The exceptional election has spawned some pontificating on what it all means, as such things tend to do. For example, is it the case that, even though the recall effort failed by a wide margin, it happened at all that should give Democrats pause? Isn’t the fact that the Democrats had to defend Newsom an indicator of a threat that exists even in deep-blue parts of the country?
The answer, once again: Nope.
The most obvious reason is that the recall election, like the ballot initiatives that Californians are asked to vote on in any given election cycle, got in front of voters because enough people signed petitions allowing that to happen. The intent of this is to reflect popular will, to force those seeking to make some form of change to demonstrate that they have enough enthusiasm that every initiative isn’t simply going to get blown out by a 99-to-1 margin. In modern practice, though, there are businesses that specialize in vacuuming up petitions, paying people to stand outside grocery stores and compel others to put their signature on a line. Californians are used to this; some sign all of the presented petitions out of a sense of enthusiasm for direct democracy, some none. But the result is that collecting the 1.6 million required signatures was simply a function of money and time, something that those seeking Newsom’s recall had in abundance.
Compare it with Prop 22, a 2020 ballot initiative sponsored by companies such as Uber and DoorDash aimed at overturning a California law that protects workers in the gig economy. Those companies contributed tens of millions of dollars to the effort and pulled together nearly a million signatures in support of an effort that was fundamentally about rejecting new regulation of their businesses. A grass-roots, populist movement it was not.
This isn’t to say that those who signed the recall petition didn’t enthusiastically want Newsom to be ousted. Certainly some did. Donald Trump received 6 million votes in California in 2020. It seems safe to say that a quarter of those voters would be enthusiastic to replace Newsom with someone more conservative, such as radio host Larry Elder, the Trump booster who ended up as the leading Republican candidate to replace Newsom.
It’s important to recognize that the recall effort, unlike ballot initiatives, offers precisely this sort of backdoor workaround to winning statewide elections in California. It would take an unlikely combination of factors for a Democrat not to win the top executive position in the state at this point, given that it is densely Democratic. But if you can create a special election where not many people turn out to vote and gin up your base while injecting just enough doubt among the sitting governor’s base? Suddenly you’ve got a chance to throw Newsom out of office and replace him with a candidate who needs only plurality support from voters — all within the constraints of California’s system. You can see why this would be worth Republican funders investing money into a petition drive.
In this case, the problem was that the people who were most energized about the recall were either the state’s relatively small clutch of far-right Republicans or the state’s large group of Democrats and independents who turned out in force last year to reject the last far-right Republican on the ballot. That Elder was the leading candidate among Newsom opponents reflects the same dynamic in the party that the 2016 presidential primaries did: fervent support from the furthest parts of the GOP and more-moderate Republicans asked to either join in or be left out.
The party could have consolidated around someone such as former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer, who has a track record in leadership and traditional conservative credentials. But the recall effort’s energy (if not its signatures) always came from that group on the far right. It was those voters, like the Republicans who propelled Trump to the front of the pack in 2016, who undergirded Elder’s campaign. It wasn’t just getting rid of Newsom. It was also about getting someone who checked the other boxes demanded of Trump’s base, like claiming fraud in elections and taking a hard line on pandemic containment measures and culture war fights.
So what we know after Tuesday is what we knew after November. California is blue. Less than a third of the state supports far-right candidates. (As of writing, Elder is getting about 2.4 million votes in the who-would-replace-Newsom second question on the ballot — about 26 percent of the total votes counted so far in the recall race.) We also know that Californians were not compelled by claims that Newsom’s coronavirus efforts were heavy-handed; instead, exit polling conducted by Edison Research found that 6 in 10 voters thought they were either about right or insufficiently strict.
That recall proponents cobbled together 1.6 million signatures doesn’t tell us much more about the opposition to Newsom than the fact that 3.3 million people voted (as of writing) for him to be removed from office or that 2.4 million supported Elder. Maybe 10 percent of people in a state with a population of 40 million are conservative Republicans who dislike the Democratic leadership. That’s enough to get a recall on the ballot but, at least this time, far from enough to win one. Assuming that angst and agitation about Democratic leaders among relatively small groups on the right is necessarily an alarming development for the left is a failure to have understood the past five years of American politics. There’s no upside to Republicans from the recall effort except for those Republicans who are also campaign consultants and staffers.
Actually, that’s not true. One upside for Republicans is that very few places are California.