‘A different California’: Recent seismic shifts could help Newsom survive a recall

It’s been almost two decades since Californians ousted then-Gov. Gray Davis in a historic recall election. Critics of current Gov. Gavin Newsom hope to repeat the feat later this year.

While the rules of the recall have stayed the same, much about the state has changed since the 2003 vote.

California’s population today is more diverse and educated. Those shifts have helped power a political swing toward the Democratic Party and could shield Newsom from the forces that doomed Davis.

These are among the key factors set to shape the race, according to data analysis by The Times and interviews with experts on Golden State politics.

Landslide to the left

California voters have moved even more to the left since Davis’ ouster, which ushered in the state's last Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

That shift allowed Newsom to take office in a stronger position than Davis. In 2002, a year before the last recall, Davis narrowly won reelection with just 47% of the vote. Newsom enjoyed a landslide victory in his 2018 gubernatorial campaign, receiving 62% support.

When comparing how the major party candidates split the vote in those two elections, the trend is clear. Only 11 of the state’s 58 counties — all in less-populated and more rural areas — dropped in Democratic support. Most other places saw their electorates shift to the left.

Democratic vote share: Newsom vs. Davis

In the 2002 race, a beleaguered Davis faced multiple opponents, likely reducing his vote share. In 2018, Newsom faced only one opponent, Republican John Cox, perhaps boosting his share.

Still, the change is undeniable. Take Los Angeles County, home to a quarter of the state's population, for example. Support for the Democratic candidate in those two races increased 10 percentage points from Davis to Newsom.

Gubernatorial Democrat vs. Republican vote share in L.A. County
California Secretary of State

Other places have experienced even more dramatic change. Marin and San Diego counties saw a 13 percentage point shifts respectively in favor of the Democrats.

The trend is similar, though less pronounced, when comparing the results of presidential elections. The state shifted 10 percentage points in favor of the Democrats between the 2000 and 2020 campaigns, with President Biden winning 5.2 million more votes than Al Gore.

“This is literally a different California,” said Fernando Guerra, a political science professor who directs the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. “The shift has been dramatic.”

Republicans in retreat

Identification with the Republican Party has declined significantly as an increasing share of voters choose to align with the Democrats or, in many cases, no party at all.

Registered Democrats, Republicans and other voters

The GOP can now claim just 24% of registered voters statewide. While nearly a third of the electorate no longer claims allegiance to the two major parties, experts say they have shown themselves more likely to side with Democrats at the ballot box.

These trends help explain why Democratic defenders of Newsom have sought to rally the party’s faithful by framing the recall campaign as a partisan effort by Republicans.

Registered Democratic, other and Republican voters

These same shifts are evident in counties up and down the state. Most areas track closely with the overall direction, but a small number have diverged as changes vary by region.

Bay Area

This region, the most Democratic in the state, saw registrations shift more for Democrats than any other area. Only 15% of the voters here are registered Republicans — the lowest statewide. San Francisco and Marin counties led the way.

Greater Sacramento

Democratic registration in counties around the capital city remained relatively stable overall. Alpine and Nevada counties saw the largest shifts away from the Republicans, while voters in Colusa and Sutter counties drifted the furthest away from the two major parties.

San Joaquin Valley

In the state‘s Central Valley, registration shifted away from the major parties in most places, but to varying degrees. San Joaquin County, the second most-populous in the region, saw its Republican registration drop the most — plummeting more than 15 percentage points.

Southern California

All but one county in Southern California saw its Democratic share increase as Republican registrations fell. In Los Angeles County, the Democratic share remained roughly the same, but the Republican group dropped roughly equal to an increase in voters without a party preference.

Northern California

Northern California, which is heavily rural, remains more politically conservative — and its party registration reflects that fact. Several of its counties grew more Republican during this period. Only two grew more Democratic. Two of the counties here, Lassen and Modoc, have the highest Republican registration rates in the state.

California Secretary of State

Demographics are a driver

Demographic changes over the last two decades also generally favor liberal candidates.

The state has grown more diverse. White residents have become a much smaller share of the population as the number of Asian and Latino voters has increased.

Percentage point change in population, 2000 to 2019

Research shows voters of color are more likely to be registered as Democrats.

The shift has been attributed, in part, to increased civic engagement among Latinos after Proposition 187, a 1990s ballot measure that sought to deny immigrants here illegally services like healthcare and education.

“Prop 187 created a long-term and lasting change in the partisan shape of the Latino vote,” said Mindy Romero, a professor of political sociology at USC. “As Latino voters have continued to grow, that has heavily influenced the overall partisan makeup.”

In addition to the changing racial and ethnic makeup of the state, California is also now better educated, helping fuel the Democratic shift. Recent research has shown that the most highly educated Americans, especially those who attain graduate degrees, are much more likely to favor liberal positions on issues, and Democrats have a sizable advantage among white college graduates.

In 2000, about 26% of Californians 25 and older had college degrees. Today it's 34%, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

Newsom’s steady support

Davis was deeply unpopular in the run-up to the recall election, thanks in part to an energy crisis that caused widespread blackouts. After he narrowly won reelection in Nov. 2002, Davis’ popularity tanked, making it easier to oust him.

Californians who approved and disapproved of Davis

So far, Newsom's popularity hasn’t dipped to dangerous levels.

“He’s in a very different situation than Gray Davis was,” said Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California. “He has had consistently positive approval ratings this year.”

Californians who approve and disapprove of Newsom

About two-thirds of Californians approve of his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic — among his critics’ chief complaints. That's up from roughly half in January, at the height of the crisis.

Meanwhile, about 57% of likely voters say they don’t support removing Newsom, according to the latest Public Policy Institute of California poll in May — a figure that hasn’t budged since March.

Time will tell whether the road gets rockier for Newsom, increasing his risk of removal. But the state's shifted politics and demographics suggest he faces an easier path than Davis in 2003.