First, let me say that I’ve spent the last day eating humble cakes and digesting my own hat. I thought and wrote that the California recall race would probably get to the point; instead it was a blowout. Gavin Newsom won by an even bigger margin than his record win in 2018, and the pundits declared the competition over within 45 minutes of the end of the polls. Although the percentages won’t be known for a few weeks, at this point, as more than 9 million votes have already been counted, it looks like the governor has fallen almost two thirds of all votes cast.
I can’t think of any other occasion where I was very happy to publicly declare that my predictions in the run-up to a big election were completely wrong.
So what happened Polls all summer showed that among all voters in a state where registered Democrats outnumbered registered Republicans two-to-one, Newsom fared far better than “likely voters”. In other words, there was an enthusiasm gap: the governor’s supporters seemed more passive and less involved in the recall process, perhaps assuming he was shying away for re-election or not even aware of the upcoming competition. In contrast, the GOP voters, many of whom had participated in the signature campaign for the recall vote, were very committed and extremely excited about the prospect of a breathtaking victory in deep blue California.
But last month this loophole was fixed. Newsom could present the choice as a clear choice between himself and a Trumpist radio host, Larry Elder. He managed to shape the election as a referendum on his vaccination strategy and, more generally, on his socially inclusive, environmentally progressive vision for California’s public order. He managed to spark interest in the election in Democratic constituencies by pointing out the danger that California could be led by someone to the right of, for example, Texas Governor Greg Abbott. After weeks of speculation in the media (including myself) about a low turnout of Latinos, in the end Latino voters came out in greater numbers than in most mid-term elections, and nearly six out of ten of those voters fill in the “no” bubble on the recall voting slip.
Newsom was also reinforced by the shameful US Supreme Court decision not to intervene in Texas law, which allows vigilante groups to sue anyone who “incites” a woman to terminate her pregnancy after a six-week hiatus. It gave him the opportunity to explain to voters on the fence a few weeks before the vote what was at stake in this bizarre off-season election. The comparison enabled him to win the public eye at a time when other pressing political issues – from Afghanistan to tax reform – threatened to push the California election out of the media limelight.