Poll Finds Newsom's Approval Plummeting as Recall Looms

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Gov. Gavin Newsom holds a press conference at the launch of a mass COVID-19 vaccination site at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 2021. (Irfan Khan/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Just four short months ago, Gov. Gavin Newsom enjoyed an impressive 64% approval rating among California voters — but as the pandemic has dragged on, that number has plummeted to 46%, according to a new poll from UC Berkeley.

The dramatic decline comes as opponents of Newsom inch closer to qualifying a recall campaign against the governor, and as California continues to grapple with its vaccine rollout, while most schools remain closed and businesses struggle to survive.

"This certainly changes the political landscape in California. Voters now have a much more critical view of the performance of Gov. Newsom, whereas last year, large majorities had a very positive impression of the job he was doing," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies Poll.

Now, 48% of voters disapprove of Newsom's job performance, up from 36% in September, a wild swing directly attributable to the pandemic, DiCamillo said.

"In September, most voters thought that [handling the pandemic] was one of his strongest areas," he said.

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DiCamillo noted that just 31% of respondents now say Newsom is doing an "excellent/good" job with pandemic response, compared to 49% in September. And many are distrustful of how the state is imposing pandemic-related restrictions: Nearly half, say they don't trust Newsom and state government in setting stay-at-home orders and guidelines for businesses.

But not everyone is mad at Newsom for those rules. The top descriptors that voters used to describe the state's changing orders and rules were "inconsistent" and "confusing," followed by "necessary" and "science-based."

That split, along with the unusually tough spot Newsom finds himself in — leading the state through a once-in-a-generation pandemic — could provide political opportunity as well.

"There are just situational elements in this poll that are negatively affecting the governor," DiCamillo said. If the pandemic gets more under control and the vaccine starts being distributed in greater quantities, he said, Newsom could certainly see a rebound.

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But when it comes to how vulnerable the governor would be to a recall campaign, DiCamillo said the poll results are inconclusive.

Even with his plummeting approval rating, DiCamillo said, Newsom is in a much better position than was Gray Davis, the last governor to be recalled in California: Davis hit an all-time low of 22% that fall, just before he was recalled.

Additionally, 49% of those polled said they think a recall election would be a bad thing for the state, as opposed to 36% who said it would be a positive development.

But even in 2003, DiCamillo said, when Davis' approval ratings were rock bottom, voters didn't like the idea of what he called a "disruptive" recall election.

He said the more telling number in regard to Newsom's shot at surviving a recall is how respondents said they would vote if the question was on the ballot today: 46% said they'd vote to retain Newsom as governor; 36% said they would remove him.

"But a relatively large proportion — 19% — are undecided," he said "That's much, much higher than what we saw in 2003 with Gray Davis. People had opinions one way or the other in the early going on his recall. I think voters here are kind of waiting and seeing how things unfold with regard to the pandemic."

Whatever happens in the coming months, DiCamillo said, it's unlikely Newsom will be able to recapture those sky-high approval ratings he enjoyed as recently as last fall.

"You know, he used to have a 65% approval rating. Now it's in the mid-40s," he said. "You certainly can rebound when things get better, but it's unusual for someone to regain their former high-level job approval. ... I'm not expecting this governor to get back to those levels of approval any time soon."

The poll was conducted online from Jan. 23-29, in English and Spanish, among 10,357 registered California voters. The sampling error is +/-2 percentage points.