In this edition: Election Day in California, final scenes from the recall campaign trail and special elections from Boston to Des Moines.

The recall election is big — it's the pictures that got small. This is The Trailer.

LOS ANGELES — California's second gubernatorial recall election in 18 years ends at 8 p.m. local time, with Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) confident that most voters will decide to keep in him in place. The Democratic panic of midsummer, when polls found opposition to the recall in the low single digits, has faded. Republicans, who never coalesced behind a single strategy for recalling Newsom, are hoping for turnout so high it blows away the data models.

“I think a lot of Democrats voted earlier. I think a lot of Republicans don't trust the mail or are waiting later, and are turning in their ballots as we speak,” Republican candidate Larry Elder said at his final Monday event, at a park overlooking the Port of Los Angeles. “I believe there's going to be a surge of votes coming in from independents and Republicans, and there won't be any question about who wins, because it'll be me.”

Few, including Republican veterans of California elections, shared that optimism. A successful recall of Newsom would represent one of the biggest misses in the history of polling, though an easy one to explain: It would require a landslide vote against the governor at polling places today, big enough to wipe out his advantage in early voting. Democrats, who held a small registration advantage in 2003, hold an overwhelming advantage now. And as he wound down his first-ever campaign, Elder was suggesting that Democrats would “cheat,” as he directed supporters to a website where they could demand that the state “investigate and ameliorate the twisted results” of an election that, as this newsletter goes out, is not over.

The Trailer has covered this unusually confusing election from start to finish. It began as a lucky effort to punish Newsom over his pandemic stay-at-home orders — a judge gave petitioners seven months to collect recall signatures, up from the usual three, because of the virus. It was compared, at first, to the 2003 recall that replaced Democrat Gray Davis with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. But this campaign unfolded very differently.

Seriously, though, how does this recall work? Californians were asking that question, too, and for far longer than you might expect. One more time: The recall ballot includes two questions. The first is whether to remove Newsom from office. The second is which candidate to replace him with if he is removed. If more than 50 percent of voters vote “yes,” to recall Newsom, whoever has the most votes on the second question is governor — even that's smaller than the total number of “no” votes.

Does that mean someone can get fewer votes than Newsom and replace him? In so many words, yes, and Democrats have cited that quirk in the law to discredit the “Republican recall” altogether, with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) calling it a “boldfaced Republican power grab” in one pro-Newsom ad. While Democrats hold every statewide office and dominate the state legislature, no elected Democrat filed for the recall ballot — part of the plan, to urge voters to “vote no” and ignore the details.

The strategy made some Democrats nervous. It grew out of the 2003 experience, when then-Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante ran as a replacement candidate; California Democrats are convinced that the option of a Democrat succeeding the unpopular Davis won more votes for the recall. It was also a bet that the race could be transformed from a referendum on Newsom, whose response to homelessness and forest fires have fallen short of his promises, into a binary test: Newsom or a Republican whose views most Californians disagree with.

Who is running? Not just Larry Elder, right? Forty-six candidates appear on the second part of the ballot, and conservative author and commentator Larry Elder is universally expected to get the most votes after leading in all but one poll. (SurveyUSA, whose first poll on the race found Elder trailing YouTube star Kevin Paffrath, has recanted those numbers.) Elder is the only Republican the governor attacks by name, though Newsom only began doing so in late July, after the polling made liberals realize just how popular Elder was with conservatives. Around 35 percent of voters who intend to vote for a replacement candidate tell pollsters they support Elder, and no other candidate breaks single digits.

The other candidates include state Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, a conservative who was an early recall advocate; former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer, who was putting together a 2022 campaign before the recall moved up the schedule; John Cox, a businessman and perennial candidate who lost to Newsom in 2018; Ted Gaines, a member of the state board of equalization; and Caitlyn Jenner, the Olympian and reality TV star who in 2015 became one of the most famous transgender people in America. Anyone who collected 7,000 valid signatures or paid a county elections office a little less than $4,200 could qualify, but only a third as many candidates filed as ran in the 2003 recall election.

