Why I'm Not Worried About The California Recall

[ Posted Tuesday, August 17th, 2021 – 15:39 UTC ]

In my mail today, I received my ballot for the upcoming gubernatorial recall election here in California. But while plenty of pundits have been sounding alarms and all but tearing their hair out over the prospects that Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom could be out of a job in a matter of weeks, I am much more sanguine. The reason I am so calm is that the one poll which caused everyone to freak out was really a comparison of apples and oranges. I think Newsom will sail through the recall unscathed, in fact, winning by at least a 10-point margin. The entire exercise will be yet another example of "fiscally responsible" Republicans wasting a whole bunch of money for no apparent reason -- to the tune of the over $200 million that this recall is costing California taxpayers.

I say "apples and oranges" because this election will be somewhat unique. Most political commentators are comparing it to past elections, but that's no real guide to how many voters are going to participate. Or how they'll vote, for that matter. You cannot compare this recall to the most recent election in 2020, since Donald Trump was on the ballot. You cannot compare it to the last midterm election, because the only thing on the ballot this time is the recall. The only thing even closely comparable was when the voters recalled Gray Davis and installed Arnold Schwarzenegger as "The Governator." But even that's not really a valid comparison.

Davis was massively unpopular when he faced a recall election in 2003. Newsom is not -- he enjoys positive job approval ratings and has all throughout the pandemic. He lost public support in a big way only once, when he instituted strict rules for public gatherings and then immediately broke them to hold a fundraiser at an exclusive fancy restaurant. Making rules that only others have to obey while you consider yourself exempt is never a good move for a politician to make, and Newsom took the hit. But he has recovered since and most Californians are pretty happy with the way the state has handled the pandemic. At the very least, happy enough not to kick him out of office with just over a year to run before he has to stand for re-election anyway.

You have to remember, California is overwhelmingly Democratic. So it would take an enormous number of both independent and Democratic voters who were seriously annoyed at the governor for him to actually be removed. That sentiment simply doesn't exist right now, and while things could change over the course of the next few weeks (it is fire season out here, and who knows where we'll be even next week with the Delta mutation of COVID-19) they likely won't -- at least to the degree that Republicans are still hopeful for. Newsom just doesn't face what Davis faced, and in the intervening years the state has grown bluer and bluer.

But that's not the biggest reason I am so relaxed about the recall. The one poll everyone points to had Newsom winning on the question of whether he should be recalled or not -- but by only three percentage points. Within the margin of error, in other words. So all the pundits immediately leaped into "we've got a real race!" mode, which they seem to have been in ever since. But, once again, this election is unique, and that poll simply doesn't take this into account.

The 2020 election was the first statewide "mail-in ballots only" election in California. We had been moving in this direction already -- we were supposed to have a trial run of the idea in a few select counties in 2020, as we decided whether to fully adopt the system used in Oregon and elsewhere. But the pandemic forced the state to move the schedule up. So every registered voter got a ballot in the mail, automatically. They could mail it back in, they could drop it off at a voting location before Election Day, or they could show up to the polls as always, to drop off their ballot. But everyone got a ballot without even requesting one.

That is the system we'll be using in the recall election, too. My ballot showed up today. I didn't have to ask for it or fill out a form or go online or do anything -- it just appeared in my mailbox. Just like it will appear in every single other registered voter's mailbox. We even get the triumphal "I VOTED" stickers in the mail with our ballots. There is simply no reason left to vote in-person again -- at least, not for anyone who would normally have to make the time in the middle of a busy day to go vote. Instead, you can do it weeks in advance, painlessly and easily, and you even get to wear your proud sticker on Election Day. It could not get much easier, in fact.

But the crucial poll which caused all the furor was one that estimated likely voters. This is normally fairly valid, as people who vote regularly... well... regularly vote. If a telephone poll asks: "Did you vote in the last election?" or: "Did you vote in either of the last two elections?" this is what they are trying to figure out. People who don't normally vote usually don't turn out all that heavily on Election Day. Statistically, it usually winds up being pretty predictive.

But that's back when voting was a much bigger hassle than it is now. That was back when you had to show up in person to vote. Or actively request a mail-in ballot. You had to make an effort, one way or another. It didn't just happen automatically.

