Signature verification is underway in the process to recall Governor Gavin Newsom. It is widely believed that more than enough valid signatures will be found to trigger the second governor’s recall in the state’s history. In the March PPIC Statewide Survey—our first reading on public support for this effort—40% of California likely voters say they would vote yes to remove Newsom as governor. These early numbers are remarkably similar to the 38% who voted against Newsom in November 2018. Here are five key takeaways about public support for the 2021 governor’s recall, based on PPIC surveys:
The partisan divide matters. Partisans are deeply divided when asked if they would vote yes to remove the Democratic governor. Among likely voters, 79% of Republicans would vote yes compared to 15% of Democrats. Fewer than half of independents (42%) would vote yes—consistent with their Democratic leanings. This partisan divide mirrors the findings in California exit polls in the November 2018 election. Democrats currently have a large advantage over Republicans in voter registration, which explains why recall support falls well short of the majority needed to remove the governor.
So does Newsom’s standing. Governor Newsom’s approval rating among California likely voters is at 53% in our March survey—similar to 52% in January and 52% in February 2020. Today, 42% disapprove of the way that Newsom is handling his job as governor. How important is Newsom’s approval rating in determining support for the recall? Just 4% of those who approve of Newsom would vote yes to remove him, compared to 87% of those who disapprove of him. While Newsom’s approval rating has fallen from the record-high levels reached after COVID-19 struck, it has remained in positive territory—importantly, he consistently has a solid majority of support among Democratic likely voters.
The president’s coattails help. President Joe Biden’s approval rating among California likely voters currently stands at 60%. In our January and March surveys, solid majorities of California likely voters also say they favor President Biden’s policy direction on climate change, immigration, the economy, and COVID-19. Today, 38% of California likely voters disapprove of President Biden, which is comparable to the 34% who voted for Donald Trump in the November 2020 election. The Democratic president’s high standing appears to have implications for the governor’s recall. Of those who approve of Biden, 11% would vote yes to remove Newsom, compared to 85% of those who disapprove of Biden.
Improvements in pandemic trends do, too. Most California likely voters (47%) named COVID-19 as the top issue for the governor and legislature to work on in 2021, according to our January survey. In our March survey, 79% say the worst of the outbreak is behind us—a big improvement from January (59%). Moreover, 45% now say that the state government is doing an excellent or good job in vaccine distribution—a significant jump in positive perceptions since January (28%)—while 20 percent say a poor job (down from 34%). Californians’ satisfaction with the state’s COVID response—and the pace of reopening of schools and businesses—is likely to determine the fate of the 2021 recall. In sum, pandemic trends will have political impacts as well as social and economic consequences.
2021 is not 2003. The successful recall of the governor in 2003 occurred in a very different political context. Governor Gray Davis had been reelected by a 5-point margin in November 2002 (47% to 42%). Newsom was elected by a 24-point margin in November 2018 (62% to 38%). Democrats had a 9-point edge over Republicans in voter registration (44% to 35%) in 2003; today, they have a 22-point edge (46% to 24%). Moreover, seven in ten California likely voters disapproved of Gray Davis during the year of the recall (72% February 2003; 75% June 2003; 72% July 2003; 72% August 2003; 71% September 2003). And leading up to the recall election, at least half of California likely voters said they would vote to remove Davis as governor (51% June 2003, 50% July 2003; 58% August 2003, 53% September 2003). Ultimately, 55% voted to remove him in October 2003. By contrast, fewer than half have said they disapprove of Newsom in the 13 surveys we have conducted since he took office, and today four in ten want to remove him.
The political wildcard in the 2021 governor’s recall is the replacement candidates. In 2003, 135 candidates ran to replace Davis and four of them received at least 1% of the vote. But it was the surprise entry of action movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger that changed the election’s dynamics. Currently, a few candidates have indicated their desire to run in 2021 but none have the qualities of Arnold Schwarzenegger or the statewide electoral track record of Gavin Newsom. Will a charismatic leader appear who has the name recognition and sufficient resources to mount a successful statewide campaign?
The PPIC survey will be monitoring Californians’ preferences in a year when our state’s system of direct democracy will likely face its next big test—every registered voter receiving a ballot in the mail and being asked to make a choice between keeping the status quo or changing course.