Remember, Democrats are telling their voters not even to bother with the second part of the ballot, and polling has found around 40 percent of Californians saying they won't. It's possible that Elder will win a majority of the votes cast for replacement candidates; Democrats just expect that number to be far smaller than the vote to retain Newsom.

Who is voting? Mostly Democrats so far, which is why Newsom is more confident of victory and Republicans are hoping for a last-minute voter revolt. According to Political Data Intelligence, which has tracked ballot returns, more than 9.1 million mail or early ballots were received by county officials by Election Day, a turnout of 41 percent. (All registered voters received ballots in the mail unless they specifically opted out.) More than half of the ballots, almost 4.7 million, came from registered Democrats. Slightly more than a quarter, or under 2.4 million, came from Republicans. The rest came from voters registered with third parties or no party. 

But there are more ballots that haven't been cast or received yet — potentially 13 million of them. As of Tuesday morning, 5.6 million registered Democrats, 2.9 million registered Republicans and 4.4 million other voters were in this group. Republicans are optimistic that the voters waiting until the last minute to vote, and waiting specifically to vote in person, will cast “yes” votes on the recall that wipe out what is probably, right now, a massive “no” lead. While recall proponents are counting on many Democrats to vote “yes,” they had been hoping for as many as 30 percent of them to do it. According to the final set of polls, fewer than 1 in 10 registered Democrats now support recalling Newsom. 

The final poll from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times, found opposition to the recall running strongest among Californians who'd already sent back ballots — a 70-30 “no” margin among 39 percent of the electorate, and a smaller advantage from voters who hadn’t sent mail ballots back yet. Just 14 percent of voters told the pollster they would cast ballots in person, early or on Election Day, and while the vast majority planned to vote yes, the governor's opponents would need far higher turnout to overwhelm the early vote.

What would an upset look like? It's helpful to look back at 2003, a very different race in which most voters always favored recalling Gray Davis. Just 45 percent of voters voted to keep the governor that year, and according to the exit poll, 24 percent of Democrats voted to recall him — compared with 12 percent of Republicans who said they opposed the recall. Self-identified Democrats made up 39 percent of the electorate, and Republicans made up 38 percent.

It was a fantastic environment for Republicans, and they won nearly everywhere outside of the heavily Democratic Bay Area and Los Angeles. In Orange County, which cast more than 800,000 of the 9.4 million total votes, 73 percent of voters broke in favor of the recall. San Diego County, which cast a similar number of votes, went 66-34 for the recall. Sacramento County, which cast around 400,000 votes, delivered a 19-point margin for the recall. Even Los Angeles County was fairly close, with voters favoring Davis by just 2 points.

Support for this recall, from the petitioning period to now, has been highest in more rural areas — places where pandemic stay-at-home orders were deeply unpopular, and where conservatives already felt disenfranchised by the Democratic-led government. The Los Angeles Times poll found “yes” in the lead in just three of nine regions — the Inland Empire (by 3 points), the North Coast (by 9 points) and the San Joaquin Valley (by 12 points). It trailed narrowly in Orange County, and in Los Angeles County, where both Newsom and Elder closed out their campaigns, 68 percent of voters said they'd vote against the recall.

If the pollsters got this wrong, it will be easy to see in Orange County, where more than 700,000 votes had been cast early or in person as of Tuesday morning. The county will report the results from those ballots, making up 42 percent of the total potential vote, fairly quickly. It will then publish regular updates on the ballots cast in person. If there is a resounding pro-recall vote in the county, the site of some of the most frequent protests of Newsom's pandemic-related orders, the polling missed something. If the race is at all close in Orange County, the recall is probably failing statewide.

When will we know the result? If the polling is correct — a dangerous phrase, even for this newsletter — a double-digit victory for Newsom would be clear very early. Eric Ting's guide to the results in the San Francisco Chronicle is invaluable, detailing how and when each of the state's 58 counties will report numbers.

Both Republicans and Democrats believe that the early vote was heavily against the recall. If they're right, the first releases of vote totals will show “no” with an immense lead. The question will be how many votes are out, how they're trending and if turnout did indeed spike among recall supporters who didn't trust mail or early voting. 

