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OAKLAND, Calif. — California Gov. Gavin Newsom needs to activate his Democratic base to save his job, according to the first major poll since the recall candidate field was certified last week.
A tally from the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies released Tuesday shows a tightening California race three weeks before voters receive mail ballots in the recall election targeting Newsom. The Democratic governor would defeat the recall by a narrow 3-point margin, the poll suggests, with 50 percent of the most likely voters saying they would retain Newsom versus 47 percent saying they would replace him.
The gap widens to 51-36 among all registered voters, according to the poll co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times. But the likely voter results affirm a central dynamic: While Newsom should benefit from California’s overwhelmingly Democratic electorate, his Republican foes are far more motivated to participate. That has put the recall “within striking distance,” IGS Poll Director Mark DiCamillo said in an interview.
“It’s really an election that’s going to boil down to turnout, and in the middle of July it does not appear the Democrats are that enthused. They’re not that aroused,” DiCamillo said. “As of right now I’d say [Newsom] is in jeopardy.”
The poll uncovered other warning signs beyond the enthusiasm gap. Newsom's approval rating has plunged underwater again, with 51 percent of registered voters disapproving of his performance versus 48 percent approving, and a double-digit majority of voters believe California is on the "wrong track."
The competition between Republican contenders is in flux. Conservative talk show host Larry Elder has surged to the lead among replacement candidates with 18 percent support despite having launched his candidacy just 15 days ago — and nearly being left off the ballot before a judge reinstated him. Elder has demonstrated his staying power by quickly collecting more big-dollar donations than most of his Republican rivals, and the latest poll results could add to that momentum.
Elder's next closest competitors, both Republicans, were former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and 2018 gubernatorial candidate John Cox, each at 10 percent. The survey found that reality TV star and Olympian Caitlyn Jenner is trailing badly at 3 percent despite having guaranteed this month she was the GOP frontrunner.
Only one Democrat — YouTube star Kevin Paffrath — polled high enough to be broken out in the survey results, at 3 percent. Under California's recall rules, Newsom cannot appear on the separate list of replacement candidates, and his campaign worked to ensure that no establishment Democrat would run. Newsom wanted to ensure that voters had no strong Democratic alternative, but that strategy also risks allowing a Republican to become governor with a small plurality of the vote if a majority chooses to oust the governor.
Californians can expect the situation to remain fluid in the campaign’s final weeks, DiCamillo said. Coronavirus cases are on the rise again as the Delta variant tears through unvaccinated populations, impelling Newsom to mandate Monday that state workers and health care workers get vaccinated. Students are set to return to classrooms soon in a critical milestone for Newsom. Wildfire season is just beginning.
“There’s a lot of events that could be taking place in the next two months, too,” DiCamillo said. “There’s a risk to the governor of events that could be to his detriment.
Every registered, active voter will receive a ballot by mail starting Aug. 16, nearly a month before the Sept. 14 election date. That could mitigate the kind of turnout decline typical of an off-year election, but campaigns still need to remind voters to submit those ballots.
Newsom has sought to convey an image of steady governance as California recovers from the pandemic, touting new initiatives to address homelessness and provide stimulus checks. The governor said Tuesday that his record would carry him to victory.
"We’re going defeat this partisan effort, and we’re going to work hard to do the work people sent us here to do," Newsom said in a response to a question about polling. "If we continue to do that good work, I think we're going to be OK on Election Day.”
Newsom wields some significant advantages over his would-be successors. There are about five million more registered Democratic voters in California than Republicans. There are no limits on the amount of money Newsom can raise to beat back the recall, which has allowed him to stock a war chest with $30 million from labor unions, law firms, tech executives, Native American tribes and other political power players.
But the enthusiasm gap narrows that advantage. Republicans represent a quarter of the overall electorate but comprise a third of the most likely voters, while Democrats and no-party-preference registrants are disproportionately less likely to vote, the poll found. A resounding 87 percent of Republicans expressed the highest level of interest in the election, versus a little over half of Democrats and independents.
Yet Democrats expect Newsom to prevail by an enormous 70 percent to 8 percent margin, whereas a majority of Republicans expect Newsom to be defeated. Voter malaise over another coronavirus surge, driven largely by unvaccinated Californians, could further depress turnout.
“The fact is, this recall could be successful if the motivated voters turn out and people who are upset about the recall or don’t like the recall largely express their frustration by throwing their ballot in the trash,” said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data, Inc. “A lot of people just aren’t happy right now with how things are going. They might not blame the governor but they might not be motivated to turn out.”
The governor’s team has signaled it understands the risk of disengagement or complacency among Newsom’s base, warning donors in a fundraising email this weekend that too many people believe Newsom is in the clear.
“One of the great struggles we face is far too many people think there’s no chance he’ll get recalled. And we are here to say that is not the case,” the Saturday plea said.
Republican opponents of Newsom exulted in the result, saying it showed the governor was out of touch with the voters who will soon decide his future.
“Gavin Newsom's claims that California has come roaring back have not fooled voters,” Anne Hyde Dunsmore, who manages a pro-recall committee, said in a statement. “California is ready to make history again by recalling a failed Governor before he can do any more damage.”