Gavin Newsom, the Democratic governor of deeply progressive California, is running for his political life. Newsom is in the midst of a recall election, in which Californians can vote “Yes” or “No” on his removal and then pick his replacement from a field of 46 candidates. His fate will be decided soon: The state has mailed ballots to some 20 million registered voters, and Election Day is Sept. 14.

And, according to the poll aggregators at RealClearPolitics, the race appears close:

Poll
Yes, remove
No, do not remove
YouGov (Aug. 6-12)
48
52
SurveyUSA (Aug. 2-4)
51
40
Emerson (July 30-Aug.1)
46
48
Berkeley IGS (July 18-24)
47
50
AVERAGE
48%
47.5%

Source: RealClearPolitics

In a normal election, Newsom would have no trouble holding on to California.

But Newsom has three problems: covid-19, a cascade of economic and environmental challenges, and an energized Republican opposition. Newsom remains favored to retain his seat — but only because he governs a state where Democrats are plentiful and voting is comparatively easy.

Covid: Hypocrisy and backlash

At the pandemic’s start, Newsom instituted strict containment measures, such as closing public schools and issuing a stay-at-home order, and Californians mostly backed him. But in the fall of 2020, Newsom blundered: He was caught breaking his own lockdown rules by dining indoors without a mask at the upscale French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, in the heart of the state’s wine country. That unforced error sent him hurtling toward a recall election.

Any Californian can force a recall election — one needs only to collect the required number of signatures (around 1.5 million for this race). Newsom opponents had tried to recall him four times since he took office — and each time they failed to gather enough signatures. But the French Laundry moment motivated Californians to join the latest effort: 1.7 million signed the petition, triggering the recall contest.

Since then, covid-19 restrictions have been an animating issue for pro-recall voters.

Other pollsters have come up with similar results. Mark DiCamillo, a pollster at the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, told me that recall supporters “believe that [Newsom] has greatly overstepped his authority as governor in responding to the pandemic. Ninety percent of ‘Yes’ voters agreed to a statement to that effect.”

Many Californians support Newsom’s actions on covid. But his hypocrisy kick-started the recall effort, and covid-19 restrictions are the animating issue for a fired-up anti-Newsom GOP.

Other crises

Newsom’s second problem: economic and environmental troubles. California’s jobless rate hasn’t fully recovered from the covid-induced recession.

Housing in California for middle- and working-class families remains expensive and hard to find, the homeless population is soaring in major metropolitan areas, and environmental disasters — in particular, fires and drought — are becoming more common.

Newsom isn’t fully responsible for these problems: The pandemic caused the recession, housing was expensive and in short supply before he entered office, and climate change is likely responsible for some recent environmental crises.

But voters tend to credit — or blame — those in elected office for events that happen under their watch no matter who is responsible. DiCamillo put it plainly: “The recurrence of covid, the severity of the drought, the wildfire situation — these are things that, if I were running for reelection, I wouldn’t want to be taking place during the campaign.”

Energized Republicans, distracted Democrats

Newsom’s third — and most important — obstacle: Republicans are more interested in this election than Democrats. In March 2021, months before the election’s date was set, 78 percent of Republicans reported that they were following the race “somewhat” or “very” closely. Only 58 percent of Democrats said the same.

That enthusiasm gap persisted through the summer, and it appears to be shaping recall poll results.

According to a Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies survey, registered voters want to keep Newsom in office by a margin of 51 percent to 36 percent. But in the survey’s model of likely voters — which factors in greater Republican engagement — the race is almost tied, with 50 against the recall and 47 percent for it.

Several large helpings of caution are warranted here: Whatever polls and surveys show, it is very hard to predict who will turn out in an off-year recall contest, and pollsters could be underestimating either side. According to SurveyUSA pollster Ken Alper: “Any special election is always difficult for any pollster. There’s no real template for doing this. . . . A special in an off-year is confounding, I think, for most of us. I think pollsters start with a number of strikes against them in research like this.”

Which means if Republicans stay energized and Democrats fail to turn out, the GOP could pull off an upset.

Newsom’s ace(s) in the hole

Newsom has a few advantages. The most important: There are many more Democrats than Republicans in California.

Forty years ago, California was a reliably Republican state in presidential contests. But in the past 30 years, Democrats found more than 5 million new voters, many of whom are part of the state’s growing Asian American, Latino and college-educated populations. In that time period, the Republican vote total has barely changed.

Newsom also has time and money on his side. California has now mailed a ballot to all voters in the state and given them roughly a month to vote. (Ballots were sent out the week of Aug. 16; Election Day is Sept. 14.) Newsom, who has more campaign cash than all of his Republican rivals, could use his money and volunteer base to get late-deciding Democrats to the polls.

Mark Baldassare, head of the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank, noted that Democrats have experience getting their voters to cast ballots at the last moment: “In November 2018, there were a lot of people who sent in their ballots late in the congressional races that were close in California. There was apparently a very strong effort on the ground to get people in certain districts to send in their ballots. The Newsom campaign clearly has the resources to have a ground effort that could be substantial — certainly substantial compared to the resources of the 46 replacement candidates.”

Newsom has more than enough voters to win. The question is whether he can leverage his resources and get them to the polls.

The outlook

Like other analysts, I consider Newsom to be a slight favorite to keep his seat. He has advantages that Gray Davis — the Democratic governor who was recalled in 2003 — lacked. The state is bluer than it was 18 years ago, vote-by-mail is more common, and Newsom knows (if only from Davis’s example) to take this race seriously.

But if Newsom loses, it will be due to a combination of chance and choice.

No politician wants to defend his seat amid a pandemic, a recession and an ecological crisis. But Newsom has made mistakes. If the state were in better economic or environmental shape, or had he had skipped dinner at the French Laundry, Newsom might not be facing a recall at all.