Republicans did perform better in the final days of early voting, but not as well as they hope to do today. On Monday, 45 percent of early votes were cast by registered Democrats, compared with 31 from registered Republicans. 

Yes, but it's California. Don't they take weeks to finish counting? Yes, and election officials will accept absentee ballots as late as Sept. 21 provided they are postmarked today. In 2018, multiple House races were too close to call for a week or more, as those final ballots were counted and provisional ballots were confirmed and added to the total. But the margins in those races were all within 2 percentage points, and since the pandemic, mail ballots have been cast earlier; Democrats fell short in some 2020 races after there were fewer outstanding votes from their best areas than they expected.

Reading list

In which the president assures a crowd that he is not joking.

Who wants to run California?

“Democrats wanted Trump gone. Now they want him on the ballot,” by David Weigel, Colby Itkowitz and Gregory S. Schneider

The increasing Trump-centrism of the 2021 Democratic campaigns.

A convenient campaign stop near Iowa.

The selling of the president, 2024 (or 2028).

How long can conservative Latinos vote like liberals in Austin?

On the trail

SAN PEDRO, Calif. — The final days of California's recall election were among its strangest. Larry Elder criticized the media for not covering him like a Democrat. Gov. Gavin Newsom listened to the president reminisce about an Idaho senator who'd been dead for 37 years. The president's predecessor said the vote would be “rigged,” twice, in a state where Democrats won the 2020 presidential election by 29 points.

Only Newsom looked happy about the way things were going. He rallied with President Biden on Monday night, with light-up letters spelling “V-O-T-E N-O” and a fully-vaccinated audience packed close together. Nearly every Democrat in statewide office had come to speak for him, none of them White men. The chairman of the Democratic National Committee had flown in, to tell Californians how much they meant to the rest of the country. Not one but two DACA recipients were part of the program, one to sing the national anthem. 

When the governor got onstage, he blended his attacks on Elder — “he doesn't think women are as smart as men” — with a tribute to California's racial diversity. “Racial justice” and “social justice” were both “on the ballot.” An hour's worth of endorsers had laid out his record, and he could get more abstract.

“The future is not just something you experience. The future is something better,” Newsom said. “The future doesn't just happen. You have to make it happen.” He introduced Biden as a man who “defines the American Dream” and had “faith and devotion to the cause of democracy” as well as “the cause of what binds us together.”

Biden did not aim to match Newsom's energy level, or to riff on his remarks. Battling a cough, he told Californians that the world, not just the United States, was watching to see whether a “climate denier” would take power in California. Shortly before he spoke, Newsom campaign strategists were telling reporters that they were about to win.

“There's no scenario where we lose tomorrow,” Newsom strategist Sean Clegg told reporters. “Hopefully there's a silver living here, which we can apply to the big problem we have nationally. The base may start out asleep, but you can wake up the base.”

Republicans had no chance of victory in California, where they are outnumbered nearly 2-1 by Democrats, by simply activating their base. The Republicans who had been lost in the Newsom-Elder fracas closed out the campaign by urging voters to take a chance — a “trial period,” as state Assemblyman Kevin Kiley put it, on 15 months of a new governor to see whether they liked it.

“This recall can bring an era of public corruption to an end,” Kiley said outside Manual Arts High School, where he had once been a teacher. “By the time 2022 rolls around, there'll be a very clear choice between continuing down this path of reform and renewal, or going back to the way things were.”

Just three reporters and a handful of voters showed up to hear Kiley say that. Most cameras were still following Elder, who held rallies across southern California, stopping briefly on Sunset Boulevard to accept a surprise endorsement. 

“Do you want to keep living this collective lie? Do you want to star in their movie? Or do you want to be real?” said activist and actress Rose McGowan, who said she had returned to the United States from Mexico to announce her support. “Do I agree with him on all points? No. So what? He is the better candidate. He is the better man.”

At his other stops, Elder focused on his agenda — school choice, tax cuts, enacting the Trump administration's plan to relocate the homeless population to cheap land outside of the major cities. At each, he picked a different fight with the media, saying that “if I had a D after my name” — if he were a Democrat, not a Republican — then there would have been national and international media coverage of the unidentified, gorilla-masked woman who had thrown an egg at him during his stop in Venice.

