California Politics: Five things to remember as recall election day arrives

A lengthy and contentious chapter in California’s political history will end just after 8 p.m., when the final votes will be cast in the special election to determine whether Gov. Gavin Newsom serves out the remaining 14 months of his term in office

It is a contest that, win or lose, marks a dramatic change for a Democrat who has led somewhat of a charmed political life up to this point — winning two terms as mayor, two terms as lieutenant governor and a landslide victory in the 2018 governor’s race.

Forty-five candidates are angling to finish out Newsom’s term in office. Even so, polls suggest most voters are opposed to the recall. And close to 40% of them had already voted in the final hour-by-hour reports compiled by political analysts.

We thought it important to bring you a special election day edition of the California Politics newsletter. As the final hours of this historic contest tick away, here are five things to watch both through election day and into the months that follow.

Turnout, yes, but it’s really about Democrats

Elections are unquestionably influenced by events and emotions, but in the final analysis, it’s all about the math. And the recall election, from the very beginning, has been one in which Newsom could prevail simply by motivating his base voters to show up.

Democrats largely have a two-to-one advantage over Republicans in statewide elections, in large part because most California voters have rejected some part of the GOP message.

Here’s the Republican dilemma in a nutshell: There are now about 6.6 million more voters in the state than there were in the 2003 recall where then-Gov. Gray Davis was removed from office and Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected. One might assume that growth would be somewhat spread out across the political spectrum.

But there are actually fewer California Republican voters now than there were 18 years ago, while there are 3.5 million more Democrats than in 2003. It’s the kind of asymmetry that most casual political observers haven’t taken into account when they’ve seen passionate recall supporters waving signs and flooding social media. Newsom’s fate rests with 10.3 million Democrats and perhaps 3 million or so independent voters who usually support Democratic causes.

The mid-summer poll conducted by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and co-sponsored by The Times found some lethargy among Democrats. But when those voters were surveyed in the poll released Friday, Democrats’ energy had changed. And as of Monday, analysts reported that 52% of all ballots turned in so far were from Democrats — a number that, because it doesn’t include independent voters — probably underestimates Newsom’s potential support.

The bottom line is that Democrats, if they so choose, can easily overwhelm Republicans who want Newsom fired.

Vote totals on Question #2

Democrats also play a supporting role in election night’s other big drama: how many ballots are marked with a choice on the recall’s second question, the person who would replace Newsom if a majority of voters choose to remove him on the first question.

Public and private polls are unified in finding that Republican Larry Elder, the conservative talk radio host and first-time candidate, is the front-runner in the replacement contest. The Berkeley/Times poll released Friday found Elder is favored by 38% of likely voters — almost four times the level of support for the next closest candidate, Democrat Kevin Paffrath, and almost five times the number of voters who picked Republican Kevin Faulconer, the former mayor of San Diego.

But all likely voters are not equal. The poll found that 48% of Democrats said they are taking Newsom’s advice and not touching the second part of the recall ballot. That could translate into millions of fewer votes in the replacement election (which only counts if Newsom loses the recall). If the polls are wrong and Newsom is removed, his successor could be chosen by an electorate that is far more conservative than any statewide election in a decade or longer.

And if Newsom prevails, it would be another way that his opponents misunderstand the results — because only looking at percentages on election night won’t show how many ballots were actually cast.

The recall as a proxy for other fights

Remember as the votes start to be counted that unlike the 2003 recall of Davis, the effort to remove Newsom has felt more like an extension of national political themes than just what’s happening in California.

The governor and his supporters sought to tie the effort to supporters of former President Donald Trump from their very first response to the recall petition. Supporters, meanwhile, originally invoked immigration issues — influenced by the state, yes, but largely a national policy — as grounds to remove Newsom. And both sides have sought to weaponize the COVID-19 crisis, especially when it comes to vaccinations and vaccine mandates. Newsom has decried conspiracy theories while pro-recall Republicans have sought to frame the vaccine debate as one of government overreach and individual freedom.

Press releases and social media posts have consistently played up other national themes, including climate change and criminal justice. Compare that to 2003, when Schwarzenegger and Davis sparred over California-specific issues such as vehicle license fees and the taxes or spending cuts needed to erase a historic state budget deficit.

And Schwarzenegger, running in an era where he needed a centrist coalition for the recall to succeed, studiously avoided the kinds of national issues that Elder, the leading GOP voice this time around, has campaigned on — a list including President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and the origins of the COVID-19 virus.

As The Times reported on Sunday, the recall election won’t put an end to the long political battle it’s sparked and serves now as a preview of state and congressional races next year.

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Elder’s path diverges from Schwarzenegger

It’s hard to ignore just how different a road has been traveled by the two GOP media celebrities, both political neophytes when they decided to run in California recall elections.

The winning campaign run by Schwarzenegger in 2003 sought support from a fairly broad swath of the state’s electorate, while largely convincing his Republican base that electability was the most important quality and that he was the only GOP candidate who possessed it. State GOP leaders embraced Schwarzenegger’s view and the promise he made in TV ads to be “the people’s governor.”

Elder, whose campaign reflects the political polarization of the moment, has largely seemed interested only in Republican voters. He has called Newsom a “tyrant” and in one video on his campaign website said that being elected as governor would mean “that at least for a while, people are going to have to listen to me” on issues including family values, schools and the perils of “the welfare state.”

And when it came to an endorsement this time around, California Republican Party leaders chose to stay out of it, stepping aside as Elder’s candidacy caught fire with GOP voters.

Either as governor-elect or the top vote-getter in the replacement election, Elder has emerged as the de facto leader of California Republicans, posing at least an ideological challenge to the last Republican to hold the office — one who famously told the party faithful in 2007 that they were “dying at the box office” with positions that didn’t appeal to most of the state’s voters.

All of which begs the question: Even though Schwarzenegger has largely stayed out of the current recall, are the two men on an eventual collision course over the future of the Republican Party?

The future of voting is in the past

It is staggering to consider the logistical challenges faced by California elections officials who, for two consecutive contests, have mailed a ballot to each of the state’s 22.2 million voters. Based on registration totals from November, that’s more voters than at least 22 other states combined.

It may not be the last time for statewide voting by mail. Last week, legislators approved a bill to make the process permanent, encouraged by its success last year when COVID-19 concerns led Newsom and lawmakers to offer all voters an alternative to in-person voting. Assembly Bill 37 will await Newsom’s decision once the recall is over.

Absentee voting, as it used to be called, dates back to the Civil War and has found favor with voters who want to cast ballots when it’s convenient. It also aligns with California’s slow evolution toward all-purpose voting centers, for those who choose to participate in person, and away from traditional neighborhood polling places.

As such, Tuesday now marks the end — not the beginning — of voting for most Californians. And researchers will be watching closely to see how many voters still opt for an in-person election day experience and whether, as expected, most of them are Republicans. A number of GOP voters believe voting by mail is less secure, though there’s no data to suggest a systemic failure of a system that’s been used for generations.

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