How Gavin Newsom could lose the California recall to a Republican with half as many votes

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LOS ANGELES — In 2018, Gavin Newsom was elected governor of California with 62 percent of the vote — the largest Democratic landslide in state history. Nearly three years later, 57 percent of Californians still approve of Newsom’s performance in office, according to a recent CBS News poll. And Democratic voters outnumber Republican voters statewide by a massive nearly 2-1 ratio.

Yet on Sept. 14 Newsom could still lose his job to a Republican — even if that Republican earns half as many votes as he does.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference at Manny's on August 13, 2021 in San Francisco, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
California Gov. Gavin Newsom at a news conference on Aug. 13 in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The bizarre (and very real) possibility of such a seemingly undemocratic upset has politicos across America paying closer attention to this year’s California recall effort than to any since 2003 — aka, the one that gave the world Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

And they’re all asking the same question: How could this happen?

The answer is, well, complicated. Every California governor since Ronald Reagan in the 1960s has inspired quixotic recall petitions. Prior to February 2020, Newsom’s opponents introduced five recall petitions against him. None got off the ground. It was only when COVID-19 started to spike over the holidays — and when Newsom seemed to be caught off guard by contradictory public opinion over restrictions and reopenings — that the recallers were able to amass the signatures they needed to get on the ballot. Not helping matters was Newsom’s deeply hypocritical decision to attend a lobbyist’s maskless birthday dinner at the French Laundry, a fancy Napa Valley restaurant.

So Newsom’s predicament partly has to do with the tensions around COVID. Partly it has to do with realities on the ground — rampant homelessness, astronomical living costs, violent crime — that have been amplified by the pandemic. Partly it has to do with an intensity gap between Republicans who desperately want to dethrone a Democrat and Democrats who barely realize that the Democrat they just elected could actually be dethroned (or barely care enough about state politics to save someone who seems to represent a fraught status quo).

But mostly it has to do with the quirky mechanics of a recall process that sets the bar much higher for governors who want to remain in office than for challengers who want to replace them.

Here’s how California’s upcoming recall election will work. Ballots have already been mailed to the state’s 22 million registered voters; most have arrived. Each ballot includes two questions: (1) Do you want to recall Gov. Newsom? and (2) If the governor is recalled, who do you want to replace him? Voters must postmark their completed mail ballots or return them in person by Sept. 14, or they can visit a polling place and cast an old-fashioned in-person vote that day instead. The results will be announced soon after.

Vicky Abramson, middle, of Valencia is attending  a rally at the Santa Clarita Activities Center on Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021 in SANTA CLARITA, CA. (Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Attendees at a rally to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom at the Santa Clarita Activities Center on Aug. 15 in Santa Clarita, Calif. (Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Here’s where things get tricky. If at least 50 percent of voters vote “no” on the first question — if they say they don’t want to recall Newsom — then it’s game over: Newsom remains in office for another year and is free to run for reelection in 2022. But if more than 50 percent of voters vote “yes” on the first question — if they say they do want to recall Newsom — then the governor will be removed from office and whoever gets the most votes on the second question will take his place, even if “the most votes” doesn’t mean “a majority of votes.” Critically, voters who vote “no” on the first question can still select a replacement on the second — and Newsom is not one of the options.

And that’s how the governor could win more votes than anyone else on Sept. 14 and still lose his job. Imagine, for instance, that 49 percent of voters say they want Newsom to remain governor of California by selecting “no” when asked if they want to recall him. That’s not 50 percent or more, so too bad; the recall now proceeds to question no. 2, where 46 mostly unfamiliar challengers are set to split the vote 46 ways. In such a crowded field, it’s nearly impossible for anyone to earn a majority, so a plurality will probably have to suffice. And that plurality is almost certain to be much, much smaller than the 49 percent plurality Newsom already secured on question no. 1.

For proof that this precise scenario could play out on Sept. 14, just look at the latest polls as aggregated and averaged by the data journalists at FiveThirtyEight. According to their tracker, more Californians currently want to “keep” Newsom in office than “remove” him. But with “keep” averaging 48.8 percent and “remove” averaging 47.6 percent, that’s not enough. If those results hold on Election Day — and that’s a big if, but more on that later — then Newsom would get the boot.

California governor recall candidate Larry Elder meets supporters outside of the Warner Center Marriott Woodland Hills in Woodland Hills CA., Tuesday, August 24, 2021. (Hans Gutknecht/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)
California governor recall candidate Larry Elder outside the Warner Center Marriott Woodland Hills in Woodland Hills, Calif., on Tuesday. (Hans Gutknecht/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)

And who would replace him? Probably someone who is averaging just 19.3 percent in the polls — about 30 points lower than the “keep” Newsom option.

