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California Voters Don’t Recall

The effort to recall Gavin Newsom was a massive failure. But given that he’s up for reelection next year, the Governor will still have to tread carefully.
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October 1, 2021
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to union workers and volunteers on election day at the IBEW Local 6 union hall on September 14, 2021 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The recall-that-wasn’t can be summed up in numbers. Eighteen months, $276 million taxpayer dollars, one last-minute visit from President Biden. Despite these impressive figures, California’s recall election was decided in less than thirty minutes. What’s more, Newsom earned roughly 63.7% of the vote⁠—a figure higher than the 61.9% with which he initially won office in 2018, which was at the time a record high for any Democratic gubernatorial candidate in California history.

In short, California handed Newsom a decisive victory and a nominal mandate from the people. But 2022 is an election year, and a second term will prove to be an entirely different ballgame—with national implications. Was this election the blueprint for how Democrats will win in 2022 in districts and states? Will the coalition of labor, Latino voters and moderate independents remain loyal to the Democratic base? The jury is out but congress and the President are doing everything they can to play to those constituencies and working aggressively to frame the debate around issues that they care about: job security, infrastructure, immigration reform. Naturally every district and state are different, but there seems to be a trend toward higher turnout particularly with key Democratic constituencies. However, it’s not that simple; perhaps the GOP can be successful, as in 2020 when they won four congressional seats in blue California, in part by running a more ethnically diverse and ideologically expansive crop of candidates.

It’s not a stretch to think that a chunk of those who voted no on the recall did so purely to preserve political stability, given the quality of the other options. The Republicans’ favored candidate was, after all, Larry Elder, a Trump-style radio show host with no political experience. The field also included self-described billboard icon Angelyne, reality TV star and former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner, and ex-California Poultry Federation board member Leo Zacky. Meanwhile, the highest-polling Democratic alternative to Newsom was finance YouTuber Kevin Paffrath. Hardly the top talent you’d expect to see in the running to lead the country’s most populous state and the world’s fifth-largest economy. The competition in 2022, by contrast, has the potential to be serious. Newsom will face renewed Republican challengers, but in a majority-blue state, the real challenge will come from fellow Democrats.

The competition in 2022, by contrast, has the potential to be serious. Newsom will face renewed Republican challengers, but in a majority-blue state, the real challenge will come from fellow Democrats.

Newsom has roughly a year to campaign, and he knows it. If his victory speech is anything to go by, he intends to lean on a combination of pandemic recovery, identity politics and equitable policies to distinguish what’s left of his term:

“We said yes to science, we said yes to vaccines, we said yes to ending this pandemic, we said yes to people’s right to vote without fear of fake fraud or voter suppression, we said yes to a woman’s fundamental constitutional right to decide for herself what she does for her body. We said yes to diversity, we said yes to inclusion.”

The day after the recall election, Newsom signed a trio of bills aimed at tackling the housing crisis—most notably SB 9, which abolished most single-family zoning in the state. On the soft power side, he issued a proclamation renaming Hispanic Heritage Month to Latino Heritage Month, a nod to Latino communities that have long criticized the use of the former term, as it technically includes white Spaniards. If he continues in this vein, it will certainly pay off with the younger progressive crowd, including communities of color, which are crucial to victory in a majority-minority state.

The question is, will these same demographic groups actually turn out to vote in 2022. Only 7.7 million voters, or about 35% of California’s electorate, voted in this month’s recall election. The participation rate for gubernatorial elections isn’t much better.

A long-standing criticism of the Democratic party is its neglect of communities of color, confident in their support for no other reason than because the escalating racism in the GOP gives them no other choice. But these same communities might very well grow disillusioned and simply sit out the vote, or go for a third party. A generation ago, it might have been well and good for politicians to visit a taco stand or a Black church for a quick speech and some photos. Today, they have to demonstrate real commitment toward economic inclusion, police and criminal justice reform, immigration, health care, education and more.

Moreover, populations are not a monolith, as the decline in Latino support for Newsom between 2018 and 2021 clearly illustrates. Minority business owners number 1.6 million, nearly half of the state’s small businesses, and they’re hardly going to be supportive of stricter government regulations. Christianity also plays a role in conservative voting trends among communities of color, meaning that abortion remains a hot-button issue. If Newsom opts to continue down his current progressive route, he’ll have to contend with an eventual centrist Democratic challenger. If he chooses to soften his approach to suit more moderate tastes, then he’ll be facing an opponent who leans further left.

The 2022 election won’t come down to the faction that has more support; it will come down to which side can achieve a bigger turnout. And for now, it looks like Newsom intends to bet on the progressive bloc. What remains to be seen is how much he can get done before next November.


Seth Jacobson is the founder and principal of JCI Worldwide, a Los Angeles-based communications and research firm. He spent several years in the Carter and Clinton administrations in positions focused on economic development, foreign policy, and media relations. He is a frequent lecturer on policy and public affairs at Pepperdine University and UCLA.

 

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