffered from polio as a child, have consistently and strongly urged people to get vaccinated.

Many others, however, have taken an ambiguous, or in some cases hostile, stance.

This week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis hosted an event at which a speaker, with DeSantis standing nearby, declared that the vaccines could change a person’s RNA, an absurd falsehood the governor made no effort to rebut.

Trump got booed last month in Alabama when he urged a crowd at a rally to get vaccinated. He hasn’t repeated the call since.

In the recall campaign, Elder vowed to repeal California’s mask and vaccine requirements “before I have my first cup of tea.”

Newsom responded with an ad warning that if the recall passed, California could end up with “an anti-vax Republican governor.”

The vast majority of adult Americans — nearly 3 out of 4 — have been vaccinated, so being perceived as anti-vaccines isn’t helpful for a candidate. Republican complaints that they’re not “anti-vax,” just “anti-mandate,” haven’t helped much with voters, a significant majority of whom also favor at least some vaccine mandates.

More than 6 in 10 voters in Tuesday’s recall said they viewed getting vaccinated as a “public health responsibility” with only about one-third viewing it as a matter of “personal choice,” according to the exit poll conducted for the major television news networks. And a similarly large majority viewed Newsom’s COVID-19 policies as either about right or not strict enough, with only about one-third seeing them as too strict.

The recall results were a voter verdict: “Yes to science, yes to vaccines ... yes to ending this pandemic,” Newsom declared after his victory.

That’s in California, but the picture isn’t dramatically different nationwide. A poll this week by Ipsos for the Axios website found that 60% of Americans backed a requirement that federal employees get vaccinated and a rule that companies employing more than 100 people require vaccination or regular testing for their workforces, policies that Biden proposed last week. And 57% said they supported a vaccine requirement at their own workplaces.

But the survey, like others, found a deep partisan rift: 84% of Democrats and 62% of independents, but only 30% of Republicans, supported the mandate for large employers.

Politically, Republicans have backed into a corner on vaccine mandates that resembles the one they occupied four years ago on repealing the Affordable Care Act. Then, as now, their core voters fervently supported a policy that a large majority of the electorate rejected.

Republicans have positioned themselves as the party of personal freedom. In doing so, they’ve allowed Democrats to occupy the ground of protectors of public safety. So long as a large majority of voters feel that the pandemic threatens their health and their children’s, that’s not an even fight.

Polls, frauds and turnout

Partisans often accuse pollsters of having too much influence on elections, accusing surveys of dampening turnout for their side. Most of the time, however, the evidence suggests that polls don’t have such major impact.

This election may be the exception.

In July, a UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll done for The Times found that the recall was almost a dead heat among likely voters. The problem, the poll found, was that a large number of Democrats weren’t taking the election seriously.

Newsom’s campaign used that and similar polls to shock Democrats out of their complacency and boost turnout. When the poll surveyed voters again, last week, the numbers had shifted. Democrats were now just as likely as Republicans to say they were enthusiastic about voting. That final poll correctly forecast Tuesday’s result.

Perhaps all those Democratic voters would have tuned into the election eventually without the polls. It’s without question, however, that Democrats used the polling numbers as part of a major, and successful, effort to motivate supporters to vote.

Republicans sometimes seemed to be trying to do just the opposite.

Starting last week, Trump, Elder and other conservative Republicans started making ominous — and baseless — statements about rigged elections and voter fraud, echoing the former president’s false claims about the 2020 presidential vote.

On Monday, Elder’s campaign website had a “Stop Fraud” button prominently on its homepage that linked to a site claiming that “statistical analyses used to detect fraud in elections held in 3rd-world nations (such as Russia, Venezuela, and Iran) have detected fraud in California resulting in Governor Gavin Newsom being reinstated as governor.”

Set aside for the moment the fact that Elder was claiming evidence for a rigged count more than 24 hours before the count even took place. (And give Elder credit for quickly conceding defeat Tuesday night.) But as a political move, telling your supporters that the outcome is rigged against them is hardly a turnout motivator.

In January, Trump’s claims about a rigged election may have depressed turnout in Republican parts of Georgia just enough to allow the victories of Democratic Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. If Republicans continue to make claims of fraud central to their political message, they may see more close elections slip away.

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Looking ahead past the recall

We’ve been covering all aspects of the recall for weeks, but in the final days, a couple of my colleagues looked down the road at what may be coming next.

If you’re tired of political battles, we’ve got bad news for you. The recall is over, but the next campaign — the 2022 election for governor — is just about to start, Julia Wick, Patrick McGreevy and Anita Chabria reported. Newsom will be running for reelection.

It’s quite possible that Elder will seek to challenge Newsom again, as he hinted during his concession. Jim Rainey looked at Elder’s possible next moves.

As John Myers wrote, the state’s voters might be ready to change the recall system. Voters still want to keep the power to recall officials, written into the state Constitution in 1911, but our poll with the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies suggests they may be open to adopting some changes that would make recalls harder to launch.

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The latest from Washington

Democrats are poised to overhaul the nation’s childcare system, with a big increase in government assistance for families, Sarah Wire reported. The big Democratic budget bill that’s moving toward a vote would limit childcare costs to 7% of income for most families, with taxpayer subsidies covering the rest.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken defended the withdrawal from Afghanistan during sometimes contentious hearings in the House and the Senate on Monday and Tuesday, Tracy Wilkinson reported. At times, the questions wandered into bizarre tangents, but Blinken maintained his composure through the barrage.

A California man armed with knives and carrying racist symbols was arrested outside the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington early on Monday, Sarah Wire and Richard Winton reported. Police identified the man as Donald Craighead, 44, of Oceanside, who has several convictions for a variety of offenses in California and Montana.

Congress still needs to fix the Electoral College Act, the antiquated law whose ambiguous wording helped make the Jan. 6 riot possible, Doyle McManus wrote. McConnell, he said, could help make that happen, but probably won’t.

That’s all for now. Noah Bierman will be coming to you with his Covering Kamala Harris edition of the Essential Politics newsletter on Friday this week. Next week, we’ll be back to our regular publication schedule.

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