“This would have been a hate crime. They would have had a manhunt for her,” said Elder at a stop in Monterey Park, shortly before helping to award a gold medal to a Chinese American World War II veteran. “She had on a gorilla mask. At the risk of sounding sexist, I said to somebody: How do we know it was a mask?” 

And at his final stops, Elder repeatedly redirected media questions about his accusations of Democratic cheating. In San Pedro, he asked reporters to pose a similar question to Newsom: Would the governor accept the results when he lost? 

The next morning, former president Donald Trump weighed in with another statement on the campaign, mentioning no candidate by name but suggesting that the race would be stolen, referring to unspecific stories of a few people being told ballots had been cast in their name.

“The place is so rigged [t]hat a guy who can’t even bring water into their state, which I got federal approval to do (that is the hard part), will probably win,” Trump wrote. “In any event, it all doesn’t matter because the California Election is totally rigged.”

Ad watch

Larry Elder, “Dude, Wake Up!” The Elder campaign was by far the best-funded of all California recall candidacies, able to go on the air to compete with pro-Newsom ads. The Elder approach was direct: either he or a surrogate looking into the camera and shaking voters by their lapels. “Look at all the homeless!” says a man identified as Alex in one of Elder's closing spots. “You've gone through $500 million and where did it go?” 

Phil Murphy, “My Job.” The first post-Labor Day spot from the governor of New Jersey follows a theme from his 2017 spots — he's always moving. Murphy, seeking reelection in November, walks and talks to a group of supporters, who do not say anything, as he describes his priorities for a second term and says he prioritizes “always keeping us safe and healthy.” It's the only reference to the pandemic in the spot; Republicans have attacked Murphy over covid deaths in nursing homes.

Poll watch

Will you vote to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom? (Los Angeles Times/Berkeley IGS, 6,550 likely voters)

No: 60% (+10 since July)
Yes: 40% (-8)

If you've read this far, you know that the recall election did not go as its supporters had hoped. The summer polls that found just 50 percent of voters opposed to removing Newsom fueled Republican hopes of an upset, and were pored over for signs of Democratic weakness. The fact that Latino voters were more likely to vote “yes” than White voters, for example, became part of many Larry Elder stump speeches: Black and Brown voters, he said, were not eating what liberals were serving.

But in the final major poll of the race, Newsom had recovered the party's usual advantage with White and non-White California voters. In 2018, 57 percent of White voters backed Newsom, according to exit polls; 56 percent of White voters say they'll vote “no” now. Sixty-four percent of Latino voters supported the governor in 2018, and 67 percent oppose the recall now. Elder is doing better than his party's defeated 2018 nominee with Black voters, with 23 percent of them saying they'll vote to remove Newsom. Republicans need more than that across multiple demographics to win. 

In the states

It's a busy Election Day beyond California, with three major cities holding primaries and two state legislative races, outside Des Moines and outside Chattanooga.

Boston. Five months after taking office, acting Mayor Kim Janey is not certain to make a November runoff, and trails in polling of the seven-way nonpartisan primary. At-large council member Michelle Wu, who polls far ahead of the pack, is expected to get one of the two runoff slots. There’s a scramble for the other one.

Janey became Boston’s first Black and first female mayor in March, with no honeymoon: Wu and 4th District city council member Andrea Campbell were already running, and Campbell accused the mayor of being too slow to release findings of an investigation into police abuse. In August, Janey made a skeptical remark about vaccine passports that put her at odds with liberal voters. (Janey became mayor when Marty Walsh resigned to become the Biden administration's secretary of labor.) 

“There’s a long history in this country of people needing to show their papers,” she said, “during slavery, post-slavery, as recent as, you know, what the immigrant population has to go through.” Janey would recant that comparison, but Wu charged ahead in polls, and Janey was locked in a contest with Campbell and at-large council member Annissa Essaibi George. (John Barros, the city’s former chief of economic development, lags in polls, and two other challengers barely registered.)

