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What we can (and can't) learn from California
It's a useful but limited look at national politics.
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.” Today’s issue is a special Friday edition.
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A month ago, California Gov. Gavin Newsom looked like he might be in trouble. Today, Newsom looks less like a political survivor and more like someone who easily flexed his political muscle to stay in office.
When I first covered the recall election, FiveThirtyEight had California voters leaning to keep Newsom as governor by a mere percentage point. Folks on the left were already writing his obituary while criticizing the Democratic party for overlooking the recall and not taking the threat seriously enough. Meanwhile, the right had coalesced not just around removing Newsom, but around replacing him with Larry Elder, the most popular conservative on the ballot, a talk radio host whose following appeared to be boosting him in the polls.
In the end, 6.1 million Californians voted to keep Newsom, and 3.4 million voted to remove him, a 63.7 percent to 36.3 percent margin.
The question now is: What to make of it? No matter how much Democrats want this to be a sign of strength, I’m not sure it is.
Yes, Newsom over-performed most of the polling. And yes, despite all the hype, he held off the recall effort rather easily. But Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 2 to 1 in California, and it took a visit from President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris; it took a media frenzy; it took a rotating cast of Democratic celebrities encouraging people to turn out and vote. It was clear, based both on how Newsom campaigned in the final weeks and how the Democratic party addressed this, that team blue broke a sweat.
And in California, the momentum this recall had is not a great sign. This is a state Donald Trump lost by nearly 30 points and Newsom won handily three years ago. It’s also a state where Newsom wants to be spending his time pursuing pace-setting progressive politics, not fighting off recall elections. If you’re trying to zoom out to the midterms or take the temperature on 2024, though, I would quit while you’re ahead. Californians had unique motivations for the recall effort, were operating in a unique and flawed recall system, and ultimately the state is facing a smorgasbord of animating issues — immigration, a housing crisis, wildfires — aside from Covid-19.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to learn here, either.
For one, it’s worth looking at the election that put Newsom in office in 2018: In that race, he won 61.9 percent of the vote and earned 7.7 million ballots. That’s a slightly smaller percentage of the vote share than he got this time, but about 1.6 million more votes were cast. In other words, Newsom turned out fewer voters (which one would expect) but won a higher share of the vote in the recall election. If you’re a Republican in California, that is not a good sign either. A race that many speculated could unseat Newsom ended up seeing him out-perform his 2018 gubernatorial campaign.
One likely reason for that difference was his opponent. As much as Republicans wanted to make this a “yes” or “no” vote on retaining Newsom, Democrats wanted to make it a decision about Larry Elder. The talk radio host has a long history of statements that range from controversial to absurd, and Democrats made sure everyone knew Elder’s record going into the vote. Newsom, for instance, spent far more time in his stump speeches reciting lines from Elder’s past than he did hyping his own record.
That dynamic could actually be quite telling. With 2022 approaching, Republicans are going to have to run on more than just Biden’s record in Afghanistan, on Covid-19, inflation, or critical race theory. They’re going to have to bring forward strong candidates in some swing districts and they’re going to have to take care in the type of candidate they bring forward.
Elder, as I wrote a month ago, is not someone who has the qualifications to be California’s governor. A long-time talk radio host, he is — more than anything else — a personality candidate in the mold of Donald Trump: someone with a loyal following, a penchant for working the media, and no concerns about pushing the boundaries of “acceptable” political rhetoric. But the more people who try to be Donald Trump, the clearer it gets that there really is only one person who can pull that off. A few weeks ago it was unclear how Elder’s style was going to play. Today, that’s much less so. Democrats made this race about Elder more than they made it about any other issue, and that strategy clearly had an impact in California.
The other worthwhile thread to examine here is the allegations of election fraud. Elder had previously said that Joe Biden won the 2020 race fair and square, only to ask for a mulligan and then insist there were shenanigans and that the race was not won fairly. Elder even went as far as to create a website alleging fraud before the results of the recall race even came in, which should tell you everything you need to know about the veracity of those allegations.
I’ve said since 2020 that this talking point seems completely self-defeating to me: Why would voters turn out for an election they believe is rigged? It doesn’t make any sense.
In this case, it’s tough to quantify the impact that kind of talk may have had in California. Perhaps it was negligible or zero. But I feel confident in two things: 1) Democrats seeing that Newsom’s potential replacement is someone claiming the 2020 election was stolen is probably a strong motivator for them to show up and vote. 2) Republicans seeing their candidate say elections are rigged is probably not. If you’re a Republican strategist, I think you have now seen this approach fail in the 2020 election, then in the Georgia runoffs, and now in California. And I think it’s clear from a purely strategic perspective that running on election fraud is not a winning path.
The other obvious thread here is Covid-19.
One of the principal events that drove this recall was Newsom’s maskless indoor dinner during the pandemic, and his subsequent lying about it, all while imposing a lockdown on the state. A lot of pundits posited that Newsom’s record on coronavirus was a driving factor in the recall, and that the statewide lockdowns, mask mandates, economic damage and other policies he’d pushed would hurt him.
But it’s tough to see how that’s true now. While Newsom was laser-focused on framing Elder as an extremist (so much so that he actually promised to run more on his record in the future), the one thing he repeatedly came back to was his stance on vaccines, masking, and other Covid-related mitigation policies, where he differs markedly from Elder. Clearly, the Newsom campaign had data to make them believe that would benefit him, and it’s hard to argue with the result.
Finally — and this is a point I hate to make, but it’s probably true — Democrats might be wise to keep it negative on the campaign trail. There has been a lot of discussion in lefty circles about how to approach boosting the party’s record: Do you run on the child tax credit, vaccines, enhanced unemployment and climate change? Or do you run on anti-Trump rhetoric and outrage over whatever the Texas legislature is up to this week? In other words, do you boost the liberal policy record or stoke the fears of Democrats across the country?
Newsom and the Democratic party clearly decided to focus on the latter. He talked more about the new abortion law in Texas than he did about his own policies in California, and there’s no doubt in my mind Democrats nationally are seeing these results and wondering if they should follow suit. As someone who perpetually wishes politics would become less negative and more policy-focused, this reality is a bit soul-crushing. But it’s also impossible to ignore.
With all this in mind, it’s again worth restating that there were cracks in the armor here.
Much like Democrats in 2020, Newsom struggled to rally Latino voters to his side. 40 percent of Latino-identifying voters cast a ballot to recall him, according to early exit polls, and among voters who said the economy was their top concern, 65 percent supported the recall. In California, that may not be enough to unseat a Democratic governor in a snap recall election, but in swing states, those kinds of trends could be a death knell for Democrats operating with thin margins.
For now, the left can breathe a sigh of relief and hope for more candidates like Elder to pop up in races they need to win. Long-term, though, the details in California do not spell strength for the party nationally — and Democrats would be wise not to tell themselves anything different.
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