It’s obvious what Trump was doing, though. He was trying to keep his base convinced that the election was winnable and assuaging his own insecurities by telling himself that he wasn’t as unpopular as those polls suggested. The natural result was to foment broad distrust among Republicans in both the election results and measurements of the election results — even in situations where the likely outcome is much more concrete than it was in November.
As is the case with California’s recall election. The effort to oust Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) from office culminates Tuesday, but, as we noted last week, it seems increasingly unlikely to happen. As of writing, FiveThirtyEight’s average of polling in the recall shows the “keep Newsom” option with a 10-point advantage. The point at which the race seemed like a toss-up followed one poll showing “replace” with a lead, a poll that the pollster itself eventually suggested was an outlier.
This result makes sense. California is a state in which Democrats outnumber Republicans by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. It’s a state that preferred Biden to Trump by nearly 30 points in last year’s presidential contest, one that alone made up 73 percent of Biden’s popular vote victory. The 2003 gubernatorial recall succeeded in part because the state was less heavily blue and in part because views of the governor then were much less positive. Newsom is better positioned than Gray Davis was on both fronts, and it’s reflected in polling.
It’s reflected, too, in the ballots that have been returned. So far, about 6.4 million ballots have been turned in, according to the California firm Political Data Intelligence. Of those, just over half have been from Democrats. A slightly higher percentage of ballots sent to Democrats have been returned than of ballots sent to Republicans. Relatively few independent ballots have been returned, but recent polling from YouGov shows that even those voters tend to oppose the recall effort.
One would think, then, that the natural assumption would be that the recall will fail. But it isn’t. That same YouGov poll found that expectations for the result of the election were evenly split: About a third said it was a toss-up, while about 3 in 10 said either that it was likely to pass or likely to fail. This poll was conducted a week ago, when the polling average was narrower, but there was still no real reason at the time for a third of California Republicans to say that the recall was very likely to pass. It wasn’t then and isn’t now.
Again, the reason for this is that California is a very blue state, one that in 2018 saw its long-standing Republican stronghold of Orange County vote across the board for Democratic House candidates. But, again, we’re applying logic to the illogical. So we get statements such as this.
“It’s probably rigged,” Trump said of the recall campaign in an interview on the far-right cable network Newmax on Tuesday. “The one thing they’re good at is rigging elections, so I predict it’s a rigged election. Let’s see how it turns out.”
The same message was offered that day on Newsmax’s competitor Fox News.
“The only thing that will save Gavin Newsom is voter fraud,” commentator Tomi Lahren said. “So as they say: stay woke. Pay attention to the voter fraud going on in California because it’s going to have big consequences not only for that state, but for upcoming elections.”
That’s really the point to a large degree: Use California’s likely outcome as a way to bolster the idea that fraud is rampant. After the 2016 campaign, Trump tried halfheartedly to allege that his loss in the state — then more than the national margin of his popular vote loss — was a function of illegal voting, something for which there’s never been any evidence. Now, he sees it as a way to undermine the credibility of elections in general, using a Democratic state preserving a Democratic governor as evidence that Democrats are somehow cheating. And according to the YouGov poll, Republicans are prepared to believe it.
(For a subset of the far right, the idea goes further. Vice recently reported on the way in which the recall effort is being wound into the broader QAnon extremist ideology and the idea that Trump will somehow be returned to power. The mechanism for this is hazy, but haziness has never been a deterrent to conspiracy theorists.)
It is of course possible that the polls will be off the mark. It is possible that the 10-point advantage “keep” enjoys will be overstated or will not be reflected in ballot returns by Tuesday. There’s a natural enthusiasm advantage for proponents of the recall who fought to have the election happen in the first place that may not be captured in the polling. But, so far, the returned ballots suggest a significant advantage for Newsom.
It’s also the case that polling in 2018, when Trump wasn’t himself on the ballot, was very accurate. There wasn’t an undercounted enthusiasm for the sitting president that came out to vote, just a tidal wave of support for Democratic candidates. This, too, remains unexplained from the “rampant fraud” conspiracy theorists.
But, then, so does the utter lack of evidence of rampant fraud.