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The Three Mysteries of the 2021 California Gubernatorial Recall Election

I can only avoid talking about politics on this blog for so long.


There's an upcoming special election over whether to recall Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, and if so who to replace him with. The election is set for September 14th, and mail-in voting has already begun. And there are these three things–mysteries, if you will–that I've been wondering about pertaining to this election, so I wanted to talk about them.

The first mystery: why do polling averages have the race so close? It's California.

The first mystery: why do polling averages have the race so close? It's California. Below is what the FiveThirtyEight polling average currently looks like. As you can see, it's within one percentage point.

The FiveThirtyEight polling average for the first question of the upcoming recall election.

The RealClearPolitics average, slightly less scientific, even has the recall ahead (though only by 0.5%). The betting market PredictIt can be a little weird sometimes, but at the time I'm writing this, they have the recall as 27% likely to succeed, which suggests the possibility is at least plausible.


Also, what happened on August 3rd? The recall went from down by 7% to virtually even. That's kind of weird.

The second mystery: here's a list of all the Democrats that are running. Why do none of them have literally any political experience?

The second mystery: here's a list of all the Democrats that are running.

Wikipedia's list of Democratic candidates in the recall election.

Why do none of them have literally any political experience? Lots of qualified Democrats could run–mayors, representatives, members of the State Assembly or State Senate. Anyone with more experience than the current frontrunner, Kevin Paffrath (a "YouTuber, real estate broker, and landlord") would probably have been able to win Democrats' votes. However, it's too late now for anything but a write-in campaign. Why did no one qualified run?


(In case you don't know, I should explain the undemocratic way that California recall elections work. There are two questions on the ballot. The first is, should the governor be recalled? That's a straight yes/no vote. There's also a second question, which is, if the governor is recalled, who should be the replacement? If the recall passes, only then does it matter who wins on the second question. You don't need a majority vote in that second election, just more than anyone else. Governors can't run in their own recall elections. So, it's entirely possible that, say, the recall gets 51% support, and the highest-performing replacement candidate gets like 25%, with the remaining votes divided among many candidates. They would become governor, even though 49% of people–24 percentage points more–wanted Newsom!)

Oh, and the third mystery: why is this even happening? ... Newsom didn't commit any obvious crimes, and is still relatively popular.

Oh, and the third mystery: why is this even happening? It's only the fourth time in United States history that a governor has been subjected to a recall election. Newsom didn't commit any obvious crimes, and is still relatively popular.


Anyway, what on earth is going on?


In this blog post, I will explore three mysteries surrounding the 2021 California gubernatorial recall election. I'll go in the reverse order that I just mentioned the mysteries. First, why is Newsom being recalled at all? Second, why aren't any prominent Democrats running? And third, why is the actual recall election so close?

Why Is Newsom Being Recalled At All?

On November 6th, Gavin Newsom attended a birthday party at the French Laundry, a fancy restaurant in the Napa Valley. This was a violation of his administration's own restriction stating that a private gathering should only include people from three or fewer households. In addition to including people from more than three households, the party was apparently in an enclosed space, and the guests weren't wearing masks. He did later apologize, saying "I made a bad mistake," though the hypocrisy was evident regardless.


However, the recall effort was already underway at the time. It was actually the sixth against him, though the first five had failed to gain enough signatures to get on the ballot. The recall seemed like it was destined to the same fate, but on November 6th–coincidentally, the same day that Newsom had that dinner–the Superior Court Judge, James P. Arguelles, extended the signature deadline by four months, until March 17th. This almost doubled the length of time allowed for signatures. His reasoning was that based on the circumstances it would be harder than usual to get signatures, but it shouldn't be overlooked that the judge was nominated by Donald Trump. Also, California's signature threshold, 12% of voters in the previous election, is notably lower than many other states, which tend to require more than double that.

The Superior Court Judge, James P. Arguelles, extended the signature deadline by four months ... it shouldn't be overlooked that he was nominated by Donald Trump.

It seems like this recall doesn't really reflect The Will Of The People in the same way that, for example, the Gray Davis recall in 2003 does. Davis's approval rating was in the twenties at the time, with disapproval in the sixties. On the other hand, this February, when the Newsom recall was gaining enough signatures to make it on the ballot, the governor had an approval rating, according to Morning Consult, of 51%, with a 39% disapproval rating. Lower that it once was, but still above water.


Anyway, my reading of the facts suggests that, while it was helped by the French Laundry incident, the recall even happening can mostly be attributed to a conservative judge giving people much more time than usual to gather signatures. And that's why the recall is happening.


Onto the next mystery.


