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California’s Gavin Newsom Will Likely Face A Recall Election — But He’ll Probably Survive It

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has been in office for just two years, but there have already been five failed attempts to force a statewide recall election on whether to remove him from office. That itself is not unusual — California has some of the most permissive recall requirements in the country — but what is unusual is that the sixth attempt (which is currently underway) appears to be gaining some serious traction.

If it makes the ballot, the election would be just the fourth gubernatorial recall election in all of American history. And two of the previous three governors to face recalls ended up going down in defeat, including California’s in 2003, when in the midst of a statewide fiscal crisis 55 percent of voters opted to recall Democrat Gray Davis and elected Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger in his place. That seems like a bad omen for Newsom — until you consider the special circumstances of this recall effort and the political evolution of California.

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Why is this attempt different from the last five? Timing and increased discontent with Newsom’s leadership — both, coincidentally, byproducts of the COVID-19 pandemic. After earning rave reviews early in the pandemic, Newsom is now under heavy fire, even from allies, for his handling of the coronavirus. He went back and forth over the legislature’s proposed vaccination rules and has struggled to convince teachers and administrators to reopen schools. California has also changed its vaccine distribution plan several times since vaccines became available, catching some providers unprepared, and currently ranks 39th among the 50 states in terms of percentage of doses administered. And his policy on lockdowns has pleased no one: Conservatives have accused him of strangling the economy with restrictions on businesses, while public-health experts have criticized his decision last month to lift regional stay-at-home orders as premature.

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Newsom also sparked national outrage in November by violating his own COVID-19 restrictions when he attended a posh dinner party unmasked, in an enclosed space, with at least 11 other people at The French Laundry, an exclusive restaurant in Napa Valley. Newsom apologized for the hypocrisy, but the damage had been done. Prominent Republicans began to endorse the recall effort, bringing it more media and public attention, and the campaign started to raise significant sums of money as well.

Even so, the recall might have gone nowhere had it not been for a judge’s decision to give organizers almost double the normal amount of time to collect signatures in light of the difficulties posed by the pandemic. And it looks like that extra time has made a big difference. As of Nov. 17, the original deadline for collecting signatures, the campaign told The Daily Caller it had collected fewer than 750,000 signatures out of the 1,495,709 necessary to trigger an actual recall election. As of this past Sunday, they claim to have collected more than 1.4 million. (Of course, the state still needs to verify that all those signatures are valid, but 410,087 of the 485,650 that the state has checked so far are indeed valid. At that validation rate of 84 percent, organizers need only to submit 1.8 million signatures or more before the new deadline of March 17 — an easily attainable goal.)

But we wouldn’t bet on this recall actually removing Newsom from office — not yet, anyway. For starters, previous recall campaigns that have made the ballot have done so thanks to intense grassroots opposition to the governor, but this one may deserve a bit of an asterisk because of all the extra time it had to collect signatures. California’s current political landscape is also pretty different from conditions in 2003, when it last saw a gubernatorial recall on the ballot, which is important as it makes a successful recall of Newsom even less likely.

First off, California may have been Democratic-leaning in 2003, but it has a notably deeper shade of blue today, which will make it more challenging for Newsom’s opponents to engineer his ouster. Consider that three years prior to Davis’s recall, Al Gore had won 53 percent of California’s vote in the 2000 presidential election; a year later, John Kerry won the state with 54 percent of the vote. But nowadays, Democrats pull in notably larger statewide vote shares: Last November, President Biden garnered 63 percent in the Golden State after Hillary Clinton won 61 percent in 2016. Newsom also won far more support in his 2018 election win (62 percent) than Davis did in 2002 (47 percent).1 Correspondingly, far fewer Californians call themselves Republicans now. Just before the 2020 election, 46 percent of California voters were registered as Democrats while just 24 percent were registered as Republicans. By comparison, at the time of the 2003 recall, 44 percent were registered as Democrats and 35 percent were registered as Republicans. Independents in California lean somewhat Democratic today, too.

Second, at a similar point in the recall calendar, Davis was more unpopular than Newsom currently is. The recall campaign against Davis stopped gathering signatures in mid-July 2003, and the measure qualified for the ballot later that month. Just before that time, surveys by the Public Policy Institute of California and the Field Poll found Davis’s approval rating in the low 20s and his disapproval in the high 60s or worse among voters. By comparison, Newsom’s ratings are far better, if not especially great. Morning Consult found 51 percent of California voters approved of Newsom’s performance over the past month compared to 39 percent who disapproved, while in January PPIC found 52 percent approved versus 43 percent who disapproved. However, not every recent poll found Newsom above 50 percent approval: A late January survey from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies put him slightly underwater, with 46 percent approval and 48 percent disapproval.

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We don’t yet have much polling on a Newsom recall, but at first blush it also looks better for him than it did for Davis in the summer of 2003. The recent poll from Berkeley IGS found that 36 percent of registered voters would support recalling Newsom while 45 percent would oppose it (the breakdown was 36 percent to 49 percent among likely voters). By contrast, support for recalling Davis was more or less reversed, as surveys found around 50 percent backed the recall while around 40 percent opposed it. Should a recall election occur, though, the thing to watch will be whether Democrats and independents become more supportive of it. Among registered voters, the Berkeley IGS survey found only 11 percent of registered Democrats and 32 percent of independents would vote to recall Newsom. While 84 percent of registered Republicans supported the recall, increased support among Democrats and independents will be necessary for Newsom to lose. When Davis fell in 2003, the Edison-Mitofsky exit poll found that about one-quarter of Democrats and a majority of independents supported his ouster.

Of course, things could deteriorate further for Newsom such that he becomes more endangered. His approval ratings could sink and more Californians could become supportive of recalling him. But while a recall election looks likely, Newsom seems well positioned to survive it — for the moment, at least.

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  1. There are some caveats to that comparison: California now uses a top-two electoral system that allows just two candidates to advance to the November election, whereas in 2002 many minor parties still made it to November. Still, Davis won 53 percent of the two-party vote against his GOP opponent, far shy of Newsom’s showing.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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