Some Recall Reflections

[ Posted Wednesday, September 15th, 2021 – 17:17 UTC ]

California Governor Gavin Newsom emerged victorious from his recall election last night, chalking up a rather stunning margin: with 71 percent of the vote counted, "No" on the recall was beating "Yes" by a whopping 28 points (64 percent to 36 percent). Not quite 2-to-1, but close. Since it was a special recall election held at an odd time, it garnered more than the normal amount of media and political interest nationwide -- especially after a poll a few months ago seemed to suggest that the race was somehow neck-and-neck. Obviously, it wasn't. Newsom may in fact beat the margin of victory he managed in his last election. Whatever the final numbers turn out to be, though, it's hard not to use the word "landslide" to describe the outcome.

There are a few lessons Democrats should be drawing from this victory, however at this point nobody really knows which could most accurately be called the "deciding factor" in the election. It was likely a mix of things, but the first two should be fully embraced by Democrats in anticipation of the 2022 midterm campaign anyway (the last item is more of a caveat).


Own the pandemic outrage

The best way to frame this comes from a quote from a tangential story about whether the Biden administration should order a vaccine mandate for all air travellers.

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) said that California Gov. Gavin Newsom's resounding defeat of a recall attempt on Tuesday was a sign that [President Joe] Biden has the political support to go harder on [vaccine] mandates, including on domestic flights.

"We have to own the outrage," Swalwell said. "We can't do enough to climb out of this pandemic hell."

He's right. The time for coddling the unvaccinated is over. The time for shying away from hurting their feelings or worrying about being accused of "being divisive" is long over. The hardcore anti-vaxxers, at this point, are both the reason for the severity of the Delta spike and for the fact that the three-fourths of all American adults who have been at least partially vaccinated cannot enjoy a return to normalcy quite yet. And the majority is getting more and more annoyed at the shrinking minority holding back progress against the pandemic for everyone.

So Democrats should strongly and vocally support all measures necessary to defeat COVID-19. Not only should they support the measures President Biden and blue-state governors have taken, but they should call out Republicans for their increasing intransigence and unhelpfulness. Newsom strongly did so in his campaign, and it paid off handsomely.

At the start, Newsom's advertising tried out various different messages to fight the recall. But for the past month, his message has been consistent: beating the pandemic is a worthwhile thing to do, it shows rational leadership, and Republicans are instead fighting to make the pandemic worse. Evidence for this claim abounds -- most notably in Florida and Texas, but also in plenty of other red states. Barack Obama starred in an anti-recall ad that ran heavily the week before Election Day, where he strongly makes this case. Newsom's other ads were even more direct. Newsom stood for common sense, safety, and opening the economy back up faster by getting as many people vaccinated as possible -- which most definitely includes school teachers. This message is tailor-made for a key demographic that Democrats have been winning over ever since Donald Trump became president: suburban parents, especially suburban moms. Taken together with college-educated voters, these groups could be crucial in the 2022 election cycle. So Democrats would do well to lean heavily on a message of being pro-safety and protecting children.

To be sure, this election took place in California, which ranks in the top fifth of the states' vaccination rates and is one of the bluest states in the country. The pro-safety message will be tested further in the Virginia governor's race this November, as Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe has also heavily advertised both on his support for safety measures and against his Republican opponent's anti-safety extremism. Now, Virginia is not doing quite as well as California in vaccinating all adults, and it is nowhere near as blue a state. But the college-educated and suburban demographics might also provide McAuliffe the margin of victory, so the race will be closely watched.

Perhaps all this won't matter as much as people now think, though. The midterm elections are a whole 14 months away, after all. That's an eternity in politics. Perhaps we'll all be so over COVID-19 by that point that nobody will even want to be reminded of it. Perhaps not -- it's way too early to tell. The Delta wave might be cresting (we'll know more in a week or so, when we can truly see if a post-Labor-Day surge appears or not), but there could always be another mutant strain out there lurking. It's impossible to say at this point how potent an issue being pro-vaccination and pro-safety is going to be next year at this time. But for the time being, it is an excellent message for Democratic candidates to be making a centerpiece of their campaigns.


Defeat Trumpism

The line was repeated so often in the final days of the election that it is now pretty familiar to hear: "We have defeated Donald Trump, but we have not defeated Trumpism." This has the benefit of being true, and it conveniently puts Trump onto the ballot in any race where a Trump clone is running. And this could wind up being a very large number of races next year (depending on who wins all the Republican primaries).

Even with Trump not currently running for any office, he still dominates the Republican Party. Most Republican officeholders quake in terror at the prospect of being personally singled out for Trump's abuse. Which means the party's real weathervane right now is: "Will Trump approve of this or not?" Sad, but true.

Because of this rampant fear, Democrats can very easily tie just about any Republican to Trump's unpopularity. Of course, this won't work in every House district or state, since in the reddest of them Trump is still actually popular with most of the voters. But it should work well enough in both blue states and swing states.