Why Aren't Any Prominent Democrats Running? In the 2003 Gray Davis recall, then-Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante ran in the recall election, using the slogan "No on Recall, Yes on Bustamante." According to the Napa Valley Register, some Democrats, such as Nancy Pelosi (Minority Leader then, Speaker of the House now), supported this move, saying "while we strongly and vocally oppose the recall, we urge a yes vote on Bustamante." However, Dianne Feinstein (senator then, senator now) said that she was "not going to vote on the second part of the ballot. I am going to vote on the first part of the ballot and my vote is going to be to vote 'no' on the recall." Ultimately, Davis was recalled (with 45% voting to keep him) while Arnold Schwarzenegger received 49% of the vote to Bustamante's 32% and fellow Republican Tom McClintock's 13%.


There are two lessons you can take from this. If Democrats like Feinstein had consolidated around Bustamante, perhaps he would've won, or at least come closer, keeping the governorship in Democratic hands. I think this lesson makes a lot of sense. However, Bustamante's campaign probably also hurt Gov. Davis, and was seen as legitimizing the Republican attempt to unseat him.

"While we strongly and vocally oppose the recall, we urge a yes vote on Bustamante." –Nancy Pelosi, 2003, on the Gray Davis recall "I am not going to vote on the second part of the ballot. I am going to vote on the first part of the ballot and my vote is going to be to vote 'no' on the recall." –Dianne Feinstein, 2003, on the Gray Davis recall

So if you're Gavin Newsom, you probably don't want another Democrat in the running. After all, voters could then decide they seemed more appealing than you, and maybe then they'd vote yes on the recall. The California Democratic Party is right behind Newsom. Its chair, Rusty Hicks, tweeted that voters shouldn't vote for any alternative, cryptically suggesting that this is "the only way to stop Republicans who want to take California back to some very dark days." Alex Padilla, senator from California, referred to the recall as a "DANGEROUS POWER GRAB." All-caps his.

A recent tweet from Rusty Hicks, the chairman of the California Democratic Party.

To me, it seems like the way to keep Newsom in power.


It's still weird to me that no Democrat is ignoring the leadership and running anyway. It's true that running in the recall will probably provoke disdain from Newsom and the state Democratic Party if he were to win, as still seems most likely. But risking that for a decent chance to become governor seems worth it, an opportunity which very few of these people will have again.


Plus, there are lots of reasons you might not care about annoying Democrats. Maybe you're very liberal, or relatively conservative, and have legitimate policy differences with the party. Perhaps you're close to retirement, and aren't planning on running for reelection anyway. Or you could just be very ambitious. There are lots of reasons it might make sense.

If I counted right, there are 43 Democratic members of the House of Representatives from California ... the mayors of San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco, Sacramento, and Long Beach are all Democrats ... not to mention the many California state officeholders, as well as the legions of state senators, assembly members, and all the people who used to hold these offices. Each passed up what was likely a free choice to become governor should the recall pass.

By the way, the only Democrat with any poll support is Kevin Paffrath, who as you can see is described a a "YouTuber, real estate broker, and landlord." Also, he called Gavin Newsom a "weanie baby" on Instagram in his campaign announcement post, which was temporarily taken down by Instagram. I'm not even making this up. On the bright side, I watched a clip of him on YouTube, and he doesn't seem to be, like, insane.


If I counted right, there are 43 Democratic members of the House of Representatives from California. Any could have been an instant frontrunner. The mayors of San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco, Sacramento, and Long Beach are all Democrats, and those are just the cities with more than 500,000 people.* Each of them, too, could have commanded support, not to mention the many California state officeholders (like the lieutenant governor or treasurer), as well as the legions of state senators, assembly members, and all the people who used to hold these offices.


Each passed up what was likely a free chance to become governor should the recall pass.


(Nate Silver is also surprised, and mention that it's not technically too late for a write-in campaign. "Probably a narrow window here for a Tom Steyer type to blanket the state with ads.")

Regardless, instead of a Democrat, the polling leader is a conservative talk show host named Larry Elder who has 19% of the vote.

Regardless, instead of a Democrat, the polling leader is a conservative talk show host named Larry Elder who has 19% of the vote. He is followed by Kevin Paffrath at 9%, businessman John Cox at 6%, and the remaining candidates (including, despite the media attention, Caitlyn Jenner) with virtually no support.

The FiveThirtyEight polling average for the second question of the recall election.

Those numbers are all so low because many people aren't sure (25%, according to the latest poll, which was by YouGov) and others support "no one" (20%), presumably Democrats toeing the party line. Which brings us to the third mystery.


Why Is The Actual Recall Election So Close?

In the 2020 presidential election, 63% of Californians voted blue. In 2016, 62%. In the 2018 gubernatorial election, the one that elected Newsom, 62% again. In that year's Senate race, Democrat Dianne Feinstein only got 54% of votes, but due to the jungle primary system, she was running against another Democrat! In the aforementioned jungle primary, adding up votes for Democratic candidates yields 63%. I'm not even cherry-picking these examples, these are the first races I checked! The idea that a Republican could win in California wasn't insane in the last recall election, in 2003, but it's crazy now.