So how can you compare an election where it is relatively difficult to vote to one where it is a matter of spending five minutes with the ballot at your own kitchen table, sticking it into a postage-free envelope, and putting it back into your mailbox for the carrier to pick up the next day? You can't. It's an entirely different kettle of fish. And what everyone is worried about -- that Democratic voters will be so complacent about Newsom's chances of winning that they just don't vote -- is likely not going to materialize. With voting made so easy, it is almost guaranteedthe turnout will be much higher than it would have been under the old system. Voting is so easy and automatic that more people will vote, period. So there just isn't any valid previous election to even compare it to, when estimating turnout.

This is precisely why I think that one poll is going to turn out to be not just wrong but laughably wrong. I think Newsom will win, and then he'll probably go on to win another full term next November, as well.

Gavin Newsom hasn't been perfect leading the nation's most-populous state during the pandemic emergency -- but then no governor has, really. Newsom has done the best he can with the cards he's been dealt, and so far the citizens of the state seem to be appreciative, on the whole, for his leadership in a time of crisis. Ranked with all the other governors, Newsom has done an above-average job, and that's putting it mildly (considering some of the idiocy out there). Californians know this. Sure, maybe if we all had to spend a random summer day heading down to cast a ballot then perhaps not enough Newsom supporters would turn up to save him. But when all it takes is 10 minutes (tops) to vote and you don't even have to get dressed or leave your living room, it now seems like the only way anyone should ever vote (stranger things have certainly become normalized over the course of the pandemic; this is merely one of them).

Given time, and given enough data from enough similar elections, the pollsters will in the future be able to more accurately predict turnout -- under the new mail-in system. But currently, that data just does not exist. There is no model to follow. Nobody knows what percentage of mailed-out ballots will be returned. But my guess (and I'm not going out on much of a limb, here) is that it's going to be a lot bigger than is currently predicted. Because the old models of prediction just haven't caught up with the new model of voting. And that's why I confidently predict Newsom will retain his office by a margin of at least ten points. That's why I'm ignoring all the pundits predicting a very tight race -- because I just don't think they've thought the whole thing through enough.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


13 Comments on “Why I'm Not Worried About The California Recall”

  1. [1] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    Yes, I am also not sweating this recall election. As our free press isn't technically free the media must create drama where there is little to be had.

    Gavin's got the war chest. Let's see a "get out the vote by mail" campaign here in CA (where it's safe) and thence spead it from sea to shining sea.

  2. [2] 
    John M wrote:

    "So every registered voter got a ballot in the mail, automatically. They could mail it back in, they could drop it off at a voting location before Election Day, or they could show up to the polls as always, to drop off their ballot. But everyone got a ballot without even requesting one."

    This is what Republicans are afraid of happening in every state, and what they are fighting against tooth and nail. The more people who vote, the more Republicans lose.

  3. [3] 
    Mezzomamma wrote:

    Chris and MC, do you have any thoughts about the people putting themselves forward as replacements, ignoring the Rs? (For non-Californians, you first vote yes or no on the recall, and can then vote for a long list of would-be replacements even if you voted against the recall.) It looks as though some are running to publicize a particular issue, but there doesn't seem to be much information on most of them. Or would you omit that part?

  4. [4] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:


    A cast of thousands, no doubt. As it's 2003 all over again I am going to re experience the California Combo, I call it, voting against recall and for the adult film actress, just in case. She (Mary Carey) has aged like a fine Single malt Scotch.

  5. [5] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


  6. [6] 
    TheStig wrote:

    MtnCaddy 4

    Mary Carey has been living in an oak barrel?!

  7. [7] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    No. You've got that confused with Ms.Carey's celebrated "Buxom Babes Over a Barrel," a stellar example of the earlier years of her prolific body of work. Ahem.

  8. [8] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    Oh, almost forgot:

    Dept. of Lincoln Project.

  9. [9] 
    SF Bear wrote:

    MtnCaddy #4

    News Flash - Ms. Carey just pulled out, of the race that is.

  10. [10] 
    SF Bear wrote:

    Perhaps the data from Oregon the year they went full mail in would be informative. Some years ago they made the same transition that CA did and I imagine their participation rates shot up through the roof just as you expect to happen here in CA. Currently, I believe Oregon has the highest rate of voter participation in the country, no doubt as a result of all mail in voting.

  11. [11] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:


    Yes, due to "onerous paperwork requirements on short notice" says the campaign. I remain hopeful that she makes the Certified Write-in Candidates list to be released on September 3rd.

  12. [12] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:


    Dude, I think she's playing eight dimensional chess. And we have to trust that it's part of her campaign promise to "come out on top."

  13. [13] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    Word is her Gentlemen's Club campaign tour is still on.

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