As Californians who have yet to vote by mail head to the polls for Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recall election on Tuesday, they may recall a similar election 18 years ago. In 2003, another Democratic governor, Gray Davis, was recalled and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It is easy to draw parallels between the two races. While Mr Davis has been criticized for his handling of an electrical crisis, Mr Newsom has been blamed for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Over the two years, dozens of candidates from all political backgrounds qualified for the ballot as potential substitutes. And like the 2003 race, this year’s contest is expected to have a high turnout for an off-cycle election.
Despite these similarities, the two elections are quite different in several notable respects.
California’s increasingly democratic lean
California has been reliably blue for decades, voting for the Democratic candidate in every presidential election starting in 1992. But the state’s degree of tilt to the left has increased dramatically in recent years due to changing demographics. and Democratic gains with graduating white voters.
In 2000, Al Gore won California by 12 percentage points. In 2020, Joe Biden won the state by 29 points. The democratic tendency can also be observed at the level of governors. While Mr Davis was re-elected with just five percentage points in 2002, Mr Newsom won by 24 points in 2018.
The state’s second and third largest counties in terms of population, San Diego and Orange, epitomize California’s growing Democratic trend. George W. Bush won San Diego County by four percentage points in 2000, while Mr. Biden increased it by 23 points in 2020. Mr. Bush won Orange County by 15 points in 2000; Mr. Biden to nine in 2020.
California’s heavily partisan baseline makes it extremely difficult for a Republican to win a statewide election without gaining significant cross-support from voters with Democratic leanings.
Political polarization heightens this challenge for Republicans in California, just as it has become increasingly difficult for Democrats to win races in heavily Republican states like Tennessee, Indiana and Arkansas.
One of the main reasons Democrats have gained traction is California’s growing diversity.
America’s demographics have changed dramatically over the past 20 years, and California is no exception. According to the census, 46.7% of Californians were non-Hispanic white in 2000. In 2020, that number had fallen to 34.7%.
At the same time, the shares of the Hispanic and Asian American population have increased. The percentage of Hispanic residents (of any race) increased from 32.4% to 39.4%, while the percentage of Asian residents (Asian alone or in combination with another race) increased from 12.3% to 17 , 8%.
Perhaps the biggest difference between that election and 2003 is that Mr. Newsom has a significantly higher approval rating than Mr. Davis when he was removed from office.
According to the 2003 exit polls, Mr. Davis’ approval rating was only 26 percent, with 73 percent disapproval, on election day. Voters were deeply dissatisfied, blaming him for soaring bills and power outages that emerged from the electricity crisis.
Recent polls show California voters generally believe Mr Newsom is doing a good job. A YouGov poll found that 53% of likely voters approved of his performance, with 38% disapproving. Another poll from the Public Policy Institute of California found similar results, with 53% of voters likely approving and 43% disapproving.
As voters’ anger over coronavirus-related policies, such as business closures and stay-at-home orders, helped get the recall on the ballot, Mr Newsom received positive ratings on his pandemic management. The YouGov poll found that 55% of likely voters rated its handling of the virus outbreak as “excellent” or “good,” while the Public Policy Institute of California poll found 58% of likely voters approved. its response to the pandemic.
Another key difference between 2003 and 2021 is the profile of each leading Republican candidate.
In 2003, Mr. Schwarzenegger was extremely popular among California voters and Americans in general. A Gallup poll found that 79% of registered voters in California had a favorable opinion of him, while a CNN / USA Today / Gallup poll showed that 72% of Americans liked him.
Beyond Mr. Schwarzenegger’s appeal as a popular actor, he has also carved out a more ideologically moderate profile on a number of issues. In a radio interview on “The Sean Hannity Show,” he said he supported the right to abortion; expressed its opposition to offshore drilling; and expressed support for stricter gun control laws.
This year, the main Republican challenger is conservative talk radio host Larry Elder. Contrary to Mr. Schwarzenegger’s efforts to distance himself from conservative orthodoxy, Mr. Elder has taken conservative positions on burning issues like abortion, minimum wages and climate change. He also promised to repeal state mandates on masks and vaccines, something Mr Newsom’s campaign highlighted in negative ads.
Although the recall elections are presented on the ballot as a referendum on the incumbent president, Democrats have worked hard to raise Mr. Elder’s profile and frame the contest as a clear choice between two candidates. The idea is that if voters feel lukewarm about Mr Newsom, they can still prefer him to the alternative.
The state of the race
The most recent polls have given Mr Newsom an advantage of around 17 percentage points in his efforts to stay in power. While polls in recent years have tended to underestimate Republicans in the Midwestern states, that doesn’t appear to be the case in California. Polls accurately estimated Mr Biden’s margin in California last year and even underestimated Mr Newsom’s winning margin in 2018.