That someone, it turns out, is Republican Larry Elder, a Black conservative radio host who was raised in South Central L.A.

In a normal statewide election in liberal California, Elder likely wouldn’t have anything resembling a chance: He denies the existence of systemic racism, opposes gun control and abortion rights, wants to abolish the minimum wage, has pledged to overturn COVID-19 mask and vaccine requirements in schools and elsewhere, and has recently come under fire for his past comments about women and allegations from a former fiancée. But since announcing his candidacy last month, Elder has become the heavy favorite among the state’s Republicans, and that may be enough to catapult him to the governor’s office.

The next highest finisher in the FiveThirtyEight polling average (with 9.1 percent) is Kevin Paffrath, a 29-year-old YouTuber and real estate broker who has criticized Newsom’s approach to COVID and homelessness and says he offers “neutral, middle-of-the-road solutions.”

In 2003, then-Gov. Gray Davis tried to delay the election and secure a spot on the second ballot question alongside his potential replacements; the court rejected Davis’s challenge, but his lieutenant governor, Cruz Bustamante, did appear on the ballot as a Democratic backup option.

Newsom, however, chose a different path, using his power to dissuade other prominent Democrats from throwing their hats in the ring and even urging voters to leave question 2 blank. A total unknown in political circles, Paffrath is nonetheless the only Democratic option with any name recognition. That’s where his 9.1 percent comes from.

Trailing Paffrath is Republican John Cox (6.1 percent), the San Diego businessman and perennial candidate who lost to Newsom by 24 points in 2018 and launched his latest campaign by stumping around the state with a bear. Behind Cox with less than 5 percent support are his fellow Republicans Kevin Faulconer, the moderate former two-term mayor of San Diego; Caitlyn Jenner, the former Olympian and star of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians”; and Kevin Kiley, a state assemblyman representing the northeastern suburbs of Sacramento.

All of them have called for fewer COVID-19 mitigation measures and mandates; all have criticized Newsom for out-of-control homelessness, expensive housing, rising rates of violent crime and high tax rates — essentially the same issues Cox ran on in 2018. No one else is registering in the polls.

Whether the latest numbers are accurate and Newsom really fails to hit the magic 50 percent mark remains to be seen. Turnout may be the deciding factor. Amped-up California Republicans gathered 2 million signatures (and raised millions of dollars) to force the recall election, and polls have consistently shown that they are more motivated to vote than Democrats.

In turn, this intensity gap could be influencing the polling itself because many pollsters rely on self-professed enthusiasm to determine who is likely to vote on Election Day. On the other hand, Newsom has raised far more money than any of his opponents, and he will use it to push his voters — who vastly outnumber Republicans statewide — to the polls. We won’t know who actually cast ballots, and whether the pollsters estimated correctly, until the results roll in next month.

In 2003, Davis received 44.6 percent support on question 1 — and then Schwarzenegger replaced him after receiving 48.5 percent of the vote on question 2. If Newsom does get recalled, it is almost certain that the person who replaces him will do so with just a fraction of Schwarzenegger’s support — or, for that matter, Newsom’s.

Such an outcome could trigger legal challenges, according to Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, and Aaron Edlin, a professor of law and economics at Berkeley, who recently wrote in the New York Times that electing a new governor who received fewer votes than the current governor would be “unconstitutional” because it “violates a core constitutional principle that has been followed for over 60 years: Every voter should have an equal ability to influence the outcome of the election.”

Experts are unsure whether this sort of challenge would succeed, but one thing is already clear: Californians are starting to get fed up with their screwy (and expensive) recall system. According to a Public Policy Institute of California poll released in late July, 68 percent of likely voters — including majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents — said they would rather hold a separate top-two runoff election if the recall succeeds and no replacement candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote. Likewise, 60 percent said they would favor changing the state’s rules so officials can be recalled only because of illegal or unethical activity, and 55 percent would support doubling the number of signatures that are required to hold a recall election.

Currently, organizers can trigger a recall by gathering the signatures of just 12 percent of voters from the previous election. Most other states that allow recalls of statewide officials require 25 percent.

That’s one reason why there have been 179 recall attempts launched against California state officials since 1913 — and why every governor who has served over the last six decades has faced a recall effort of their own. Californians will soon determine whether Newsom’s will be the second to succeed.


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