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California Voters Should Start Preparing For A Recall Election

Opponents of California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom needed to collect 1,495,709 valid signatures in order to trigger a recall election against him.1 And on April 26, the state announced that they had turned in at least 1,626,042.2 As a result, a statewide gubernatorial recall election (only the fourth in American history) will likely take place in the fall — but it’s not a sure bet just yet.

That’s because in 2017, Democratic legislators changed the rules to give recall supporters 30 business days to reconsider and request that their names be removed from the recall petition. (The change was an attempt to short-circuit a brewing recall effort against a Democratic state senator; however, he was recalled anyway, only to reclaim his seat in last year’s election.) So if Newsom’s supporters can convince enough recall signatories to recant by June 8, he can avoid a referendum. That said, California political observers don’t think that’s likely to happen.

It could still be a while before the recall election hits the ballot, though. If the secretary of state finds that enough signatures remain to trigger a recall, the California Department of Finance then has 30 business days to estimate the cost of the election, and the state legislature has up to 30 more days to review that estimate. Once that’s done, the lieutenant governor will schedule the recall election for a date between 60 and 80 days hence, probably putting it sometime in October or November. A logical choice might be Nov. 2 — already Election Day in many states around the country. Then again, the Democratic legislature and lieutenant governor may try to schedule the recall for whichever date they feel gives the Democratic governor the best odds of winning. (As long as they stick to the window of time provided by law, they have discretion to affect which date gets chosen.)

At that point, the recall would go before voters, with two questions on the ballot: first, a yes-no question about whether to remove Newsom from office, and second, a question about who should replace him if more than 50 percent vote “yes” to remove him. As we wrote in February, there’s a good chance that Newsom will prevail on the first question. No polls of the recall election have been released since late March, but two polls from then found that only 35-40 percent of likely voters wanted to remove Newsom, while 53-56 percent said they would vote to retain him. 

That’s a very different position from where fellow Democrat Gray Davis found himself before he was successfully recalled as governor of California in 2003. A poll taken in April 2003 found that 46 percent of registered voters were in favor of recalling Davis versus 43 percent opposed — and Davis’s polling numbers only worsened from there. 

This year, though, the long delay between signature collection (which ended March 17) and the recall election may take the wind out of Newsom haters’ sails. The recall campaign gathered so many signatures largely because conservatives were up in arms over Newsom’s coronavirus restrictions, and his public image had taken a hit after he broke his own rules by attending a dinner party at the French Laundry, an exclusive Napa Valley restaurant. But with vaccination rates on the rise, California, like every other state, is reopening, and by November it will have been a full year since the French Laundry incident.

But if things instead go south for Newsom and more than 50 percent of voters vote “yes” on the first question, the second question on the ballot would determine his replacement. The candidate with the most votes on the second question would be elected California’s new governor; there is no runoff. That means, in a large field of candidates, even a small plurality of the vote could be enough to win. And a large field of candidates is very possible: In 2003, voters had 135 candidates to choose from

Already, several prominent Republicans have announced their intention to run. Potentially the strongest — at least judging by electoral track record — is Kevin Faulconer, a moderate who was twice elected mayor of swingy San Diego. Businessman John Cox, a perennial candidate who lost to Newsom by 24 points in 2018, and former Rep. Doug Ose, who last won an election in 2002, are also running. But the race’s biggest name may be former Olympic athlete and reality-television star Caitlyn Jenner, who threw her hat into the ring on April 23. 

Jenner quickly drew comparisons to another celebrity, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the action star who famously won the 2003 recall election to replace Davis. But while Jenner’s fame could certainly help her, she doesn’t have nearly the kind of fan base that Schwarzenegger did. In February 2003, Gallup found that Schwarzenegger was one of the most popular people the then-68-year-old firm had ever polled, with a 72 percent favorable rating nationwide. A California-specific poll from CNN/USA Today/Gallup also found that Schwarzenegger started the recall campaign with a whopping 82 percent favorable rating and just a 10 percent unfavorable rating among likely voters. No pollster has asked Californians about Jenner yet, but a YouGov national poll from January-March 2021 gave her just an 18 percent favorable rating — along with a 48 percent unfavorable rating. 

At this point, no major Democratic candidates have announced a campaign, although there are clues that former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and 2020 presidential candidate Tom Steyer are considering running. (Newsom himself cannot run in the replacement election.) So if a single big-name Democrat were to run, it could serve as an insurance policy for Democrats in case Newsom is recalled: With the Republican vote split at least four ways, it’s easy to imagine a Democratic candidate finishing first, especially considering you don’t have to vote “yes” on the first question to vote on the second question. In other words, Democrats could vote “no” on recalling Newsom but then still select Villaraigosa or Steyer as their preferred replacement. 

However, Newsom’s allies are working hard to ensure no prominent Democrats enter the race, fearing that this might encourage Democrats to vote “yes” on the recall if they see a chance to replace him with someone they like even better. It would also undermine Newsom’s strategy to fight back against the recall, which is to paint it as a partisan witch hunt by supporters of former President Donald Trump, who is extremely unpopular in California. But so long as the recall stays a Democrat-vs.-Republicans contest, Newsom should win easily. If the Democratic base isn’t united behind the governor, though, things could get interesting.


  1. This number equals 12 percent of all ballots cast in the last gubernatorial election, the minimum threshold to initiate a special recall election.

  2. About 140,000 signatures still have yet to be verified, so the final number will likely be a bit higher.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.