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Will voter turnout sink or save Newsom in recall election?

Successful recall elections often depend on one factor: low voter turnout.

People who want to kick an elected official out of office are highly motivated to cast ballots, while people satisfied with the status quo are not. As a result, recall elections are disproportionately determined by recall supporters, even if they represent just a fraction of all registered voters.

That dynamic is key in the current special election to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Even though registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans in California by nearly two to one, and Newsom was elected with a record-high 61.9% of the vote in 2018, a number of recent polls show likely voters just about evenly split on whether to sink or save the Democratic governor.

With ballots hitting mailboxes this week, and election day itself slated for Sept. 14, the big question is, will voter turnout be high enough to save Newsom?

“I think right now, if the election were held today, we’d probably have a 30% turnout,” predicted Katie Merrill, a Berkeley-based veteran Democratic strategist.

Turnout for most special elections in California peeks at around 33%, which is less than half the turnout of last year’s general election.

“That’s problematic,” Merrill said.

And not just for Newsom.

Turnout in that range would mean the fate of California’s highest officeholder would be determined by a third of its registered voters, while a much smaller slice of Californians would choose Newsom’s replacement. That’s not great for representative democracy.

Low turnout elections also nudge candidates to focus on firing up their core base by leaning hard into their most partisan views, since they don’t need to sway middle-of-the-road voters to win.

That might be why this year’s leading GOP contender, radio host Larry Elder, recently walked back his previous statements in which he acknowledged the fact that Joe Biden fairly won the presidency. It also might be why Elder and all GOP challengers — including former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer, who’s often touted as a moderate — have vowed to ban statewide mandates aimed at slowing spread of the coronavirus.

There are several factors working against a higher-than-average turnout in the Sept. 14 recall, from lopsided voter enthusiasm to the confusing mechanics of a recall election to voter exhaustion. And anything below 35% turnout could spell serious trouble for Newsom, according to Paul Mitchell, head of Sacramento-based consulting firm Political Data Inc.

Others suggest recall fever simply has yet to spread beyond the most engaged partisan voters.

“It may sound silly to some people, but there is probably a large portion of the electorate that is quite uninterested in this election,” said Newport Beach-based pollster Adam Probolsky.  “They heard something about a recall, something about Republicans being angry. But they’re not really engaged at all.”

Still, two other factors suggest there’s time to change that trajectory. First, every registered voter in the state is getting a ballot sent to their home. Those ballots can be returned in drop boxes, mail boxes and voting centers that soon will open around the state. Second, Newsom’s campaign war chest is huge.

Both factors are why Probolsky predicts recall turnout eventually will be closer to 50%, which should be enough to keep the governor around — at least until he’d be up for reelection again in November 2022.

But experts acknowledge such predictions aren’t based on a lot of solid data. There’s never been a statewide recall in the middle of a global pandemic, with mail-in balloting the norm. And California’s only gubernatorial recall — in 2003, when voters booted Gov. Gray Davis — drew a whopping 61% turnout for a reason that’s not in play this time around.

“In 2003 you had Arnold Schwarzenegger on the ballot, and that’s exactly why — the sole reason why — you had such high turnout,” Merrill said. “It was far more about having a celebrity of that level on the ballot.”

The enthusiasm factor

The good news for Newsom is that while his approval rating has fallen in recent months it still remains at 50%. The other good news for Newsom is that just over 24% of California voters are registered as Republican, while 46.2% are registered as Democrats.

But a poll conducted in early August by CBS News and YouGov found that 78% of GOP voters said they “definitely will vote” in the recall while 73% of Democrats said the same. And while 54% of all registered voters supported Newsom, that edge narrowed to 52% when looking at people likely to actually vote by Sept. 14.

“When such a small percent of the electorate is turning out, that means that most of the voters are the ones that are most engaged in that particular campaign or that particular race,” Merrill said. “And every poll has shown that the voters that are most engaged in the race right now are the ones who want to recall Gavin Newsom.”

Republicans also have been pushing for the recall for more than a year as they collected — with heavy support from Republicans in Orange County — enough signatures to get the recall on the ballot. Once the recall qualified in April, the GOP was able to have activists quickly pivot from gathering signatures to pushing for Californians to vote yes on the recall.

Democrats may have gotten a later start — delayed a bit more by the fact that early polls predicted Newsom would easily hang onto his seat.

“I don’t think most Democrats thought Newsom was in trouble,” said Zev Yaroslavsky, a former Los Angeles lawmaker and public affairs professor at UCLA. “They thought, He can’t possibly lose, this is a blue state.”