(It's worth noting that both houses of California's state legislature have Democratic supermajorities large enough to override a veto, so even if a Republican were to become governor, they probably wouldn't be able to accomplish all that much.)

In the 2020 presidential election, 63% of Californians voted blue. In 2016, 62%. In the 2018 gubernatorial election, the one that elected Newsom, 62% again.

The thing is, it wasn't always close. Let's look at the actual polls FiveThirtyEight incorporates into its average.

FiveThirtyEight's list of polls they used to form their average for the recall election.

That first UC Berkeley poll, with a sample size an order of magnitude above the other polls, had Newsom staying in power by 12 percentage points (adjusted by FiveThirtyEight for partisan bias). That's actually kind of a small margin by California standards, but it'd make sense if most people didn't really have an opinion. A few of the subsequent polls had the race close, but most had the recall failing, as the first poll did.


Looking at this chart, it's clear the race has tightened over time. But it does shine more light over that mystifying change in the average I mentioned that seemed to happen around August 3rd. There happened to be a debate among the Republican candidates the following day–Gavin Newsom, Larry Elder, Kevin Paffrath, and Caitlyn Jenner were all absent, so it wasn't really that relevant–and I watched like half of it, thinking it might have mattered.** However, it wasn't necessarily that something changed–it was the release of a SurveyUSA poll that got a very different result than the others. Since polls take a few days in the field to complete, this in theory reflects changes that happened prior.


It's even weirder if you scan the chart for the previous SurveyUSA poll, conducted between April 30th and May 2nd. That one had the recall winning by 13 percent! That's a 22-point shift in a span of three months. Furthermore, SurveyUSA has the highest FiveThirtyEight accuracy rating than any other pollster who's polled the race.

There are some indications that people likely to vote are more Republican, at least in this election, than all registered voters.

There is also some history of outlier polls being predictive of the actual result–you shouldn't ignore a poll just because it's outside the norm. Of course, it also could be totally wrong, but it's very hard to know before the fact. Anyway, even if you forget the SurveyUSA polls, several others have the race within the margin of error. It's California. What's going on? One factor is turnout. There are some indications that people likely to vote are more Republican, at least in this election, than all registered voters. Any sort of special election is weird, and fewer people vote.


There are some other explanations you can provide–voters are dissatisfied with Newsom's handling on this issue or that–but I don't buy them. Not enough people genuinely care about issues anymore, instead of partisanship, for it to matter.


So this last mystery, the one I led this blog post with, I still don't have a satisfying answer to. Why don't polls have the recall being defeated in a landslide? Could a Democrat really lose an election in California after running a gazillion "Stop the Republican Recall" ads? There's not really a more subtle way to paint something as partisan.


After all the things I got wrong in the 2020 election (I wrote two long blog posts on the subject), I've tried to be less confident in my intuitions and feelings, and to acknowledge that there's often a lot of uncertainty.

I guess PredictIt's odds seem reasonable to me–I think the recall has about a 25 or 30% chance or succeeding.

If you asked me a week ago, I'd have said that Gavin Newsom almost certainly wouldn't be recalled, and the recall would lose by more or less the same 25-percentage point margin all Republicans lose by in California. But you can't ignore polls. They're the best tools we have for predicting elections. Still, looking at the fundamentals does suggest a recall is unlikely.


I guess PredictIt's odds seem reasonable to me–I think the recall has about a 25 or 30% chance of succeeding. Conditional on that, I think it's a tossup whether it goes to a Republican (probably Larry Elder, but possibly someone else), as the polling suggests, or whether enough Democrats vote on the second question anyway to get Kevin Paffrath in office.


Conclusion

Thanks for reading all the way to the end! This blog post covered three mysteries surrounding the upcoming recall election of the California governor, Gavin Newsom. The first: Why is Newsom being recalled at all? There was this dinner at the French Laundry, but mostly because a judge extended the time for signatures by four months so that petitioners could get the recall on the ballot on their sixth attempt.


The second: Why aren't any prominent Democrats running in the election? Because of pressure from the governor and the state Democratic party, out of fear that people will be more likely to vote for the recall if they're also told to vote for the replacement. But still, it's weird.


And the third: Why is the recall election so close? I have no idea, but the polls say so, and polls have a better track record than my intuitions. The voter pool will probably have fewer Democrats, as it's a special election, but that doesn't explain all of the gap. It's weird, and I really would like to see a coherent explanation. What's happening?

–beautifulthorns


It's weird, and I really would like to see a coherent explanation. What's happening?

*Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, is also a Democrat, but he's being nominated for Ambassador to India, so it makes sense that he wouldn't run for governor.


**The candidates were mostly coherent, though I still mostly disagreed with what they said. The YouTube chat and comment section was, by the way, very into Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, who gave me a very debater-y vibe. A Ben Shapiro comparison, made in the comment section, isn't off. The other candidates at the debate were Kevin Faulconer, the moderate former mayor of San Diego; John Cox; and former US representative Doug Ose.

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