Brief #21 – Elections and Politics

Governor’s Recall Failing to Gain Traction

By Patrick Dwire


June 7, 2021

Policy Summary & Analysis

The campaign ads of the Republican challengers of Galvin Newsom for governor of California in the upcoming recall election portray the state as suffering the same dystopian fate as Venezuela- with flash frames of despair and voice-over narratives of businesses and workers fleeing the economic collapse brought on by the government over-reach of Covid restrictions.

They speak about rampant homelessness, crime, civil unrest and the pending shutting down of the oil and gas industry with the radical Green New Deal. All this is the consequence of a single-party, proto-socialist state led by a governor with strong ties to the liberal elite in Washington, with the ads concluding that the “California Dream,” whatever that is, will be lost forever if Democrats stay in power. 

Meanwhile, a recent public opinion survey completed by the reputable, non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) found that a clear majority of Californians approve of Governor Newsom’s overall handling of the pandemic and vaccine rollout, do not support the recall, are optimistic about their own and the state’s near-term economic future and generally believe the worst of the pandemic is behind them.   

According to the PPIC Statewide Survey, based on telephone interviews with 1,700 adults including at least 1000 “likely voters” conducted between May 9th and May 18th, nearly six out of ten likely voters say they do not support the recall of Newsom, with 54 per cent approving of the governor’s job performance, and an even larger majority (61 per cent) approving his handling of the pandemic.

Overall, the survey results reflect “a sea of optimism on so many factors,” said Dean Bonner, associate survey director at the PPIC, in a virtual event for the release of the survey results on May 26th. Bonner said he was “surprised at how things have changed” in consistently positive directions for the Newsom administration among “unlikely voters” since the same survey was conducted in January. These included increases in the approval ratings of Newsom’s handling of the pandemic and vaccine roll out, as well as the overall expectation of economic “good times” soon to come to California, all up over 11 per centage points since January. 

What surprised Mark Baldassare, CEO of the PPIC, is what did not change in the attitudes of “likely voters” toward the recall election over the course of three PPIC surveys conducted in January, March, and now May. These surveys consistently found around 40 per cent in favor of recalling Newsom with about 60 per cent opposed, which is basically consistent with the 38 per cent of voters who did not vote for Newsom in November of 2018. 

These two different worlds of political perception, with one believing the state is on the brink of collapse from which it will not be able to recover with the current governor (about 40 per cent) and the other believing the state is doing relatively well with widespread expectation of doing better in the near future (about 60 per cent) – could not be much farther apart than they are in California.

California is, after all, one of the states that Trumpian Republicans love to hate precisely because it is so big, so affluent, with such a remarkably diverse economy and work force, and, despite relatively high taxes, is so stubbornly and predominantly liberal, pro-immigration and anti-Trump. If Trumpism is right about liberals and the Democratic Party, then California must be a failed, near socialist state under the control of a corrupt Democratic Party. The real problem for the Republican Party in California is that  this is simply not the case – and most Californians know it.

With veto-proof Democratic majorities in both chambers of the state house, with no Republican holding any state-wide office and with Republican Party registration dwindling (down to 24 percent from 27 percent in 2016), the Republican Party is not just a minority party in California, it’s a minority party with virtually no political power in state politics. 

Perhaps that’s the real energy behind the recall – an attempted legal coup by a relatively powerless minority of California Republicans who have a good deal of money to spend- not because of reality-based corruption, incompetence or incapacity of the incumbent- but because it is simply possible to do, to try to upend the results of the last gubernatorial election. Writ large after the 2020 presidential election, discrediting fair elections is apparently the mainstay of the Republican Party’s national political strategy.  Ironically enough, the anti-democratic orientation of the Republican Party has exploited an opportunity in California by abusing a Progressive-era democratic reform that allows direct voter recall of the governor, one of only 19 states that does so. 

The campaign to collect signatures for the recall of Gavin Newsom was eventually sustained with considerable financial support from outside the state, and considerable attention was paid to this campaign and the “first to declare” candidates by right-wing media. This investment may well have been done with the cynical calculation that a Republican candidate will have a much better shot at the Governor’s mansion in an off- year special election in 2021, when voter turn-out is likely to be lower, and the sense of pandemic burn-out likely to be higher, than would be the case in the regular gubernatorial race at the end of 2022, when economic recovery could be in full swing.  

But here’s the rub. Back in 2003, when Gray Davis was about to become the first California governor to be recalled, the PPIC measured the degree voters believed things would get better if Gray Davis was, in fact, recalled. Never enjoying widespread popular support, Gray Davis was beleaguered by huge budget deficits, chromic energy shortages and spiking utility bills, which were later revealed to have originated in the Enron Corporation’s gaming of the state’s energy supply for illegal profit. 

In a PPIC survey conducted in August, 2003, fully 47 per cent of voters said they believed things would get better if Davis were removed from office, while 17 per cent said that things would get worse if he was recalled. This widespread expectation was confirmed the following month in another PPIC survey, and in October of that year, 55 per cent voted to remove Davis, and 49 per cent voted to replace him with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In contrast, only 29 per cent of Californians believe things will get better if Newsom is recalled, less than a third, while 34 per cent believe things would get worse.  A surprising number responded it would make no difference if Newsom is recalled or not —fully 28 per cent. According to Baldassare, CEO of the PPIC, “For a recall election to gain traction this time, many more voters need to believe that things would get better afterward.”

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Patrick Dwire is a freelance writer based in of Santa Cruz, CA. He can be reached at

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