But as polls shifted, Democrats have been rolling out anti-recall efforts across the state, with more to come in the weeks ahead.

The Democratic Party of Orange County has been organizing get-out-the-vote actions since early summer, according to spokeswoman Rachel Potucek. The party kicked off phone banks on July 24, and they’re also coordinating efforts with local Democratic clubs.

While Republicans like to say they haven’t seen Democrats out on street corners holding signs to support Newsom, Louise Adler of Lake Forest begs to differ.

Adler, 77, is chair of the Canyon Democrats, a club that includes more than 400 members from southeast Orange County. Every other Saturday, she said, they’ve been gathered at different area locations to wave signs and tell passing drivers to vote no on the recall.

“I think the Democratic base is very motivated,” Adler said. “Every time we’ve had these pop-rallies the turnout is between 20 and 30 people, who stand in the heat and hold up signs. That wouldn’t happen if people weren’t motivated.”



Her club also is providing “no on the recall” window signs for cars and houses, dropping postcards at homes of registered Democrats and No Party Preference voters, and running a texting campaign, with fresh messages aimed at different voters each week.

“People are revved up,” Adler said.

The confusion factor

One issue that could dampen voter turnout — and possibly mute the intentions of some voters — is the complex nature of the recall voting process.

While last year’s General Election ballot, like most ballots, asked voters to make yes or no decisions on dozens of races, the recall ballot asks two questions that aren’t intuitively yes or no.

The first question is “Should Gavin Newsom be recalled (removed) from the office of Governor, yes or no?” A “yes” vote on Question One — which on a traditional ballot would favor Newsom — could lead to his ouster on the recall ballot. Instead, people who want to keep Newsom have to answer in the negative, “no,” a seemingly counter intuitive move that might confuse some voters.

The second question on the recall ballot is this: “If he’s recalled, who should replace him?” Data shows that in past recall elections at least some people who voted “no” on the first question don’t cast any vote on the second, perhaps thinking their choice won’t count.

Activists say one of the most common questions they’re hearing from voters is whether they have to weigh in on both questions, or if a vote on one question cancels the other out. The answer to both of those questions is no, but the questions keeps popping up.

Another issue that might confuse voters on both sides is about the potential choice of any Newsom replacement.

Republicans have yet to coalesce behind a single candidate, which might leave some GOP voters unsure of who to support. Meanwhile, there’s no established big-name Democrat on the ballot to replace Newsom if voters chose to boot him.

What’s more, Democratic voters are hearing mixed messages. Newsom and the Democratic Party are telling voters to leave the second question blank, focusing instead on getting a “no” on the recall question. But others — including the Democrat leading in some polls, Kevin Paffrath, and some media outlets — are urging Newsom supporters to cast a vote on the second question even if they voted against the recall itself.

That all adds up to confusion for some voters, who may find it easier to just ignore this election in a year where deciding something as simple as whether to eat in a restaurant is complicated.

The money factor

It’ll be up to Newsom, and those who support him, to overcome that confusion and get voters to return their ballots. And for that mission, they have one huge factor working in their favor: cold, hard cash.

Newsom and political action committees supporting him had raised more than twice as much money as all of the leading GOP contenders combined by midsummer, with more cash coming in each day. That can buy a lot of voter outreach and education.

So far, Newsom’s team has been a bit quiet, Merrill said.

“Normally, what you see is mass amounts of communication on television, in your mailbox, on social media, on digital. And we’re not seeing that right now,” Merrill said.

Merrill said she believes that’s because Newsom’s team is doing what every smart campaign does: save its resources for the most critical time. In this case, she suspects that will start around Sept. 1.

While regular campaigns require candidates to sway voters to support them over at least one other competitor, which requires getting their name and message out before ballots start hitting mailboxes, Merrill said the recall requires Newsom’s team simply to convince a majority of voters to return their ballots before 8 p.m. Sept. 14. If they do, and if they vote in line with their party registration, as polls suggest, Newsom keeps his seat. So she said there isn’t the same need to hit voters with a flurry of expensive ads for a full month or more.

Republican candidates, by comparison, have very little money in the recall race. And while Newsom only has to communicate one message, to vote no on the recall, challengers have to convince voters to vote yes and to vote for them.

As Newsom’s campaign ramps up, Yaroslavsky predicts voter engagement also will pick up.

“People are starting to focus on the stakes and what it means for Newsom to be out of office,” he said. “The stakes are pretty high, and everybody needs to know it.”

Source: Orange County Register

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