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Surprises in partisan strength haunted recall election

Gov. Gavin Newsom attends a September 2021 rally in Culver City during the unsuccessful campaign to recall him from office. (Photo: Maxim Elramsisy, via Shutterstock)

Readers of Capitol Weekly understand how “blue” California is.  That’s why you’re up in the middle of the night thinking about Democrat -versus-Democrat races for State Assembly while you probably can’t name the full slate of Republican statewide candidates.

But what about the average California voter? There seemed to be genuine surprise on the part of some Republican activists when Gov. Gavin Newsom easily survived their recall effort last year.

Half of the Republicans who voted in the Newsom recall election were surprised by the outcome (even many months later).

The recall election was fascinating.  Turnout was far higher than expectations based on past special elections, including gubernatorial recalls and ended with 62% of voters in opposition to recalling Newsom; a near duplication of his 62%-38% victory over Republican John Cox in the 2018 gubernatorial race.

In conjunction with Capitol Weekly’s CA120 data journalism project, we conducted an online survey after the June 2022 primary election of voters who cast a ballot in the 2021 recall election.  It seemed like a good place to examine what California voters understand about the partisan divide in the state and its implications going into the 2022 midterm elections with several important Congressional elections on the ballot.

We learned that half (51%) of Republicans who voted in the recall election were surprised by the outcome (even many months later), compared with only a quarter of independent voters and fewer than 1-in-10 Democrats.

Why were these Republicans surprised?  In large because most don’t know the extent to which they are outnumbered.

More Democrats (60%) underestimate their registration advantage than do Republicans or independents.

While close observers know the electoral math – half of California registered voters are Democrats, one-quarter are Republicans and one-quarter are unaligned with either major party (though more vote Democrat) – and most voters understand that California is controlled by Democrats, most underestimate the Democratic registration advantage.

  1. Thinking about politics, there are more Democrats than Republicans in California. Which of the following comes closest to the accurate distribution of voters by party?
  All Voters Democrats Republicans NPP/Other
Slightly more Democrats 15% 16% 16% 14%
20%-30% more Democrats 39% 44% 34% 36%
Twice as many Democrats 29% 30% 26% 30%
Three times as many Democrats 14% 9% 23% 16%

We found that half of California Republicans who voted in the recall were surprised by the outcome AND underestimated the extent to which they are outnumbered by Democrats.  It makes sense.  They thought they had a chance.

Similarly, more Democrats (60%) underestimate their registration advantage than do Republicans or independents.  Even with that misperception, California Democrats do not feel threatened – only 9% said they were surprised by the outcome of the recall election.

Few independents believe that Republicans are viable is a challenge for the California GOP to overcome

And perhaps still shaped by Ronald Reagan’s sunny optimism, as opposed the harsh reality of not having won a statewide election in 16 years, nearly half of Republican Recall voters (46%) believe that Californians will soon want to give Republican candidates a chance, while 52% believe that Republican candidates will have no chance to win in the near future because of partisanship.  Both Democratic and independent recall voters believed Republicans had no chance by better than two-to-one.

  All Voters Democrats Republicans NPP/Other
With all of the problems facing California, it is quite likely that voters will soon want to give Republicans a chance 34% 29% 46% 31%
Voters are getting more partisan and with twice as many Democrats as Republicans in, no Republican candidate will win an election anytime soon 62% 67% 52% 65%

 The fact that few independents believe that Republicans are viable is a challenge for the California GOP to overcome.  However, the far bigger challenge is that California independents who voted in the recall are almost evenly split between those who would prefer California be a “swing state” (54%) and those who prefer the status quo with Democrats winning every statewide election (45%).

  1. Would you rather that California was a “swing state” where both party’s candidates could win for President, Governor or U.S. Senate or do you like the way it is now with Democrats having won every statewide election for the last 16 years?
  All Voters Democrats Republicans NPP/Other
Swing State 45% 12% 95% 54%
Dems win all elections 54% 87% 4% 45%

California independents are more alienated from Republicans than from Democrats.  Overall, three-fourths of Independents who voted in the recall want a moderate third-party.  However, when we made the options more specific, 58% of Independents said they wanted to see the GOP split into two parties (A Trump Party and a Pro-Business/Low-Tax Party) and 47% wanted to see the Democratic Party split into two (A Moderate and A Liberal Party).

Democrats turned out strongly in the recall election despite not feeling like the outcome was in doubt – as evidenced by the extremely low level of surprise at the extent of their “win.”  independents are more turned off by Republicans than by Democrats and only one-in-three independents believe that a Republican candidacy is viable. There are simply no trends indicating any change from California’s political status quo for the foreseeable future.  That’s why Shawn Kumagai and Liz Ortega are more relevant than Brian Dahle and…what’s his name…

Editor’s Note: California-based pollster Jonathan Brown is a veteran pollster and researcher, and the founder of Sextant Strategies and Research. Brown worked with pollster Paul Mitchell in gathering data for this article.

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