As the weeks passed, however, Newsom and Cuomo managed to bring the virus under control. Each positioned himself in contrast to President Donald Trump, bolstering support among heavily Democratic constituencies that fervently disliked the president. Polling from PPIC in California and Siena College in New York show sharp upticks in how the governors were viewed in their states, approval increases that ran in parallel to how Californians and New Yorkers assessed the governors’ handling of the pandemic.
Over time, however, the percentage of residents viewing the handling of the pandemic critically increased — and so did the percentage of each state’s residents who viewed the governors themselves negatively.
About a week ago, those shifts in fortune appeared to pose perilous threats to both governors’ political positions. Newsom faces a recall effort in his state, a mechanism that could lead to his ouster in the same manner Gray Davis was ejected in 2003. New York has no similar provision, meaning Cuomo would need to resign for his term to end early.
The odds of Cuomo stepping down have increased, though, following allegations of sexual harassment from two former aides and a women he met at a wedding. At this point, despite an effort to force a recall vote targeting Newsom, it seems more likely that he will serve out his term than that Cuomo will.
First, we should note that despite the drop in each governor’s approval rating, each is still viewed more positively now than he was before the pandemic (indicated on the graphs above with the vertical line showing March 2020). Disapproval of Newsom has increased since this time last year, but not much. In other words, there’s some suggestion that the coronavirus response shifts were something of a bubble that’s now deflated.
That Siena College poll, though, predates the emergence of the allegations against Cuomo. It’s unlikely that his approval rating will remain as high, particularly because the question at issue — harassment allegations — is one that has been a target of particular concern among Democratic voters for years. His handling of the pandemic is still viewed positively by 6 in 10 New Yorkers, but it’s not clear whether that will be enough for him to continue to be viewed positively on net.
Views of Newsom’s handling of the pandemic are lower, with just over half of the state viewing it positively. But Californians, like New Yorkers, nonetheless think the state is headed in the right direction.
That’s vastly different from the position Davis was in as California governor 18 years ago. About a year before his recall, Californians’ views of the direction the state was headed were about evenly split. Over the next 12 months, that sentiment diverged widely, a function of a sluggish economy, instability in the electricity supply, questions about Davis’s effectiveness and, in the summer of 2003, a large increase to a vehicle license fee that triggered the initial recall push.
By August 2003, Davis’s approval rating was measured by PPIC at 25 percent. The recall was also powered by enthusiasm for his most likely successor: movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger. Davis lost, Schwarzenegger (R) moved in, and that was that.
Newsom is in a much better position. Support for him could erode, certainly, but there’s no obvious immediate trigger for that to happen. (Part of the reason his and Cuomo’s handling of the pandemic was viewed more negatively in recent months is almost certainly that increases in new infections mandated new closures aimed at containing the virus.)
There is an obvious trigger for Cuomo’s position to weaken. On Monday, after the latest allegation targeting the governor, Rep. Kathleen Rice (N.Y.) called on him to resign, becoming the highest-ranking Democrat to do so. Cuomo appears to be hoping to weather the storm, but it won’t take many more significant gusts to swamp him.
The odds that the two-year coronavirus anniversary finds Newsom as a private citizen are probably lower than the odds that it will find Cuomo in that position.