California stands on the cusp of an absurdity.
In 2018, Gavin Newsom received 61.9 percent of the vote, a higher percentage than any Democratic candidate for governor had ever received in California. In 2021, in a state where more than 46 percent of registered voters register as Democrats and less than a quarter as Republicans and where Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by a two-to-one margin, about 60 percent of the electorate oppose recalling the governor.
Given that, Newsom’s job ought to be secure until the next regularly scheduled election, in 2022. And yet, despite these raw numbers, because of the bizarre nature of California’s recall system, there is instead a distinct possibility that he will be replaced next month by a conservative who garners a small fraction of the support that Newsom has.
The process for recalling was created in the early 20th century, at the height of the Progressive era. A recall election for the governor has to be put to voters if petition signature gatherers reap enough signatures to equal 12 percent of the total number who voted in the last gubernatorial election. Newsom’s opponents managed that feat during a signature gathering period elongated by the courts because of the pandemic.
The recall ballot has two questions. The first is simple: Should the governor be recalled? The second question is if he is recalled, who should replace him? Whether or not one votes to recall Newsom, confusingly, everyone should still vote for his replacement on the second side of the ballot.
Yet on that second part of the ballot, there are no high-profile Democrats, since early in the process, Newsom and his allies muscled out all possible Democratic candidates in a high-stakes gamble that a my-way-or-the-highway election choice was Newsom’s best chance of defeating the recall and keeping the state blue.
That strategy comes, of course, with a huge, almost existential risk, one that looked like a winning bet months ago, but looks increasingly dubious today. Unless 50 percent of voters oppose the recall on the first question, Newsom is out. And in that case, on a fractured ballot with dozens of largely low-profile candidates vying to replace Newsom, and with no Democrats running as a fallback option, it’s entirely possible that Newsom could fail to muster 50 percent support and could then end up being replaced by a conservative Republican who only has the support of between 10 and 20 percent of the electorate.
At the moment, polls show that Newson’s successor could be Larry Elder, an extreme-right radio talk show host from Los Angeles, who is currently polling at 18 percent. Elder stridently opposed Newsom’s public health measures issued in response to COVID; he is hostile to LGBTQ+ rights; is fiercely opposed to Black Lives Matter; opposes Roe v. Wade; and believes both the state and federal governments should scrap the minimum wage. His politics make him a perfect fit among politicians in Mississippi or Texas. But they put him far out of step with a majority of Californians.
Elder is facing competition from a range of other Republicans — chief amongst them ex-San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who is polling at about 10 percent; ex-gubernatorial candidate John Cox, who lost to Newsom by nearly 24 points in 2018, and who is also polling at about 10 percent; and reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner, who was initially marketed as the celebrity candidate, the Schwarzenegger candidate, of 2021, but who is polling at around 3 percent.
None of these Republicans has a snowball’s chance in hell of getting anywhere close to a majority of the popular vote; or of equaling the vote total that Newsom will get on the first round of the ballot. But because of the vagaries of the recall process, and the difficulties of mobilizing a Democratic base in a recall election that few are paying attention to, all have a reasonable chance of becoming California’s next governor.
In October 2003, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis lost a recall election — the only time, out of 55 attempts over the last 100-plus years, that a California governor has been successfully recalled. But in that instance, the defeated governor won 45 percent of the vote and the man who replaced him, the movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, won 48 percent on the second ballot. The process was jagged, but the end result at least made some sense from a democratic standpoint. In 2021, it’s entirely possible that, if Newsom’s political career is destroyed by the first question of the recall ballot, he will still end up with between three and four times as many votes as the person who ultimately wins via the second question on that ballot. That would trigger a crisis of legitimacy starker than any California has faced in its political history.
Two weeks ago, a poll by the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found that California’s electorate as a whole was both woefully unaware of how the recall process works and also dismally unengaged in the recall election itself. But the disengagement wasn’t across the board; conservatives, who ginned up enough signatures in late 2020 and early 2021 to force a recall vote, are, not surprisingly, far more enthusiastic about the election, and the prospect of liberal California departing and, almost by accident, electing a GOP governor. By contrast, many others who, in a high-turnout year, would come out and support the Democratic candidate, are sitting the process out, perhaps unaware of what is at stake, or, simply, burned out from the non-stop high-octane politicking of the past several years.
As a result, amongst the all-important category of likely voters, the poll found that only 50 percent opposed the recall and 47 percent were in favor. Since Newsom needs 50 percent to survive, that means, with only weeks until the election, that he quite literally has no margin for error, no margin for scandal, no margin for increased voter dissatisfaction due to the new COVID spike, and so on.
Ballots will start arriving in Californians’ mailboxes in mid-August. Election Day is set for September 14. In the intervening period, in a state being pummeled by the new COVID wave and acrimonious debates over renewed mask mandates and compulsory vaccination orders, and in a state with huge wildfires raging, the air once again choked with smoke and ash in many regions, and with spiraling crises of homelessness and drug overdoses, Newsom and his allies somehow have to inject enthusiasm and awareness of the recall process into the non-conservative parts of the electorate.
Unless they do so, California could easily end up twisted in political knots. It could have a far right governor having to somehow co-exist with a Democratic super-majority in the state legislature, one that has more liberal credentials and has pushed more liberal policies than any other legislature in the country. It would have Democrats in every major statewide elected office except the governorship; would have Democratic mayors in all its major cities; would have a public with more liberal views on the environment, on access to abortion, on racial justice issues and so on than the population in a vast majority of states — and yet would have a GOP governor, with only a sliver of the public supporting them, who was elected more in a fit of absence-of-mind than because of a sea change in popular opinion.
At a national level, Trump’s election in 2016 by a minority of voters unleashed a vast political crisis. In 2021, California could find itself facing even greater political stresses because of the entirely dysfunctional and counter-intuitive nature of its recall process.