With Newsom poised to win California recall, another indication COVID politics may be starting to favor Democrats over Republicans

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LOS ANGELES — With polls now showing Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom ahead by double-digit margins on the eve of California’s much-hyped recall election, voters here seem ready to reject the laissez-faire COVID-19 policies that have failed to contain huge summer surges in Republican-led states such as Florida — and vindicate the Golden State’s more careful approach to the hypercontagious Delta variant.

Their verdict could have national implications for both Democrats and Republicans heading into the 2022 midterm elections.

“No Republican running for governor could possibly have defeated Gavin Newsom in the recall election, but COVID could have,” Dan Schnur, a former spokesman for Republican former California Gov. Pete Wilson and the late GOP Sen. John McCain who teaches politics at several leading California universities, recently said on Yahoo News’ "Skullduggery" podcast. “The reason it’s not is because voters here have come to conclude that he is doing a much better job on it than they’d thought last spring and last winter.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom stands at a podium with a sign reading: Vote no by Sept. 14, Stop the Republican recall.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom at a No on the Recall campaign event with Vice President Kamala Harris in San Leandro, Calif., on Wednesday. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

So if Newsom does win, Schnur added, “every smart Democratic candidate running in next year’s midterms is going to be looking to take that playbook and run it for themselves.”

The latest numbers from California paint a clear picture of where things stand — and Newsom is looking strong.

In early August, FiveThirtyEight’s average of California recall polls showed an even split between voters who wanted to keep Newsom in office and voters who wanted to remove him. But few firms were polling the race at that point, and one had just released an outlier poll showing Newsom trailing by 11 — a poll it later effectively disowned.

A few weeks of frenzied media coverage followed, fueled in part by a subsequent batch of superior surveys suggesting that revved-up recall proponents could theoretically prevail if Newsom’s far larger but less-engaged base failed to turn out.

But since then — with the emergence of right-wing Republican radio host Larry Elder as Newsom’s likeliest replacement, with the last-minute onslaught of Newsom’s own multimillion-dollar get-out-the-vote effort, and with the arrival on the ground and on the airwaves of a who’s who of national Democratic leaders, including Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris — California Democrats appear to have shaken off their summer stupor.

Today, every polling firm that showed a close contest during the August doldrums now shows “keep Newsom” ahead of “remove Newsom” by double-digit margins. As a result, the average gap between the former (56.2 percent) and the latter (41.6 percent) has widened to nearly 15 percentage points, according to FiveThirtyEight. A poll released on Friday by the Los Angeles Times and the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, found that more than 60 percent of likely voters opposed the recall.

Republican conservative radio show host Larry Elder speaks into a microphone at a podium with a sign reading: Yes on recall
Republican conservative radio show host Larry Elder at a news conference in Los Angeles on Sunday. (Damian Dovarganes/AP Photo)

More voters say COVID is the most important issue facing the state than anything else, according to a new poll from the Public Policy Institute of California.

Those numbers mirror national trends. Majorities of Americans have consistently said they approve of how Biden has handled the pandemic, according to recent Yahoo News/YouGov polling, giving him higher marks than on other issues. And an August Yahoo News/YouGov poll showed that just 41 percent of Americans blame the Biden administration for “the new surge of COVID cases in the U.S.,” versus 67 percent who blame “Americans who refuse to wear masks and take other precautions” and 66 percent who blame “unvaccinated Americans.” As a result, 56 percent say the U.S. should be lifting coronavirus restrictions more slowly “given the emergence of the Delta variant”; just 12 percent say restrictions should be lifted more quickly.

On Monday, the president — who recently announced a workplace vaccine requirement that will affect some 80 million Americans — will campaign with Newsom in Long Beach; both are likely to argue that the only way out of the pandemic is to continue taking California-style precautions and pushing vaccination.

It’s still technically possible for in-person Republican recallers to flood polling places Tuesday and overcome the huge advantage Democrats have already amassed in early mail ballots, which were sent to all 22 million registered California voters weeks ago. (So far, more than 35 percent of them have been returned, and Democrats have sent in 4.1 million ballots to Republicans’ 1.9 million.)

Because of California’s quirky recall rules, Newsom needs at least 50 percent of voters to say on the first ballot question that no, they do not want to recall him. If he gets less than that, then whoever gets the most votes on the second ballot question (who do you want to replace Newsom?) takes his job, even if only, say, 27.6 percent of voters — that is, the share who currently say they support Elder — choose that particular replacement candidate.

Protesters wearing sunglasses but not face masks hold signs reading: Yesonrecall.org, Recall Newsom, Ad paid for by Reform California
A pro-recall rally in Santa Clarita, Calif., on Aug. 15. (Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

But the chances of such a bizarre outcome have dwindled in the closing days of the campaign, and Newsom is widely expected to survive. Assuming, then, that he does, what will that reveal about the dynamics shaping U.S. politics more than 18 months into the pandemic?

Nothing very encouraging for Republicans. To be sure, the recall was always a long shot. ​​In 2018, Newsom was elected governor with 62 percent of the vote — the largest Democratic landslide in state history. Nearly three years later, 57 percent of Californians still approve of his performance in office, according to a recent CBS News poll. And Democratic voters outnumber Republican voters statewide by nearly 2 to 1.

