Lessons from a landslide: Key takeaways from California’s recall circus

After a summer of half-baked polls and overheated press coverage, the race wasn’t even close

By Gil Duran

Examiner staff writer

In a total shock to people unfamiliar with California politics, Gov. Gavin Newsom handily defeated a recall effort pushed by Trumpian internet trolls, anti-vaccine COVID deniers, clueless Silicon Valley tech bros and the terminally hopeless California Republican Party.

After a summer of half-baked polls and overheated press coverage portending Newsom’s possible demise, the race wasn’t even close. On Tuesday night, official results showed 66% of California voters were rejecting the recall. Newsom’s “no on recall” campaign — aided by a $70 million war chest, a massive voter turnout effort and the terrifying prospect of radio host Larry Elder capturing the Democratic state — won a landslide victory.

So convincing and obvious was Newsom’s pending triumph that Donald Trump didn’t even wait until Election Day to start making the usual false claims of fraud.

In the end, no Republican will become governor of California. The political circus ended in a predictable and decisive defeat for the clowns. Newsom begins his second term this morning, a full 16 months before his second inauguration takes place, since he will likely sail to re-election over token opposition.

Here are some key takeaways from this absurd spectacle:

Not all polls are created equal. It’s pretty easy to misconstrue the results of an outlying poll to create panic and drive an outlandish narrative. A pair of polls in late July appeared to show Newsom in danger of getting recalled, kicking off a summer of anxiety for California Democrats.

“First, there was a UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll on July 27, which showed that likely voters were just about evenly split on whether or not Gov. Gavin Newsom deserves to keep his job,” wrote Ben Christopher of CalMatters. “A few days later came an even more alarming set of figures from SurveyUSA: A majority of likely voters, 51%, wanted to fire Newsom, compared to a mere 40% who did not.”

The Berkeley poll’s emphasis on “likely” voters weighted it towards Republican voters while the SurveyUSA poll contained a wording error “which may have led some respondents opposed to the recall to misidentify themselves as being unlikely to vote,” according to SurveyUSA’s official explanation. But the press pounced and the damage was done, though in retrospect, the poll probably should have been taken with several large grains of salt.

“It was so far out in left field that nobody believed it — even Republicans didn’t believe it,” said Garry South, a Democratic strategist who worked for Gov. Gray Davis during the 2003 recall, criticizing the SurveyUSA poll.

In any case, the recall suddenly seemed like a close contest even though, in the end, it wasn’t. Going forward, it’s probably best to take a good look at a poll’s methodologies before alarming the populace with erroneous conclusions from outlier surveys.

“Do the math,” South said. “Pure and simple. Numbers don’t lie. When you have a Democratic registration margin of 22.4% over Republicans, buying into the hype that somehow Republican enthusiasm is going to wash over that huge Democratic registration edge and recall a Democratic governor was nonsense.”

Keep it simple. Despite much naysaying, California Democrats’ decision to clear the field and make the race a stark choice between a Democratic governor and a Republican nightmare worked out just fine. So did the decision to focus on a “vote no” message instead of complicating matters with a multi-part recommendation about how to vote strategically on the second ballot question.

The reasons why are obvious to anyone with an understanding of voter behavior, campaign dynamics and choice architecture. Fortunately for California, the people who made these decisions knew what they were doing — and also knew that batting away the panicky suggestions of second-guessers is a time-honored rite of passage in any statewide campaign.

Negativity works wonders, sometimes. Wayward polling aside, California Democrats did seem spooked by the recall from the very beginning. In January, a Democratic press conference held to blast the recall effort became a mini-disaster when speakers described the recall as a “coup.”

Coming on the heels of the Jan. 6 insurrection in the U.S. Capitol, the overhyped description of what then seemed like a longshot vote to unseat California’s governor backfired, drawing rebuke and earning a “pants on fire” rating from CapRadio.

Early on, Newsom mostly avoided saying the names of his Republican challengers, perhaps hoping to downplay the recall and coast through it without having to acknowledge his detractors. After Larry Elder entered the race in July and the shock polls got published, the race became a referendum on Trump, anti-vaccines kooks, abortion rights, etc.

The strategy, by all accounts, was to use fear to drive Democratic voter turnout against the recall. In essence, it was the same strategy that failed to keep Trump from the White House in 2016, when a slim margin of voters in key swing states apparently feared his highly-publicized bad qualities less than they disliked Hillary Clinton.

The California GOP is really, truly dead. Rumors of the California GOP’s revival were greatly exaggerated. To paraphrase Grover Norquist, the California Republican Party is now almost small enough to drown in a bathtub.

Despite the best efforts of Republican wannabes like Kevin Faulconer and Kevin Kiley, the state’s conservative voters have no taste for milquetoast. Given a choice, they will always choose cray-cray. A radical figure like Elder had no chance of winning, but they chose him.

Serious Republicans no longer run for California governor. Instead, they aim for legislative, congressional and municipal offices in small conservative counties where they have a chance. The governor’s race is now reserved for third-rate Republican celebrities and media figures hungry for free publicity. Trump effect, indeed.

Cleopatra lost big. In 77 AD, Pliny the Elder credited Cleopatra with throwing the most expensive dinner party in history. She dissolved two rare pearls in vinegar and drank them in order to win a bet with Mark Antony over who could host the most extravagant feast.

It took over 2,000 years, but someone finally bested Cleo: Gov. Newsom. The price tag on his infamous French Laundry dinner has far exceeded the Egyptian queen’s theatrics. As everyone knows by now, his error breathed life into a dying recall effort and has now left California taxpayers with an election tab estimated at $276 million.

In addition, Newsom and recall opponents raised over $70 million to defeat it. Elder raised over $13 million to be the recall’s top loser. John Cox, the Republican businessman, burned $9 million of his personal fortune to roam the state with a Kodiak bear and a giant ball of trash.

A tremendous waste of treasure — but at least the losing candidates got publicity out of it. Harder to fathom is why Democratic-leaning Silicon Valley venture capitalists like David Sacks and Chamath Palihapitiya spent money to support the recall. Sacks and his wife donated a combined total of $140,000 to the pro-recall campaign, reports the Los Angeles Times, while Palihapitiya donated $100,000 to help the signature-gathering effort earlier this year.

These are miniscule expenditures for the wealthy VCs, but just big enough to make their chump change look like the dumbest money in California politics.

Gil Duran is Opinion Editor of The San Francisco Examiner.


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