California has changed a lot since 2003, when a movie star, a porn star and the comic who used to smash watermelons all made the ballot in the one and, to date, only time state voters dumped a governor in mid-term. And most of the changes suggest the 2021 recall won’t lead to the ouster of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Most but, critically, not all.
The biggest change, then vs. now, is purely political. Since 2003, Democrats have solidified their dominance of California politics, a fact that colors every aspect of this year’s Republican-launched recall.
Though California was plenty blue in 2003, Republicans still held some influence in the legislature. Today, no. California is deep, indigo-level blue, with Democrats holding supermajorities in the legislature and Republicans essentially shut out of power.
More important, in 2021, a lot fewer California voters identify as Republican. While the share of state voters registered as Democrats has held steady in over the past 18 years, GOP registration has cratered, giving Democrats a 22-plus point advantage in voter I.D. In fact, in recent years, the GOP and No Party Preference have battled for second and third place in California political brands.
It isn’t a fad, either. Consider: If Newsom is ousted next month, and if a GOP candidate is chosen to replace him (not a given, according to some polls), it would mark the GOP’s first win for a statewide office in 15 years.
The other big change in California from ’03 to ’21 has to do with race and ethnicity.
Since the last gubernatorial recall, the state’s non-White voters, including Latino, Asian and Black voters – groups that are hardly monolithic politically but tend to back Newsom – have expanded their collective majority. In 2003, about 53.3% of California residents identified as something other than non-Hispanic White; this year, that group has expanded to 64.5% according to recently released Census data.
That won’t translate directly into recall votes; this year’s electorate is likely to be more White than the state’s population data suggests. But the ratio will have to skew dramatically — with a lot of No Party Preference voters weighing in with Republicans — to overcome the basic fact that the biggest voting blocks in California are disinclined to fire Newsom.
So, in terms of politics and demography, the big changes over the past 18 years tend to favor Newsom keeping his job.
But on another front – media – California (and the world) has changed in a way that could help the pro-recall crowd. And this change is so important that some experts argue all the other changes might not matter.
In February 2004 – just five months after California’s 2003 recall – Harvard students started posting pictures and messages on something called Facebook. In 2005, Internet devotees started writing everything from tire reviews to political manifestos on Reddit. The first tweet was sent in 2006. The first Instagram page went live in 2010. TikTok launched in 2016.
In short, a host of communication channels have cropped up the past 18 years that make it possible for political candidates, political parties or Russian bots to speak solely to one side – their side – of the political fence. Similar shifts have played out on television and radio.
Both sides use this new, narrow-cast media, of course, flooding their safe zones with messages aimed at outraging their constituencies. But in recent years Republicans have generated a powerful media constellation – with GOP-friendly TV, online pundits and conservative radio – that has proven particularly adept at energizing their voters.
And whoever wins the media war could win the recall.
A successful push to oust Newsom will require a seemingly schizophrenic electorate, one in which Democrats and left-leaning independents are so blase they don’t vote in big numbers and Republicans and like-minded independents are so passionate that their sky-high turnout makes up for the GOP’s status as the much, much smaller party.
Our current, silo-friendly media world is set up to create exactly such an electorate.
“This is a broader trend in communications generally that’s taken place over the last 20 years, but it’s especially notable in politics. If you think about it, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Arnold (Schwarzenegger) all ran campaign ads that were supposed to be seen by everybody, by every voter,” said Dan Schnur, a longtime political consultant who teaches political communications at USC and UC Berkeley.
“But a campaign in ’21 micro-targets its messages. Today, I’m likely to hear a recall message that might be totally different from what my wife is hearing,” Schnur said.
“That could turn out to be pretty important factor in the recall,” he added.
Driving wedges into the electorate is the opposite of how campaigns saw things in ’03.
“We pre-dated social media. We had to have a broad media strategy,” said Rob Stutzman, a political consultant who was spokesman for future Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2003 campaign.
“We had to speak to everybody.”
Crossover vs. niche
That points to another difference from Recall 2003 and Recall 2021 – crossover appeal. There was a lot of it in ’03 and (so far) not much of it this year.
On this front, the 2021 landscape might favor those who want to oust Newsom.
Though no fewer than 133 people eventually got on the ballot to replace Gov. Gray Davis, the biggest name on the ’03 list was body builder-turned-actor-turned politician Schwarzenegger.
It’s hard to overstate the reach of Schwarzenegger’s image at that time.