But the pandemic gave anti-Newsom conservatives a glimmer of hope. Every California governor since Ronald Reagan in the 1960s has inspired quixotic recall efforts. 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 gather the signatures they needed to get on the ballot. Not helping matters was the governor’s deeply hypocritical decision to attend a lobbyist’s maskless birthday dinner at the French Laundry, a fancy Napa Valley restaurant.

At the time, many Americans hoped that so-called herd immunity was on the horizon and that vaccines would soon vanquish the virus. In that context, the hands-off vision of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, among other Republicans, looked alluring. No indoor mask mandates. No vaccine requirements. No more stress on families or businesses. Just live your life as if the pandemic was already over, and soon it would be.

Then came Delta. Now, a few months later, Florida has become one of the only states where more people are dying of COVID each day — long after free, safe and effective vaccines became widely available to all Americans age 12 or older — than during any previous wave of the virus. In fact, the Sunshine State is now recording nearly twice as many daily COVID deaths (350 on average) than it was at last summer’s peak (185). No other state comes close.

A health worker wearing rubber gloves and full coveralls gives a shot into the upper arm of a seated woman who is wearing a face mask and has her eyes closed.
A nurse gives a Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine shot to Roxanne Juarez in Eagle Rock, Calif., on Aug. 30. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

In contrast, Californians are dying of COVID-19 at a lower rate today (103 per day) than last summer (140 per day), despite the fact that Delta is twice as transmissible as the initial strain of SARS-CoV-2, which was circulating in 2020. That’s the kind of progress you would expect after vaccination.

As Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, recently tweeted, “Cumulatively, CA and FL had similar death rates until April 2021. The states then started separating. Now, cumulative deaths [are] 30% higher (per capita) in FL than CA.” If Florida had instead gone on to match California’s cumulative per capita death rate, about 11,000 Floridians who have succumbed to COVID would still be alive today.

Why the divergence? Florida’s full vaccination rate (54 percent) is only slightly lower than California’s (57 percent), so immunity is only part of the story. The same goes for demographics; Florida had more elderly residents than California last summer too.

According to Jha, the real problem has been Florida’s “abrogation of other public health measures.”

“CA continues masking, testing, pushing vax,” he explained. “FL? Not so much.”

During California’s bout with Delta, there have been no lockdowns, no business closures, no official curbs on indoor drinking or dining — just a general public bias toward caution that is both reflected and reinforced by indoor mask mandates (along with an emerging trend toward vaccine requirements, particularly for health, school and government employees).

In contrast, DeSantis doubled down on his opposition to mask and vaccine mandates when Delta took off, prohibiting local governments, local businesses and even local school districts from implementing such policies — and therefore discouraging Floridians themselves from behaving more cautiously.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks into a microphone.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Much has been made of Elder’s well-timed emergence as a convenient bogeyman for Newsom to run against. And it’s true that any California Democrat would rather that voters think less about whether they’re content with the status quo — with its rampant homelessness and astronomical living costs — than about whether they’d be better off with a conservative firebrand who denies the existence of systemic racism, opposes gun control and abortion rights, wants to abolish the minimum wage and has recently come under fire for his past comments about women and allegations from a former fiancée.

“When Larry Elder emerged on the scene, all of a sudden it wasn’t a referendum [on Newsom] anymore — it was a choice,” Schnur explained. “And Newsom was able to say, ‘If you don’t keep me as governor, look what’s gonna happen.’”

But another factor came to the fore around the same time as Elder: Delta.

From then on, the main issue was never going to be homelessness or crime or taxes. It was always going to be the clear and present danger of a ruthless new variant. As a result, the final choice for voters — as dramatized by the South’s horrific summer surge and hammered home by Elder’s vow to “fight any and all vaccine and mask mandates at [the] state and local level” — was between continuing to exercise the kind of basic precautions that already seemed to helping California keep Delta in check and letting the virus rip like DeSantis & Co., just as kids head back to school.

“Republicans want to take us backwards with this Sept. 14 recall,” Newsom declared in a recent ad. “They’ll eliminate vaccine mandates for health and school workers on day one, threatening school closures and our recovery.” On the stump, he has warned that Elder will “walk us off that same COVID cliff as Texas and Florida, Tennessee and Alabama and Georgia.”

A man walks past tents housing the homeless on the streets in the Skid Row community of Los Angeles.
Tents housing the homeless in the Skid Row community of Los Angeles in April. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

Californians are “not particularly happy with [Newsom] on homelessness, on education, on public safety, but those issues, despite the Republican candidates’ efforts to talk about them, are of secondary if not tertiary importance to the virus,” Schnur said.

“And unlike last year, when Newsom was telling people to stay home, given the fact that we have vaccines now, the most onerous thing he’s saying is you must wear a mask, you must get vaccinated. That isn’t nearly as onerous. So particularly when compared and contrasted to other states in the country, Californians are feeling good about him on the only issue that matters to them right now.”

Whether a similar playbook will work for other Democrats down the road remains to be seen. But what Newsom’s likely success in California does suggest is that while voters are desperate for the pandemic to end, many of them no longer believe that the best way to get there is by pretending it already has.


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