Putting Trump metaphorically on the ballot may not change any voter's mind, but it does do one very important thing: it motivates Democrats to vote. California Democrats were supposed to be apathetic and turnout was predicted to be quite low, but what happened was an almost-record turnout, close to a normal election year. This could be attributable to Newsom painting his opponent as a Trump "Mini-Me," or it could be a function of California's new election system (more on this subject in a moment). But it is undeniable that linking the lead Republican in the recall to Trump helped Newsom get Democrats to vote.

Trump's not going away any time soon. He's not fading into the background, at least not within the Republican Party. He's still larger than life and essentially calling the shots. If he's against something (like vaccine mandates), then every other Republican in office or running for office is forced to either agree wholeheartedly or, at the very least, not directly disagree with Trump (which is accomplished mostly by them ignoring the issue in the hopes it will go away, and giving the vaguest of answers when directly asked).

Trump and the entire Republican Party are on the wrong side of the COVID issue, and they just keep doubling down on the stupid. Every time a legal case is filed against Biden's pandemic orders it guarantees that the courtroom fight will drag on for months and months (if not years). And the Republican position is a very unpopular one.

Florida is leading the anti-safety push, as its GOP governor fights legal battle after legal battle against all kinds of commonsense safety measures. And every time he does, he seems to get more radical. This is causing his job approval ratings to drop, which could get even worse for him. A recent Florida poll shows why -- 62 percent of the public supported a vaccine mandate for healthcare workers, and 60 percent supported one for teachers. That's in Florida, which is now leading the GOP fight against mandates and masks.

Trump thinks he has brilliant political insight, but he really only knows how to please his hardcore base. And his hardcore base is strongly anti-vaccine. Not so much, the rest of the public.

Of course, as previously mentioned, by next year the pandemic issue might have faded. But Trump will not have faded, and it's a pretty iron-clad guarantee that he'll be promoting all sorts of crazy ideas by then (no matter what they happen to be). So Democrats reminding everyone what spineless cowards the Republicans have turned into is likely to be just as effective no matter what Donald Trump is currently blathering about.


The election itself

We're going to end with a big caveat and a short overview of recall reform efforts.

Nobody can really say what drove the impressive turnout in the California recall election. Sure, it could have been Democrats finally tuning in to the election as the ad wars heated up. And it could have been fear of a Trump clone getting rid of all the prudent pandemic safety measures. Or just fear of what else a Trump clone would do to the state. But there's another big factor that most haven't given enough weight. I've personally been writing about this for a while, but most national media stories only touch upon it in passing.

This was only the second statewide all-mail-in election in California. California made it a lot easier to vote during the 2020 election, and it's looking like this change will become permanent. Every registered voter gets a ballot automatically mailed to them. They can fill it out and then just drop it back in the mail (no stamp required) or drop it off at an early-voting location. This almost has to have greatly improved turnout in general, since it is now so pathetically easy to vote in the Golden State. But it may be impossible to tell to what extent the high turnout was a function of the new ease of voting, at least until we've had data from a few more election cycles to study. So the improvements in turnout here may not map to other races in other states -- or at least not to the same extent. Democratic strategists should be aware of this and not get overconfident.

Finally, the staggering price of this pointless election (over $250 million, or a quarter of a billion dollars of taxpayer money) has given some tailwinds to people trying to reform the recall process. The most-mentioned reform would be to require more signatures to trigger a recall election. But this isn't really all that necessary.

Currently, only 12 percent of the people who voted in the last election are required to sign a petition for a California governor's recall. For this election, that number was around 1.5 million voters (out of an electorate of 22 million). Many are now saying it should be a lot harder to get a recall on the ballot -- perhaps 25 percent would be better? But this ignores the reality that most recall petitions fail. Every California governor going back decades has had recall drives launched against them, but only two have made it to the ballot in all that time. And this one almost didn't make it. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the signature-gatherers were given additional months to collect signatures. If this schedule extension had not been granted, they would not have had enough signatures to qualify. So this was really a special case, meaning only one recall petition has ever followed the standard rules and qualified for the ballot. That's not any sort of emergency that needs reform, really.

There are other ideas for reform as well. I wrote about one of them yesterday -- just get rid of the "who should replace him if the recall succeeds" part of the ballot. If the governor is recalled, then the lieutenant governor gets sworn in, plain and simple. This seems like the best answer to the circuslike ballot we have gotten in both gubernatorial recalls (135 candidates in 2003, and 46 candidates this year). Why have any candidates, though? We have a lieutenant governor already!

Or, if you're still going to have candidates, combine the two questions into one: "Who should serve out the remainder of the governor's term?" Put the current governor -- the target of the recall -- in the same list with all the challengers. Whichever candidate gets the most votes wins. If the sitting governor gets more votes, he or she stays in office. If someone else does, the current governor is recalled and they take over. That's pretty easy to understand and it's a lot more (small-d) democratic a system than we currently use.

And I'll close with this footnote: Gavin Newsom would have easily won last night no matter which system was used, although Gray Davis might still have lost to Arnold Schwarzenegger if everyone's name had been combined into one list.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


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