Column: The Newsom recall effort has a big problem: Orange County

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George Skelton
·5 min read
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FILE - In this Nov. 21, 2020, file photo, demonstrators shout slogans while carrying a sign calling for a recall on Gov. Gavin Newsom during a protest against a stay-at-home order amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Huntington Beach, Calif. Gov. Newsom is facing a possible recall election as the nation's most populous state struggles to emerge from the coronavirus crisis. Organizers say they have collected more than half of the nearly 1.5 million petition signatures needed to place the recall on the ballot. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
Demonstrators carry a sign calling for a recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom during a protest against a stay-at-home order amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Huntington Beach. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

If a Republican cause can’t win big in Orange County, it’s probably doomed statewide in Democrat-dominated California.

It’s just a matter of math: Democrats hold a nearly 2-to-1 advantage over Republicans in voter registration statewide. And independent voters — registered as “no party preference” — lean toward Democrats.

The apparent lack of heavy support in the former Republican stronghold of Orange County is one reason why the GOP-backed effort to recall Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom seems headed for failure if it qualifies for a statewide ballot, as now seems likely.

A poll of 703 Orange County adults sponsored by Chapman University shows that they’re basically split over whether Newsom should be ousted before his term expires at the end of 2022 — a bad sign for recall pushers. In fact, Orange County residents lean slightly against the proposed recall, according to the survey.

Asked whether Newsom should be recalled, 48% of those interviewed answered yes and 52% said no.

Their views were largely shaped by political partisanship, of course. Among Republicans, 80% favored recalling the governor while 84% of Democrats opposed it. A slim majority of independents, 53%, supported the recall.

The last major independent statewide poll on the recall was conducted in late January by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies.

Among registered voters, 36% favored the recall and 45% opposed it, with 19% undecided.

In Orange County alone, the IGS survey found 45% supporting the recall — similar to the Chapman survey — but only 39% opposed, with 16% undecided.

“The recall would have to be doing much better in Orange County if it were to be successful,” says Chapman political science professor Fred Smoller, who oversaw the poll.

The once bright red county has turned purple and is now competitive for Democrats.

It’s a sea change from 2003, when Democratic Gov. Gray Davis was recalled. He’s still only the second governor in the nation’s history to suffer that ignoble fate.

In the Davis recall, an overwhelming 73% of Orange County voters supported the ouster. Statewide, 55% of voters did.

Back then, Republicans held a huge registration advantage over Democrats in Orange County — 48.6% to 31%. Today, registration is essentially split with a slight Democratic advantage — about 37% Democrat to 34% Republican. Independents have grown from 16% to 24.4%.

So, Republicans have tumbled from a more than 17-percentage-point advantage to a nearly 3-point disadvantage.

Here’s another stat that shows the GOP’s downward plunge: In 2004, Republican President George W. Bush carried Orange County by a landslide 21 percentage points while losing the state by 10 points.

Last November, by contrast, President Trump lost to Democrat Joe Biden in the county by nine points while getting buried in a 29-point California avalanche.

What has happened to the Orange County GOP since the Bush era? Experts on both sides agree on two things: racial and ethnic demographic changes, which have helped Democrats, plus the political drag of Trump.

“What happened was Trump,” says Republican consultant Dave Gilliard, chief strategist for Rescue California, one of the two recall campaign committees.

“Trump really hurt some [Republican candidates] in Orange County, which in large part is still upper-income suburban. They’re not Trump people. They turned against the party. It was too much about Trump.”

Democrat consultant Derek Humphrey, who has managed several Orange County campaigns, says, “Trump really gave Democrats an opening. And he’s still the flag bearer for the party.”

But while the GOP’s fall was “certainly accelerated by Trump, it has been driven by a long-term demographic shift,” Humphrey says. “It’s hard to imagine Orange County going back to what it was in the '90s or early 2000s.”

Gilliard says, “There’s been an outflow of voters out of state and an inflow of more immigrants.”

Smoller told me: “Our generation is dying. There’s an increase in Hispanics, Vietnamese and other Asians. White 60-year-old males are dying or retiring and going to Phoenix.”

These are the Orange County stats, according to state demographers: Since the 2003 Davis recall, the white population has dropped from 49.3% to 41.6%. The Asian American population has increased from 15.3% to 18.2%, and the Latino share from 31.6% to 35.6%.

This is why that’s important politically: In this state, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, 54% of Asian American voters register as Democrats. So do 58% of Latino voters. More of each group register as independents than as Republicans. Among white voters, 40% sign up as Democrats and 34% as Republicans.

That overall registration picture is another hurdle for the recall effort. Since 2003, statewide Republican registration has fallen precipitously from roughly 35% to 24%. Democratic registration has actually ticked up from about 44% to 46%. Independents have jumped from 16% to 24% — their gain, the Republicans’ loss.

And the recall attempt has an even bigger problem: There’s no universally known celebrity like Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger running this time to replace the Democratic governor.

Plus, by the time any recall election is held — perhaps in the fall — the pandemic may be in the rearview mirror, with kids back in school and voters dining inside restaurants.

On the other hand, some popular Democrat could challenge Newsom, although none is on the horizon.

Newsom doesn’t have much room for error. One bit of advice: Don’t try to close the Orange County beaches again.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.