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Blog Post · September 10, 2021

Video: California’s 2021 Recall Election

photo - Woman Mailing her Ballot

As Californians cast mail-in ballots on the recall of Governor Gavin Newsom, the latest PPIC survey shows that support for the recall still falls short of a majority, with 39% of likely voters saying they would vote yes to remove Newsom. Last week, PPIC president and CEO Mark Baldassare shared the latest polling data and Carla Marinucci, California Playbook reporter at POLITICO, moderated a panel of top political journalists to talk about the implications of the recall.

Several factors make this a particularly unusual election. “It’s taking place in September of an off year. Every single California registered voter received ballots. We’re sort of in unknown, uncharted territory,” said Seema Mehta, political reporter at the Los Angeles Times.

“How did we get here?” asked Marinucci, noting that Governor Newsom was elected in a landslide in 2018. Jennifer Medina, national politics reporter at the New York Times, pointed out that right after that election, “there were people who were agitating for some kind of a recall . . . [and] it’s quite easy to recall a governor in California.” A court decision also granted recall supporters four extra months to gather signatures amid the pandemic.

Mehta emphasized that the extra months came “at the perfect time for recall backers,” as schools were shut down and hospitalization rates were increasing. “You had moms that were angry that their kids were not in school. . . . You had business owners who were really frustrated with constantly changing rules. . . . Some of these rules were not set by the governor, quite frankly, but all of the anger seems to have been directed at the governor.”

Among potential replacement candidates, Republican Larry Elder is in the lead, with 26% of likely voters saying they would vote for him (about half of likely voters say they are undecided or won’t vote for a replacement). The California Republican Party did not endorse anyone, Medina said, and “Elder came in and has gotten a base. It puts the party in a weird position of ‘do we go with moderates’ . . . or ‘do we go with the far-right base’” for future candidates.

COVID-19 has dominated the recall campaign, overshadowing other critical issues like homelessness and crime. The recall has also highlighted the state’s political polarization. Medina recounted seeing popup stores off the freeway in Orange County with pro-Trump and anti-Newsom paraphernalia. “We do have a deep, deep division in this state. We think of California as being so deep blue, but . . . there are a lot of Trump supporters and voters here, and this is a way for them to assert their voice.”

While recent polls have been favorable for Newsom, Mehta said that even if the recall effort fails, “the margin absolutely matters. . . . If [Newsom] wins by 20 points, that represents a real repudiation of [the recall effort] and a mandate for his agenda. If he wins by 1 point . . . that’s not a great look.” If Governor Newsom is recalled and a Republican is appointed governor of California, the implications would be far-reaching, raising questions about the actions the state legislature might take, voter enthusiasm in future elections, and even the balance of power in the US Senate.

Ultimately, the panelists agreed that it’s impossible to predict what will happen. Baldassare closed by saying, “A special election is never a lock for anyone. . . . It’s in the voters’ hands, whether they’ll send back their ballots or not. Stay tuned.”

PPIC’s Speaker Series on California’s Future invites thought leaders and changemakers with diverse perspectives to participate critically, constructively, and collaboratively in public conversations. The purpose is to give Californians a better understanding of how our leaders are addressing the challenges facing our state.
PPIC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it support, endorse, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office. Any opinions expressed by event participants are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect any position of the Public Policy Institute of California.


California State Legislature coronavirus COVID-19 crime elections Gavin Newsom homelessness mail in ballot Political Landscape recall Statewide Survey US Senate voter turnout voters