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California Gov. Gavin Newsom, shown in 2019, will leave office at the end of 2026 due to term limits. Photo by George Skidmore via Flickr
California FocusOpinion

California Focus: Voter turnout key to Newsom survival

All it will take for Gavin Newsom to survive and serve the remaining year of his term as governor is for most people who have voted for him before either to go to California’s relatively few remaining polling places Sept. 14 or mark their ballots and stick them in a mailbox.

That’s a simple formula, but it’s far from certain Democrat Newsom can pull it off.

Some reports on polling have stated that Newsom has lost significant ground among likely voters over the last several months. That’s not exactly what the polls themselves show.

An often-cited Emerson College survey out in late July showed that among likely voters over the previous two months, support for the “no” side on the recall question went from 42%-37% to 48%-43%.

That means previously undecided likely voters who made up their minds during those months broke about evenly between yes and no.

But among all registered voters — where Democrats have almost a 2-1 margin — the no side retained the same 16-point lead it held even before the recall was certified for a special election vote.

Newsom’s challenge has been twofold as the recall voting deadline approaches: He needs to retain all the likely voters who sided with keeping him in office, while motivating many registered voters who don’t always actually cast ballots to mark and mail the ones sent to them.

All the evidence says he has not approached this in a convincing enough manner.

Until very recently, Newsom’s main way of communicating with voters was via television commercials and frequent bill-signings and emergency proclamations conducted at points all around the state.

He’s spent a considerable portion of the $50 million-plus raised for his defense on TV spots trying to label the vote a “Republican Recall,” using as evidence the fact that no major Democrats entered the replacement candidate field.

There’s no question the recall was led by far-right Republicans from the beginning, but Newsom’s outright hypocrisy in last fall’s French Laundry restaurant incident and the way he’s been painted — falsely — as hypocritical in the more recent day camp incident where his son was photographed without a mask also have contributed.

The day camp episode, where his son was verified to have removed a mask just before a photo was taken, and then put it back on afterward, may have been misreported, but it’s hurt Newsom, anti-maskers asking why Newsom’s kid was mask-free while their own children must cover up.

Never mind that the boy was only mask free for moments.

The hypocrisy and the series of lockdowns and seemingly endless changes in COVID-19 and delta variant rules imposed by Newsom’s administration took their toll among Democrats and no-party-preference voters, not just Republicans.

Otherwise, the recall could not be running well ahead of Republican voter registration.

Newsom’s best bet in defending himself was always to exploit the massive California unpopularity of ex-President Donald Trump and play up his links to leading GOP replacement candidates.

There are plenty of photos, for example, of ex-San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer with Trump, plenty of documents showing Trump’s enthusiastic 2018 endorsement of San Diego area businessman John Cox and plenty of evidence linking talk show host Larry Elder with several former top aides to Trump.

But Newsom’s campaign did not stress any of that until very recently, after many voters had made up their minds, some already having cast their ballots.

In short, Newsom hasn’t exploited the major weaknesses of the recall and its backers, insufficiently playing up both replacement candidates’ links to Trump and the longtime extremist, anti-vaccination (of all types) records of many recall originators and early leaders.

So, as noted by Mark DiCamillo, co-director of the UC Berkeley IGS poll, this election, like all others, will be decided by those motivated to vote, not those who merely register.

We will very soon know whether Newsom has done enough to motoivate voters deemed by pollsters as unlikely to cast ballots, but the early signs are this will be a close call at best for the sitting governor.

Email Thomas Elias at [email protected].