We’re coming into a big season for elections. Germany and Canada vote this month, Japan probably next month, and tomorrow morning the state of California (which would be in the same league if it were an independent country) votes on whether or not to recall its governor – and if so, who to replace him with.
Current governor Gavin Newsom, elected in 2018, is a Democrat: not surprisingly, since Democrats outnumber Republicans in California by a large margin. Newsom won with 61.9% of the vote, and two years later Joe Biden carried the state with 64.9% of the two-party vote.
Nonetheless, Newsom’s term so far has not been a great success. His response last year to Covid-19 alienated many voters, especially when he breached his own lockdown rules last November to attend a lobbyist’s birthday function. So in the United States’ current atmosphere of political polarisation it’s not very surprising that Republicans launched a recall effort, and by March they had collected the 1.7 million or so signatures required to force a vote.
Older readers may remember that this has happened before. In 2003 a previous Democrat governor, Gray Davis, lost a recall ballot by almost a million votes, 55.4% to 44.6%, and voters chose Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger to replace him. The election of the replacement, which happens on the same ballot, is simple first-past-the-post; Schwarzenegger won with 48.6% against 31.5% for Democrat Cruz Bustamante and 13.4% for another Republican.
A lot has changed in America since 2003. Davis was unpopular due to his management of the state’s finances, and Schwarzenegger campaigned on a low tax platform. But nobody much now thinks that fiscal policy differentiates the parties; the Republicans are consumed by cultural issues and moderates like Schwarzenegger are all but extinct. And with the partisan divide having become much sharper, getting any sort of Republican elected in California is a big ask.
That said, the dynamics of the system favor the challenger. If the incumbent loses the recall vote, he’s out, even if his vote is higher than that for any of the challengers. Some argued that the Democrats should run a strong candidate for the replacement ballot, in the hope that they could still beat any Republican even if Newsom went down, but the party decided against this for fear of muddying the waters – although an obscure Democrat, real estate broker Kevin Paffrath, is running anyway and collecting a few per cent in the polls.
There are 46 candidates on the ballot, but most of the anti-Newsom vote has coalesced behind Republican Larry Elder, a Trumpist radio presenter and conservative activist. If the unexpected happens and Newsom loses, there’s no doubt that Elder will be his replacement.
But at this point it would be very unexpected. The Democrats have had a few anxious moments; there was a point in late July when polls showed a close contest, with momentum apparently behind the recall effort. Since then, however, Newsom has pulled away and “no” on the recall is consistently polling with a double-digit lead. And since a large proportion of the vote will be by post, there’s limited potential for a late swing.
The Republicans seem to have conceded defeat in advance, since their current refrain is to claim that Newsom is going to win due to voter fraud – just as, in their twisted thinking, Biden did last November. Donald Trump’s conspiracy theories about postal voting have found fertile ground among California Republicans. They appear to be laying the groundwork for a refusal to accept the result if it goes against them.
But while one can have at least a limited degree of sympathy for Trump supporters in Arizona or Georgia who couldn’t believe that their candidate could lose a fair election in what were, up to that point, reasonably strong Republican states, California is quite different. There’s nothing even remotely surprising about a Democrat winning in California. To put it bluntly, the state’s Republicans should by now be used to losing.
The Trumpist war on democracy, however, doesn’t concern itself with such mundane things as electoral reality. In some ways, the more fantastic the lie, the better. As Alex Shephard puts it in the New Republic, “the idea that elections are rigged against Republicans is now arguably the central pillar of the American right.”
California arouses strong emotions. Many people, not all of them on the conventional right, depict it as a bizarre, almost other-worldly dystopia, and its attachment to direct democracy – of which the recall is characteristic – is often fingered as either symptom or cause. In reality, it is an amazingly successful place, but whether either governor Newsom or the mechanisms that keep him accountable can take much credit for that will remain an open question.