Mark DiCamillo, the director of the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies Poll, remembers it all very well. It was 2003, and he was the assistant director of the Field Poll, California’s preeminent political survey. For months, DiCamillo and his fellow staffers had been querying voters on the state’s first-ever special recall gubernatorial election. But Governor Gray Davis, says DiCamillo, wasn’t worried.
“Right up to the end Davis and his people thought they would win,” says DiCamillo. “Our survey polls said otherwise, but Davis didn’t believe them.”
“Davis was surprised, but I have to say that it didn’t surprise me,” says Mark DiCamillo of the 2003 recall election. “I trusted our polling.”
Davis, of course, lost. Of the 135 opposing candidates who had qualified for the October 7 ballot, only four—action movie star and Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lieutenant Governor and Democrat Cruz Bustamante, Green Party candidate Peter Camejo, and Republican State Senator Tom McClintock—garnered one percent or more of the vote. Schwarzenegger won with 48.6 percent of the ballots, trouncing Bustamante, his nearest competitor, who received 31.5 percent.
Fast forward to 2021, and DiCamillo is surveying state voters on another special gubernatorial election. Like Davis, California Governor Gavin Newson is fighting to keep his job. Activists secured enough signatures from registered California voters over the past year to trigger a recall. Of the 2,161,349 signatures garnered, county election officials determined that 1,719,943 were bona fide. The Secretary of State declared them valid, clearing the way for a recall process that will culminate in an election—likely in October or November—that will decide two things: whether Newsom should be recalled, and if so, who his successor will be.
It’s not that Newsom is as deeply unpopular as Davis was, says DiCamillo: it’s simply that the rules were met. Enough voters opposed to Newsom were contacted, and their signatures secured.
So what happens now? People who signed the petitions may withdraw their signatures until June 8, at which point county officials have two weeks to notify the Secretary of State on the number withdrawn. If the final signature tally is sufficient—which is almost certain—the Secretary of State will notify the California Department of Finance, which has 30 days to calculate the cost of the special recall election. The state legislature has another 30 days to submit comments on cost estimates. Only then will the Secretary of State formally certify the signatures, and the Lieutenant Governor will declare a special election.
Of course, the recall and its accompanying hoopla have been a source of irritation to Newsom and his administration. But according to DiCamillo’s latest poll, it looks like the Governor won’t have to break much of a sweat to prevail—so far, at least.
Only 36 percent of California’s registered voters currently favor recalling Newsom—a figure that has remained stable since January—and about 15 percent of voters are undecided on the issue. But 49 percent of registered voters oppose his removal. That’s up from 45 percent three months ago, when Newsom was widely viewed as fumbling his COVID-19 response. That perception was magnified by the embarrassing optics of a lavish dinner at the Napa Valley’s tony French Laundry restaurant, which Newsom attended in November while ignoring the social distancing and mask mandates he had been vigorously promoting. But since then, coronavirus infection figures have plummeted in California, with more than half of residents at least partially vaccinated, and the state is opening back up.
“The Governor definitely appears to be benefiting from an improving pandemic situation,” says DiCamillo.
Further contributing to the positive numbers may be a robust state economy and a $75.5 billion surplus, which Newsom plans to tap to send another round of $600 stimulus checks to millions of residents. He also has announced a $5 billion rental assistance program.
But Newsom’s popularity is by no means evenly distributed among the electorate.
“Voter position largely depends on party,” says DiCamillo.
Only 8 percent of registered Democrats want to remove Newsom from office, while 85 percent of Republicans support the recall. Independents and voters “with no party preference” are much less decided: 45% oppose, 33 percent support and 22 percent are undecided.
But the impact of Republican opposition is softened by their minority status in California. Of the state’s 21 million registered voters, nearly half are Democrats, while Republicans and no party preference voters each comprise about a quarter of the electorate.
To a large degree, that explains why 2021 is so different from 2003. Eighteen years ago, Democrats only had a slim lead in registered voters over Republicans. Further, Newsom’s contretemps at the French Laundry pales in comparison to Davis’s troubles in the months prior to the 2003 recall. Davis had been tarnished by an energy crisis that included rolling blackouts and complaints of political malfeasance and market manipulations, and he had just endured a tough 2002 re-election campaign against Republican candidate Bill Simon.
“At a comparable point in the 2003 recall, 67 percent of Californians had an unfavorable opinion of Davis, 65 percent disapproved of him, and only 24 percent approved,” says DiCamillo. “At 52 percent positive and 43 percent negative ratings for job performance, Newsom appears in much better shape.”
Davis faced a formidable adversary, a literal Terminator: Schwarzenegger. Newsom’s opponents include John Cox, a Republican businessman who is accompanied at his rallies by a half-ton Kodiak brown bear—an animal act that hasn’t really caught on with voters. Both Cox and Republican San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer poll at a meager 22 percent in the IGS latest survey, and Cox’s use of an ursine sidekick is being investigated by the San Diego Humane Society as a possible violation of city code.
Newsom’s best-known opponent, Caitlyn Jenner, the transgender activist, celebrity, and former Olympic decathlon champion, might seem like a potential challenger, but her fame has yet to translate to impressive poll numbers, says DiCamillo.
“It seems to be a big story for East Coast media, but only 6 percent of California voters support Caitlyn Jenner’s candidacy,” says DiCamillo. “Only 13 percent of Republican voters support her. Even for LGBTQ[IA] voters, she doesn’t rate in the double digits—she just doesn’t have a definable constituency. So I think Newsom could well be benefitting from a lack of compelling Republican candidates.”
There are a couple of issues identified in the poll that might give Newsom some cause for concern. Only one out of three Democrats is paying much attention to the recall, while three out of four Republicans have declared intense interest. Also, the impact of the “undecided” cohort remains murky: if they swing unexpectedly and heavily against Newsom, he could lose his office in a squeaker.
But that seems unlikely. Of course, things could change by the time the special election is held.
“Republicans are highly motivated, and Democrats not so much,” says DiCamillo. “But with only 36 percent of registered voters supporting the recall, removing Newsom would be a tall order. You’d need more than 50 percent of the votes to do that, and it’s not clear where they could come from.”
That begs the question: is the whole process worth it? Recall elections aren’t cheap. Newsom’s recall could end up costing around $400 million, with much of the burden falling on counties, which are required to send ballots to every voter. That may dismay Democrats—or even fiscal conservatives—but activist Republicans may claim some agitprop dividends from the effort, even if it ultimately fails.
“I read that [$400 million] figure,” says DiCamillo, “and I thought ‘Wow.’ But it is what it is. The criteria were met, and the process is moving forward. Hopefully, the state will reimburse the counties.”