All of the leading candidates are female, and none was elected to anything before 2013 — a changing-of-the-guard race, though one that could oust the city’s first Black mayor. Polls have shown her splitting Black votes with Campbell, while Wu led with White voters, followed by the more moderate Essaibi George, who has run on increased police funding and against the city’s eviction moratorium.

Polls close at 8 p.m. Eight years ago, the last time there was a crowded mayoral primary, 112,898 ballots were cast.

Cleveland. Seven candidates are vying to replace retiring Mayor Frank Jackson, and one of them used to have the job: Dennis Kucinich. The 74-year old Democrat, whose single term as Cleveland’s “boy mayor” was defined by his fight to protect the city’s power company from a corporate takeover, entered the race shortly after publishing his memoirs.

“The people of Cleveland know me,” he said in an Ideastream Public Media debate last month. “They know that whenever I get involved in something, that I have the encourage to stand up, speak out and change the outcome.”

Kucinich, who sometimes allied with Republicans during his early city council career, has built an unusual coalition — the endorsement of the local AFL-CIO affiliate and donations from some wealthy Trump supporters. He’s the best-known candidate in a field that includes Council President Kevin Kelley, nonprofit founder Justin Bibb, councilman Basheer Jones, state Sen. Sandra Williams and former councilman Zack Reed, who challenged Jackson four years ago.

Like Kucinich, Bibb has run as a reformer not tied to Jackson or the current council — though he is 40 years younger, and has never held office before. The Cleveland Plain Dealer and former mayor Mike White have backed Bibb, and according to the Plain Dealer, a secretive dark money group has been supporting Kelley, running ads first against Kucinich, then switching to attacks on Bibb.

Polls close at 7:30 p.m., and turnout could be light. In 2005, when Jackson won his first term, just 53,217 votes were cast in the nonpartisan primary — fewer than the number of people who have moved out of the city since then.

Toledo. Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz, a Democrat, is facing former mayor Carty Finkbeiner and Republican former council member Jan Scotland in a nonpartisan primary. 

The city has elected Republican mayors before, and Finkbeiner is one of them — he’s running as an independent after previously winning as a Republican in 1993 and 1997, and as a Democrat in the 21st century, battling a recall effort during his final term. Scotland, who’s mostly worked in the insurance industry, would be the city’s third Black mayor. 

But neither has raised much money, with the former mayor putting together $13,000 for his campaign and Scotland reporting just $2,500. The incumbent has more than $300,000 left to spend. He knocked off the city’s last mayor to win the seat in 2017, when just 25,273 ballots were cast in the primary.

Iowa's 37th state House District. Pummeled in 2020, Democrats viewed this race in Ankeny, a Des Moines suburb that shifted left in the Trump years, as a chance to make a dent in the GOP majority. Republican Mike Bousselot, a longtime official in the governor's office, is facing Democrat Andrea Phillips, a party activist whose campaign has focused on Gov. Kim Reynolds's (R) battle to prevent schools from enacting their own mask mandates.

“I hear from a lot of parents and grandparents who want to be able to send their kids to school following CDC guidelines or to have the local school boards have that control,” she told the Des Moines Register. Bousselot's ads have accused her of wanting to defund police, using a tactic that's become common in these campaigns: Phillips signed a pledge from a group, Future Now, that included some information on its website about police funding. The pledge itself didn't mention it.

The district was safely Republican before 2016, but Democrats invested in campaigns there after Donald Trump's weakness in the suburbs shrunk the party's usual margin. Phillips ran and lost in the district twice, turning a 15-point defeat in 2016 into a six-point loss last year, when 26,924 votes were cast. Democrats have also narrowly outspent Republicans on the air.

Tennessee's 29th state House District. Republican Greg Vital is heavily favored to win the special election in a place where Democrats didn't even field a 2020 candidate; the party's nominee lost by 36 points in 2018.

Countdown

… two days until the first gubernatorial debate in Virginia
… 49 days until elections in New Jersey and Virginia, and primaries in Florida’s 20th Congressional District
… 109 days until the election in Florida's 20th Congressional District