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The California Recall: Time To Take A Deep Breath

The California Recall: Time To Take A Deep Breath
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The special California recall election is just a few days away, and unsurprisingly the rhetoric and recriminations have been rising sharply in the Golden State.

Republican front-runner Larry Elder, who would likely replace Gavin Newsom if the recall succeeds, stoked the GOP base (and probably unwittingly motivated Democrats) by promising to replace Dianne Feinstein and shift the balance of power in the Senate to the GOP should she retire or die during his term. In addition, Elder's endorsement by pro-life activist Lila Rose, who trumpeted that Elder would use his line-item veto to cut all abortion funding and appoint right-to-life judges if elected, alarmed pro-choice activists already reeling from the developments nationwide including the Supreme Court's allowance of Texas's six-week abortion ban.

Anxiety hit a high earlier last week as a tweet, originating from former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, circulated widely and warned that 76% of mail-in ballots have not yet been returned with just one week to go, sending many Democrats into a tailspin on social media. It has been widely reported that while polls of all voters favor keeping Newsom, polls among likely voters (i.e. those actually planning to or enthusiastic about voting) at one point showed a dead heat race. Would Democratic apathy simply hand the state over to the Republicans?

Meanwhile, far-right media has begun a steady campaign to discredit the recall election as fraudulent should it fail to unseat the governor. Fox News commentator Tomi Lahren declared, "The only thing that will save Gavin Newsom is voter fraud." She continued her spin, warning viewers to "[p]ay attention to the voter fraud going on in California because it's gonna have big consequences not only for that state, but for upcoming elections. Every bad idea originates in California, and that just happens to be where Kamala is from. No coincidence there."

First off, we can take a collective deep breath over Governor Newsom's poll numbers. While polls two weeks ago showed a closer race (within a few points and the margin of error), recent polling consistently demonstrates that the "keep" vote has built over a 10 point margin, with one poll that once had him in a dead heat now having him up over 20 points. As more Californians focus on the likely alternative of Larry Elder, who despite being African American is a radical in the mold of the former president, Newsom has begun to look far more palatable despite some voter reservations. Pundits like Lahren know and understand this, which is why they have begun to attack the election as fraudulent before any counting has even begun.

Also working in Newsom's favor is the fact that the mini-surge of the Delta variant in California has begun to subside, with the number of people hospitalized falling for the last week and likely to continue. Newsom's handling of the pandemic was in large measure the impetus for the recall, but as it becomes clearer to voters that the pandemic is now chiefly among the unvaccinated and far more prevalent in GOP-leaning rural counties, Newsom's leadership on Covid-19 has regained some of its footing.

But what about all those unreturned ballots? Couldn't the polls be way off, based on actual turnout? Are Democrats dangerously asleep at the wheel? Here's where we can take a second deep breath. With now 26 percent of mail-in ballots returned, the pace is running behind the 2020 election, but it isn't something to lose sleep over and generally feels typical of an off-cycle election. As of September 7th, the tally was 6,159,023 ballots returned compared to 7,910,555 ballots one week before the 2020 election. This is good news for Newsom because the skew in early balloting is heavily Democratic. By party registration, the breakdown in early ballots gives Democrats a 29.2% spread, compared to a 32.7% advantage one week out from the 2020 election. If that were to hold, the electorate would be around +25% Biden voters.

As in 2020, we should fully expect a surge of GOP voters on Election Day itself. Because of lingering mistrust of mail-in voting spread by the former president in 2020, many GOP voters prefer to vote in person. But that can be a bad thing in any close race (and this one isn't likely to be, at least at this time). Anything from voter apathy to bad weather can shift sentiment and turnout by a percentage point or more. To complicate matters, the former president recently appeared on conservative media to allege, once again, that the election will be rigged for the Democrats—a charge that could dampen enthusiasm among the MAGA base.

Democrats aren't letting their guard down despite the good poll numbers. Newsom has been barnstorming the state, focusing a lot of his attention on flagging support among Latino voters. To give him an assist, Vice President Kamala Harris is making campaign appearances, and she remains popular among minority voters in the state. President Joe Biden is also expected to join Newsom in the final days of the special election.

One thing to watch for: By law, California can begin counting mail-in ballots as soon as they arrive, but any that arrive on or up to a few days after Election Day will be counted last. That sets up a situation where, if the election is close because of high Election Day turnout by the GOP, right-wing media can gin up charges of "fraud" as the late-arriving mailed votes, which will skew heavily Democratic, are tabulated. This is precisely what happened in other jurisdictions in 2020 and helped feed the false narrative of the Big Lie. The public needs to be educated about the fact that a close election in California won't be decided for days or even weeks after as counts and audits proceed.