California recall election is too early to call as polls close and Gavin Newsom's job hangs in the balance

1 week ago 2

Polls are now closed in the California recall election, and it is too early to call, according to an NBC News projection.

Gavin Newsom is the second California governor to ever face a recall, and is poised to be the first to survive one, according to recent polling leading up to the election.

The Democratic governor has spent months vigorously campaigning against the recall effort, which he has characterized as a radical GOP power grab that has left his career and California's future hanging in the balance.

With his more than $70 million war chest, Newsom has blanketed airwaves and digital spaces with anti-recall ads featuring prominent Democrats such as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and former President Barack Obama. The governor has also made numerous campaign stops across the state to directly reach Democratic voters, and is even campaigned alongside President Joe Biden in Long Beach late Monday. 

President Joe Biden and Governor Gavin Newsom enter the stage at Long Beach City College on the final day of campaigning against the recall in Long Beach on Sunday, August 1, 2021.

Brittany Murray | MediaNews Group | Getty Images

Newsom has also taken up new campaign messages to boost Democratic turnout, slamming his main opponent's opposition to Covid mitigation measures. Among the 46 candidates running in the recall election, conservative talk show host Larry Elder has become the clear Republican frontrunner by speaking out against mask and vaccine mandates.

While Newsom was projected to face more of a tight race in the election just a month ago, his heavy campaign efforts seem to be paying off. Experts, recent polling and early ballot return rates all indicate that Newsom is now on course to easily defeat the recall effort.

"It's going to take a major polling miss for the recall effort to succeed at this point," Democratic consultant Michael Soneff said. "Newsom's chances are very good. I'd rather be Gavin Newsom than anybody else in this race."

Newsom's newly motivated Democratic base 

Despite Republican voters being outnumbered by Democrats in the state by nearly 2 to 1, complacency among Newsom's Democratic supporters posed a potential threat to his chances of surviving the recall.

However, a poll released Friday by the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies and the Los Angeles Times indicates that Democratic voters have become more engaged in the upcoming recall election. Sixty percent of likely voters in California said they would vote to keep Newsom in office, while just 39% would vote to recall him.  

This is the first poll that has shown Newsom defeating the recall by more than 20 percentage points, a jump from the previous poll conducted by the same institutions just six weeks ago. The July poll showed a much closer race, with 50% of likely voters favoring Newsom's retention and 47% favoring his recall. 

A September poll from the Public Policy Institute of California showed 58% of likely voters in favor of Newsom, while 39% wanted to remove him. SurveyUSA and The San Diego Union Tribune found 54% of likely voters in favor of keeping Newsom, a major swing from their August poll in which 51% favored removing him.

Gavin Newsom, governor of California, speaks during a campaign event at Long Beach City College in Long Beach, California, U.S., on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021.

Bing Guan | Bloomberg | Getty Images

"It appears that the enthusiasm gap between Republicans and Democrats that has given so much life to the recall early on seems to have dissipated," said Dan Schnur, a politics professor at three California universities who previously led the California Fair Political Practices Commission. 

"Newsom spent most of the summer trying to convince the Democratic base that [the recall] is worth their time and attention. And it's clear from the polls that he's been successful in those efforts," Schnur added. 

This increased engagement among Democrats is also reflected in the rates of early mail-in ballot returns. 

The poll conducted by the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies and The Los Angeles Times estimates that mail-in ballots will account for approximately half of the electorate. 

As of Saturday, registered Democratic voters made up about 52% of the nearly 7,800,000 ballots returned so far, according to daily data from Political Data Intelligence. Republicans lag far behind, only making up 25% of them. 

Republicans were expected to return ballots faster than Democrats due to their outsized interest in the recall election in the months prior, according to Soneff. Now, they are left scrambling to catch up. 

"Democrats have significantly outperformed Republicans in returning ballots up to this point and have opened up a colossal lead. Republicans are trying to close the gap and are definitely making some progress, but in the end, they're not going to," Soneff continued. 

While more than 14,470,000 ballots have yet to be returned, Soneff said the most-recent return rates are "undoubtedly a great start for Newsom."

On election day, Republicans are expected to outperform Democrats in in-person voting, according to Soneff. 

This is also reflected in the poll conducted by the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies and The Los Angeles Times. Of the likely voters who said they would vote in person on Election Day, 77% said they would vote to recall the governor. 

However, given the substantial Democratic lead in mail-in ballots so far, this is not expected to have a significant impact on the outcome of the election, according to Soneff. 

Larry Elder echoes Trump's 'Big Lie'

Soneff noted that Republicans' lower ballot return rate so far is not entirely a surprise in the wake of the 2020 presidential election. 

Former President Donald Trump notoriously slammed mail-in voting last year, falsely claiming that it is rife with voter fraud and disadvantageous to Republicans. 

A poll worker puts a mail-in ballot in a security box in the recall election of Gov. Gavin Newsom at a center in San Clemente, CA on Tuesday, September 7, 2021.

