The idea that California voters might recall Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom seems like a Republican fantasy and nothing more at first glance. After all, Newsom won by 24 points in 2018 and President Joe Biden, a Democrat, took the state by 29 points last fall.
Now though, Democrats are worried that the Republican pipe dream may turn into a real Democratic nightmare on recall Election Day, on September 14.
A look at the data reveals there is a very real possibility of Newsom getting recalled, though chances are he won’t be.
The polling for the recall is limited. The average poll result matches well with a CBS News/YouGov poll released earlier this month that had a “no” vote on the recall (52%) 4 points ahead of a “yes” vote (48%).
Ergo, the anti-recall side is the favorite.
This is what the political betting markets (a type of measure of conventional wisdom) show as well. Newsom is roughly a 3-to-1 favorite to beat back the recall.
Still, these odds and the advantage for “no” in the polling are small and well within any margin of error. Based on past statewide races, Newsom would have to be up by double digits on September 14 to feel secure beyond a reasonable doubt that he’d win.
That’s especially the case with a small amount of polling data: Fewer than five polls of any type have been published this month publicly. In the last recall election of a sitting California governor, in 2003, there were more than twice as many published during the same period.
Newsom may be further hurt by what the polls indicate is a turnout advantage for the pro-recall side. We don’t know to what degree one may emerge. The YouGov poll has the anti-recall advantage shrinking from 8 points among registered voters to 4 points among likely voters.
Such a shift seems quite plausible based on history. California elections regularly feature turnout advantages for Republicans. This was the case in 2003, when then-Gov. Gray Davis was recalled. It was the case in the last major off-year election in California when a Democrat was in the White House in 2014.
In fact, past elections with a Democrat in the White House suggest that the anti-recall margin could shrink by more than 5 points just because of turnout.
Past non-polling data also suggests Newsom should be favored, but not by so much as to make a successful recall outside the margin of error.
Gubernatorial elections are correlated with past presidential results, though not to the degree you might think. The median gubernatorial race in off-year elections from 2017 to 2019, for instance, differed by a mere 7 points from the prior presidential election outcome in that state.
About 10% of those races featured outcomes that differed by 30 points more from the previous presidential election in the state, which is what would need to happen here for the recall side to win.
In other words, it does happen. The last time a Democrat was in the White House during a midterm election (2014), a state with a diverse electorate like California and similar Democratic lean, Maryland, elected a Republican governor.
Of course, a recall California election has some differences with a regularly timed gubernatorial election.
One big difference is that voters in California are voting “yes” or “no” on recalling Newsom, and then will have to vote on a potential replacement on the same ballot. Right now, the leading replacement looks to be conservative talk show host and attorney Larry Elder, though that isn’t for certain yet.
You can imagine a lot of Republicans who intend to vote for the recall holding on to their ballots because they’re unsure of who to vote for as the replacement. In 2003, the recall polling for or against Davis was far steadier than the polling over who his replacement would be. This is one big reason (beyond the normal) that I would caution against reading too much into the party affiliations of those returning their ballots first.
Ultimately, the real tell on whether Newsom will be recalled will probably be whether his approval rating among those who vote is over 50%.
Most of the polling so far indicates that this is likely to be the case. It’s tough to imagine a world where a majority of voters would approve of Newsom’s performance and vote to recall him. In both the 2003 California recall and the 2012 Wisconsin gubernatorial recall, the anti-recall vote either matched or exceeded the percentage who approved of the job the sitting governor was doing.
Newsom surely hopes that this history repeats itself. If it does and the turnout isn’t too lopsided against him, the Democrat likely retains the governorship.