Voters knew him by his hard-to-spell last name, by his first name (which everybody pronounced “Ah-nold”), and by his Hollywood nickname, “The Terminator.” They knew and routinely imitated his Austrian accent. They knew his movie catchphrase (“I’ll be back”). They got the joke when the title of one of his films, “Total Recall,” became a semi-official slogan for the whole campaign.
They probably didn’t know (but wouldn’t have been surprised to learn) that the 10 movies Schwarzenegger made prior to the ’03 recall grossed $1.8 billion worldwide.
In short, Schwarzenegger was bigger than mere politicians.
And, it happened, he was a Republican who could appeal to some non-Republicans and an immigrant who didn’t seem to have a big problem with other immigrants.
“(Schwarzenegger) would have had a difficult time winning a GOP primary. But he was perfectly minted for the recall, with crossover appeal,” said Stutzman.
In 2021, crossover isn’t on the menu.
“The big difference from the last recall and this one is the nature of the field,” said USC’s Schnur.
“Last time, you had Arnold and a cast of thousands. And every candidate had a vested interest in communicating with as many people as possible … with crafting a message that could win their vote,” Schnur said.
“But without Arnold, this year, you have a field of niche candidates.”
But niche could be powerful.
Given that the recall question requires only a single vote over 50% to pass, and the Newsom replacement question simply requires one candidate to get the most votes out of a big (46-candidate) field, it’s realistic that the next governor of a state with nearly 40 million residents could be chosen by fewer than 5 million voters.
“Republicans only have to motivate their side, their base, to vote. That’s it,” said Schnur.
“But it cuts both ways,” he added. “Democrats are so much bigger than Republicans in California that Newsom doesn’t even have to talk to a single Republican for him to win.
“This is a purely motivational election,” he added. “Nobody, on either side, has to convince a single voter to switch.”
Rage then, rage now
One thing that hasn’t changed much over the past 18 years is anger.
In ’21, California voters seem to be in perpetual outrage, about everything and everyone.
In ’03 , California voters seemed to be cranky about one thing, the car tax, and one person, Gray Davis.
In 1999, his first year in office, Davis, a Democrat, posted voter approval ratings in the mid-60s – a huge number for a guy perceived as a centrist in a state that was moving left of that. Though he didn’t have many emotional devotees, Davis was discussed in some circles as a potential national politician; a future senator or presidential candidate.
But the tech economy of the late 1990s was a fickle beast, and when the dot-com bubble burst California’s economy suffered. Davis was seen as part of the problem.
Soon, the state faced energy shortages. And Davis quickly was blamed for missteps in energy policy – steps that, in some cases, pre-dated his term in office.
Then, when California’s deficit became a key issue – ballooning to $35 billion – Davis imposed a car tax.
It was a less-than-winning strategy. Over a period of two-plus years (before and after the car tax) Davis’ approval rating dropped roughly one point a month. By the time of the recall, only about one in four California voters said they still liked Davis.
The other three? They were ticked off enough to vote in a recall election, which drew north of 60% turnout.
“Davis had just taxed everybody who owned a car,” said Stutzman. “We ran a classic tax-revolt election.”
By contrast, Newsom’s personal approval numbers aren’t bad. Even after 18-plus months of pandemic, an economic meltdown and a presidential election that led to insurrection on the U.S. Capitol, polls show liberal Democrat Newsom getting about 50% approval in a liberal, Democratic state.
But the key issue this year – COVID-19 – is, like the tech bubble, a weird, unpredictable thing.
Though most Californians favor the mask rules and vaccine mandates pushed by Newsom, the Californians who don’t like them have, literally, marched in the streets to express their anger.
So, while approval of health measures might be broad, the anger against them is white-hot – the kind of rage that spurs people to vote in recall elections.
Conversely, with rising case rates sparking a backlash against anti-maskers and vaccine resisters, a recall effort based on those issues could be derailed.
“The great equalizer is COVID,” said Schnur. “Without the pandemic, a recall against Newsom is a nonstarter. But with it, who knows?”
Stutzman disagrees. He said the anger voters expressed in ’03, against Davis, reflected frustration with several issues. This cycle, he said, COVID-19 could be a stand-in for frustration about rising crime, homelessness and unemployment fraud.
Newsom, he added, could pay the price for that.
“I think it’s a similar iteration, this year, to what was happening (in ’03),” Stutzman said. “It’s an emotional time.”
Source: Orange County Register