On Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s future will be decided by California voters in only the fourth recall election of a governor in U.S. history. The vote comes after a wave of criticism over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, months of signature gathering by Newsom’s opponents, July’s official pronunciation of a recall election and then a two-and-a-half-month campaign sprint to determine whether Newsom should be recalled and, if so, who should replace him as California’s next governor.
The polls suggest the recall vote is more likely to fail than succeed, but it’s still possible Newsom won’t survive. Whether he continues to hold the state’s top job in Sacramento will affect the state’s governance, its response to COVID-19 and perhaps even the Democrats’ razor-thin majority in the U.S. Senate. Here, then, is a look at the state of the recall polls, who could replace Newsom as governor if he’s recalled and what the fallout might be.
According to the FiveThirtyEight polling average of the first question on the recall ballot — whether to remove Newsom from office — 41.6 percent of Californians want to recall Newsom, while 56.2 percent want to keep him in office.
But it’s important to note that this is not a forecast of what will happen (like those we issue for presidential and midterm elections); it’s just a description of what the polls have said. Usually, a 14.7-percentage-point polling lead is pretty safe, but this election isn’t usual, so some caution is warranted. This is a particularly challenging race to poll accurately because it’s hard to estimate who’s likely to vote. That’s due to two things in particular: the odd timing of the election (September of an odd-numbered year) and the fact that it is being conducted primarily by mail. In other words, don’t be surprised if there’s a larger-than-usual polling error. Indeed, as CNN’s Harry Enten has observed, the polling average of the previous gubernatorial recall election in California (in 2003) missed the final result by 9 points, and the “true” margin of error of polls of recent U.S. House special elections (which, like this recall, have been oddly timed) is around 13 points. At the same time, as Enten wrote over the weekend, there have been only four gubernatorial races since 1998 (out of 243) where the polling average missed by 15 points or more.
Overall, our assessment is that Newsom is a clear favorite to prevail. While an upset wouldn’t be unprecedented, it would qualify as a historically large polling miss.
For much of August, the recall looked like a legitimate toss-up, but polls have since found Newsom’s lead expanding in the final few weeks. This could be thanks to the stunning amount of money that Newsom and his allies have poured into the campaign during this time: In August alone, they spent more than $36 million on TV ads, digital ads, canvassing, phone banking and text banking. More broadly, it could just be that California voters are finally starting to tune into the election. Ballots were mailed to every registered voter on Aug. 16, which may have activated more voters and made the electorate more representative of California’s overall (Democratic-leaning) population.
Indeed, many summer polls that showed a close race did so because Republicans were much likelier than Democrats to say they were certain to vote in the election. How does a Republican win in a solid-blue state like California? In a very low-turnout scenario where most Democrats abstain from voting. But that seems increasingly less likely, based on data on who has voted so far. According to the California firm Political Data, Inc., 7,799,192 mail ballots have already been returned, 52 percent of which were cast by registered Democrats, 25 percent of which were cast by registered Republicans and 23 percent of which were cast by unaffiliated voters. Please, please don’t read too much into these numbers — there’s no guarantee that registered Democrats are voting against the recall (or registered Republicans for it), and in-person voters will likely be disproportionately Republican. Still, it sure doesn’t look like Democrats have an enthusiasm problem.
California’s base partisanship is one reason why this recall looks unlikely to follow the pattern of the one in 2003, when Democratic Gov. Gray Davis was recalled by 11 points. The Golden State is simply much bluer than it was 18 years ago. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004, won California by just 10 points, but President Biden carried it by 29 points last year. And, crucially, while there has been some grumbling over Newsom’s governorship (even from Democrats), he’s nowhere near as unpopular as Davis was in 2003. As the chart below shows, Newsom’s approval rating has hovered around 50 percent among likely voters in surveys conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California in the leadup to the recall, whereas the same pollster found Davis below 30 percent approval among the likely electorate before the 2003 recall contest.