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  • Writer's pictureSeth Masket

California recall: Why this ain't 2003

California Governor Gavin Newsom will face a recall election, most likely this fall. For a number of reasons, Newsom will likely not face the grim fate of his predecessor Gray Davis, who was recalled in 2003. Yes, Newsom is popular, but that's far from the only reason he's safe. For Republicans to win a recall in a deep-blue state, a number of things have to be going their way, none of which currently are.

To be sure, Newsom's popularity is nothing to dismiss. His approval rating has been holding steady at around 53 percent this year (contrasted with Gray Davis' approval rating of 24% shortly before his recall). Only around 40% of Californians say they would support a recall at this point. Republicans claiming he somehow mismanaged a pandemic that will likely decrease in salience as the election approaches just doesn't seem like the path to his removal.

But another feature of California's recall elections has not been receiving much attention recently, yet may be just as helpful to Newsom. Like just a handful of other states, California has a recall election that consists of two questions posed on the same ballot: 1) Shall the governor be recalled, and; 2) Who shall replace him if he is recalled? Voters can answer the second question even if they say no to the first. And how people feel about the options on question #2 can affect how they feel about question #1.

Importantly, there is a very low threshold for appearing on the replacement ballot in question #2: A candidate needs just shy of $4,000 and signatures from 65 supporters to qualify for the ballot. There is no official role for parties here. That is, there is no primary election to determine which Democrats or Republicans can appear on the ballot -- anyone with some cash and a few dozen signatures can do it.

For Republicans to succeed in a California recall election, they need three things: 1) an unpopular incumbent; 2) a popular Republican challenger with broad appeal; and 3) a Republican coalition capable of collective action.

That's why the replacement ballot in 2003 included 135 candidates. Some candidates calculated that there would be a lot of random chance involved should Davis be recalled. With so many people running, it's possible a fluke could happen and someone could be elected governor of the nation's largest state with just 5 or 10 percent of the vote. Why not run?

But one of the reasons the recall succeeded in 2003 was because of the presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger on the replacement ballot. Of course he was popular and famous; he had just concluded filming "Terminator 3," for which he was paid $30 million (and in which he appeared as the hero, protecting the future, driving a fire truck, less than two years after 9/11).

But more importantly, Schwarzenegger was no political novice. He had been active in supporting Republican candidates and causes since 1988. He'd recently championed a statewide initiative campaign for after-school sports. And he was openly recruited by a group of moderate Republican consultants who had worked for the state's last Republican Governor, Pete Wilson.

He also made a particular effort to demonstrate his policy expertise. (See this example from a 2003 debate, at around 39:45, where he discusses health insurance reform.) To be sure, he was well known and liked, but many voters, especially the Democrats that enjoyed healthy majorities in the state then as now, needed some reassurance before they handed over the world's seventh largest economy to a body building action hero. He offered that through repeated public appearances and debates.

But beyond that, Schwarzenegger had a party behind him, one that was capable of collective action. No, there was no official way to designate a Republican nominee in the recall, but Schwarzenegger functionally became that anyway. A vast ideological range of Republican officeholders and activists, even those who strongly disagreed with his stances on some social and environmental issues, enthusiastically backed him, seeing him as the best shot the party would have in seizing the governor's office for a generation. Through both subtle and crass means, they pressured other Republican candidates out of the contest, making sure that the Republican vote would not be split. This is how Schwarzenegger ended up with 49 percent of the vote in a field of 135 candidates.

In these senses, 2003 could not be more different from today's recall environment. Perhaps the most prominent replacement candidate thus far is Caitlyn Jenner, who is many decades from her athletic triumphs and is now largely known as a co-star on her relatives' TV show. She may yet demonstrate some policy expertise about California, but so far she has mostly displayed unfamiliarity with the structure of state government. She has also leaned into culture war stances against trans athletes, which may be useful in internal Republican Party battles but will hardly win over the bulk of voters in a state that Joe Biden won by nearly 30 points last year.

Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and businessman John Cox also plan to run, and would be considerably more conventional Republican candidates, but that's also not much of a recipe for success in modern California. A handful of minor celebrities, including adult film star Mary Carey, billboard legend Angelyne, and actor Randy Quaid, have expressed interest in running, but none with much political expertise. (Okay, Quaid did play Ronald Reagan on SNL in the early 80s.) As yet, it's not clear just whom the Republican coalition would rally around or if they're even capable of doing that in the absence of a primary.

So to sum up, based on evidence from 2003, for Republicans to succeed in a California recall election, they need three things: 1) an unpopular incumbent; 2) a popular Republican challenger with broad appeal; and 3) a Republican coalition capable of collective action that can pressure other candidates out of the race. At least so far, I'm not seeing any of those.


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