First of all, let me say that I have spent the past day both eating humble pie and digesting my own hat. I thought, and wrote, that the California recall race was likely to come down to the wire; instead, it was a blowout. Gavin Newsom won by an even bigger margin than his record-setting victory in 2018, and the pundits declared the contest over within 45 minutes of the polls’ closing. While the percentages won’t be definite for a few weeks, at this point, with more than 9 million votes having already been tabulated, it looks like the governor picked up almost two-thirds of all the votes cast.
I can’t think of another occasion where I’ve been so delighted to publicly declare that my prognostications in the run-up to a major election were entirely wrong.
So what happened? Polling throughout much of the summer showed that among all voters, in a state where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans two to one, Newsom was doing far better than among “likely voters.” In other words, there was an enthusiasm gap: The governor’s supporters seemed to be more passive, and less engaged in the recall process, perhaps assuming that he was a shoo-in for reelection, or perhaps not even aware of the looming contest. By contrast, GOP voters, many of whom had taken part in the signature drive to get the recall vote on the ballot, were highly engaged, and extremely enthusiastic about the prospect of a stunning upset victory in deep-blue California.
But in the last month, that gap was eliminated. Newsom was able to present the election as a clear choice between a Trumpist radio host, Larry Elder, and himself. He managed to frame the election as a referendum on his vaccination strategy and, more generally, on his socially inclusive, environmentally progressive vision for California public policy. He succeeded in scaring up interest in the election among Democratic constituencies by pointing to the danger of California’s being captained by someone to the right of, say, Texas Governor Greg Abbott. After weeks of media speculation (including by myself) about low Latino voter turnout, in the end Latino voters came out in larger numbers than in most midterm elections, and nearly six in 10 of those voters filled in the “No” bubble on the recall ballot.
Newsom also gained traction as a result of the US Supreme Court’s disgraceful decision not to intervene against the Texas law empowering vigilante private citizens to sue anyone who “abetted” a woman terminating her pregnancy after a six-week cutoff. It presented him with an opportunity to explain to on-the-fence voters, a few weeks out from the voting, just what was at stake in this bizarre off-season election. The comparison allowed him to gain the oxygen of publicity at a time when other pressing policy issues—from Afghanistan to tax reform—had threatened to remove California’s election from the media spotlight.
Now, Newsom’s crushing win gives the Democrats nationally a huge opportunity: It helps strengthen Democratic support in a state where the numerous Democratic congressional representatives are absolutely crucial to the party’s hopes of holding, or expanding, their congressional majority come 2022. Just as importantly, it shows up the limits of the modern GOP’s obsessions—its irrationalism when it comes to responses to the Covid pandemic, its unwavering fealty to the person of Donald J. Trump, who seems never to encounter an election that he doesn’t want to denounce as fake, and the party’s growing willingness to cry foul whenever it loses, or thinks it’s about to lose, an election.
For days leading up to the election, as the polls began to break in Newsom’s favor, Trump and his acolytes, including gubernatorial hopeful Larry Elder, took to the airwaves to preemptively denounce a result that they declared would be fraudulent. But there was no meat on their sorry bones, and the public wasn’t buying it. If the claims of fraud were intended to scare off voters, they didn’t; voter turnout, while not nearly as high as in the 2020 presidential election, was still higher than in the 2014 midterms, the last off-year elections prior to the Trump era. Apparently, one of Trump’s more durable legacies is that he has politicized so many liberals that they regard voting as a sacred civic duty—as they should. Voter turnout soared in the Trump era, and California proves that once people get in the habit of voting, especially when mail-in voting makes the process easy, they are likely to continue to do so even in off-cycle ballot contests.
The claims of fraud were so risible, and the scale of the recall effort’s defeat so vast, that even Larry Elder himself didn’t seem to really buy his own outlandish claims. After spending days warning of vote theft and saying he was prepared to challenge the results in court, he issued a concession speech within hours of the polls closing, telling his supporters to be “gracious in defeat.” It was a far cry from the ghastly power-of-the-mob energy that Trump sought to harness back in January in his effort to undermine the peaceful transfer of power.
Besides, on key issues, the public sided with Newsom in the first place. The recall effort highlighted California’s abysmal homelessness and housing crisis, which makes sense given that for the past few years roughly one in five Californians have told pollsters it’s the most pressing issue facing the state. But many of those who told pollsters this week that the issue was of paramount importance to them cast their ballots for Newsom, and presumably for his $12 billion plan to tackle the escalating crisis. The Republicans behind the recall effort might have been more successful in connecting with frustrated voters on this question had they actually laid out a viable plan of action of their own. But they didn’t, and thus they struggled to make play of the crisis.
On issue after issue of concern to Californians, exit polling suggests that the public leaned left. A massive majority supported Newsom’s mask mandate, and an almost equally huge majority believed that getting vaccinated against Covid was a public responsibility rather than simply a matter of personal choice. On climate change and wildfires, strong majorities of those who ranked these as top concerns sided with Newsom and voted no on the recall.
Republicans hoped to use California’s bizarre, and fundamentally unfair, two-ballot recall process to drive a liberal governor out of office. Their strategy has backfired spectacularly. On my local NPR station, on the morning after the recall, I listened to a Republican strategist in Sacramento talking about how, in the wake of the election, Newsom was in a strong position to run for the presidency. The GOP, by contrast, was left licking its wounds.
Late into the evening, Donald Trump sent out a narcissistic fundraising e-mail to supporters saying, without once explicitly mentioning the California recall vote, that mail-in votes were untrustworthy. Then, apropos of nothing, he pivoted to himself: it was, the faded huckster wrote, “a very sad day for the more than 75 million Americans who voted for me, and the 15 million Americans whose ballots were not counted.” For the vast majority of voters who said no to the recall, though, the result was a breath of fresh air, a vital repudiation of the Trumpist strategy of assaulting democratic institutions and undermining faith in the electoral process.