Paul Bersebach | MediaNews Group | Getty Images

Trump has convinced much of his Republican base that mail-in voting is "corrupt," which could explain the depressing ballot return rate of Republicans in the recall election so far, Soneff said. 

"Voting by mail has taken place in the United States since the late 1700s and has always been an integral part of elections, but Donald Trump's view that voting by mail is inherently bad has had a lasting effect on the Republican party," Soneff said. 

Trump's influence can be seen among GOP candidates such as Elder, who expressed his distrust in the state and nation's voting system on Fox News last week. Elder echoed the former president's false claims that there was widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election, and has sought to cast the same doubts on California's recall election.

Candidate for governor Larry Elder speaks during a press conference at the Luxe Hotel Sunset Boulevard on Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA.

Francine Orr | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

Biden, who campaigned with Newsom on the eve of the recall election, directly linked Elder to Trump.

"All of you know, last year I got to run against the real Donald Trump," Biden said at the rally in Long Beach, California while making the sign of the cross across his chest. "Well, this year, the leading Republican running for governor is the closest thing to a Trump clone that I have ever seen in your state."

"Can you imagine him being governor of this state? You can't let that happen," Biden added.

Elder, who has been a widely known figure in California for decades, has become the only viable candidate who could replace Newsom. Thirty-eight percent of likely voters said they would support his candidacy if Newsom were to be replaced, which is up from 18% in late July, according to the poll conducted by the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies and The Los Angeles Times.

Support for other Republican candidates has receded, and the next candidate after Elder, Kevin Paffrath, falls short with only 10% of likely voters' support, according to the poll.

Newsom's coronavirus campaign strategy

Allegations that Newsom mishandled the state's response to the coronavirus pandemic fueled the Republican-led recall effort in 2020. 

However, in the weeks leading up to the recall election, Newsom's campaign has seized on pandemic fears to help secure his likely victory. 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a No on the Recall campaign event with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris at IBEW-NECA Joint Apprenticeship Training Center on September 08, 2021 in San Leandro, California.

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

"The great irony of this election is that what sparked the recall effort nine months ago is now helping Newsom fend it off," GOP consultant Rob Stutzman said.

Californians named coronavirus as the top issue facing the state, according to a September survey conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California, or PPIC. Many of Newsom's anti-recall ads and campaign stops in recent weeks have zeroed in on this, warning voters about what may happen to the state's coronavirus conditions if a Republican opponent takes his place in office. 

"Republicans are trying to recall [Newsom] from office and overturn common-sense Covid safety measures for health-care workers and school staff," former President Barack Obama said in the newest anti-recall ad.

Each voter's ballot "could be the difference between protecting our kids and putting them at risk, helping Californians recover or taking us backwards," Obama added. 

Biden conveyed a similar message during his remarks at the Long Beach rally on Monday.

"Voting no would be protecting Californians from Trump Republicans who are trying to block us from beating this pandemic," Biden said at the rally.

US President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event for California Governor Gavin Newsom at Long Beach City Collage in Long Beach, California on September 13, 2021.

Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty Images

Another anti-recall ad specifically slammed Elder, the top Republican candidate in the race, alleging that he "pedaled deadly conspiracy theories and would eliminate vaccine mandates on day one."

Elder vowed to overturn all vaccine and mask mandates at a rally in Fresno in late August. "When I become governor, assuming there are still mandates for vaccines and mandates for face masks, they will be repealed before I have my first cup of tea," he said at the rally, prompting the crowd to roar with applause.

Elder has openly rejected coronavirus health measures, even claiming in an interview with CNN on Aug. 31 that science does not suggest that young people should receive vaccines and wear masks in schools. 

Part of Newsom's newest strategy aims to capitalize on Elder's opposition to coronavirus health measures, which has encouraged Democrats to take action and vote in the recall, Schnur said. 

"One of the ways for a campaign to motivate voters is to tell them very scary and alarming things about the opposition," Schnur said. "And Larry Elder is perfect for this. If he didn't exist, Gavin Newsom would have probably wanted to invent him."

Aside from warning voters about his Republican challengers, the governor has spent the closing weeks of his campaign touting his own efforts to combat the coronavirus in recent months. 

"California has among the lowest [Covid] case rates in America, and among the highest vaccination rates in America, because we believe in science, we believe in public health. We're not ideological, we're open to argument and interested in evidence," the governor said at a rally in San Leandro alongside Vice President Kamala Harris Wednesday. 

PPIC President Mark Baldassare suggests that Newsom's response to the coronavirus may be another one of his strengths in the recall election that could drive Democratic turnout. 

Approximately 6 in 10 Californians and likely voters approve of the way Newsom has handled the coronavirus pandemic, according to the September PPIC survey. And more than 3 in 4 Californians think the state government is doing an "excellent or good job" at distributing Covid-19 vaccines. 

"The message around Covid, and the importance of keeping the governor to keep these efforts ongoing around Covid, which is viewed as the number one issue in California, is something that is motivating Democratic voters in these in these final days," Baldassare said. 

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