With Two Weeks Left in the Recall Election, Latest Polls Show Some Good News for Newsom

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A woman wearing a face mask and gloves sits at her desk with dozens of envelopes in front of her. Other staff members work nearby.
Workers sort through mail-in ballots at the Santa Clara County registrar of voters office on Aug. 25, 2021, in San José, California. The Santa Clara County registrar of voters is preparing to take in and process thousands of ballots in the recall election of Gov. Gavin Newsom as early voting is underway across California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Less than two weeks before the end of voting in the Sept. 14 recall election of Gov. Gavin Newsom, a new survey finds 39% of likely voters support recalling the governor while 58% oppose it. Three percent are unsure how they'll vote.

The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) survey finds a sharp partisan divide, with 82% of Republicans supporting removing Newsom from office and 90% of Democrats opposing the recall. Independents are divided, with 44% saying they'll vote yes on the recall and 49% voting no.

A new survey from the Public Policy Institute of California finds a majority of likely voters opposing the recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom. (Courtesy PPIC)

Those results are extremely consistent with previous PPIC polls going back to March of this year.

"It tells me that we live in a very polarized time. Many people have made up their minds and they're sticking with their decisions," said PPIC President Mark Baldassare.

"Really the difference that we see in this poll are some of the underlying attitudes particularly have changed among Democrats. And then more Democrats now feeling that [this] is not an appropriate use of the recall and feeling that things could be worse if Governor Newsom is recalled" — which, Baldassare adds, could make Democrats "much more likely to send back their ballots."

On the second part of the ballot where voters are asked to choose a replacement candidate if Newsom is recalled, roughly half of likely voters did not express their support for a specific candidate. Twenty-five percent say they won't vote for anyone, and another 24% say they're unsure whom to support.


Replacement candidates

Among likely voters who do have a preference, the runaway favorite is conservative Republican talk show host Larry Elder, with 26% saying they'll vote for him. Far back in second place with 5% is former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer. Businessperson John Cox, who lost to Newsom in 2018, and Assemblymember Kevin Kiley are tied for third with 3% support.

Of likely voters who said they'd decided on a replacement candidate, the far-and-away favorite is Republican talk show host Larry Elder. (Courtesy PPIC)

Elder has strong support among Republicans, but he is not, Baldassare said, "someone who has what we would call Arnold Schwarzenegger's crossover appeal, where you could get a lot of support among independents, moderates, you know, Democratic moderates."

Voters were read a list of replacement candidates that did not include the most prominent Democrat running, YouTube entrepreneur Kevin Paffrath. Baldassare said that the list included the names of leading candidates "who met our criteria both for having raised enough cash based on the early numbers that were provided on campaign funding and have significant media."

Voter engagement

One thing that crosses the partisan divide: An overwhelming majority of likely voters (70%) say the outcome of the election is very important, including 75% of Democrats and 67% of Republicans.

And yet just 47% of likely voters say they are more enthusiastic than usual about voting in the recall, while 30% say they are less enthusiastic.

A vast majority of likely voters say the recall election is very important, according to a PPIC poll. (Courtesy PPIC)

If there is a warning sign for Newsom, it's that younger voters, who oppose the recall, have been more slow to return their ballots than older voters. And Latinos, who oppose the recall by 66% (no) to 27% (yes) have also been very slow to return their ballots, when compared to white voters.

Still, based on the rate at which voters are returning their ballots, turnout looks to be fairly robust, especially for a special election occurring in September.

Paul Mitchell with the nonpartisan Political Data Inc. which tracks ballots returned by voters, says 21% of voters have already voted.

"Around the state we have had many special elections that have had turnout in the high teens to mid-30% range, the kind of electorate that could have very strange outcomes," Mitchell said. "But this recall special election seems to be poised to blast past those kinds of numbers."

Another good sign for Newsom's chances of beating the recall is that 53% of voters approve of the job he's doing as governor. When voters recalled Gov. Gray Davis in 2003, his approval rating was in the mid-20s. Women are much more likely to approve of the job Newsom is doing than are men.

One clear distinction between Newsom and the Republicans running to replace him is their policies toward government mandates for mask wearing and vaccinations for entry to businesses, indoor events and workplaces.

Newsom says he supports those mandates when health officials think they are needed, whereas Elder, Faulconer and Cox say they'd reverse those statewide policies if elected.

Baldassare says due to the lack of crossover appeal for any of the potential replacement candidates and the absence of a prominent Democrat running, "Gray Davis faced more challenging circumstances [in 2003] in terms of what was involved in part two of the ballot than [what] Governor Newsom does today."

A medical assistant stands over a woman and takes a swab from her nose.
A medical assistant administers a COVID-19 test at Sameday Testing on July 14, 2021, in Los Angeles. COVID-19 cases are on the rise in most states as the highly transmissible delta variant has become the dominant strain in the U.S. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Coronavirus pandemic tops concerns

According to the PPIC survey, when asked to name the most important issue facing California, 21% of respondents said the coronavirus pandemic, followed by 12% choosing jobs and the economy and 11% naming homelessness.

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A majority of likely voters — 61% — favor requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination to enter outdoor gatherings or indoor spaces like bars, restaurants and gyms. More than a third — 36% — said they opposed such vaccination requirements.

Just 5% named wildfires as the biggest issue facing California and very few named crime, which some Republican candidates have been using as a cudgel against Newsom.

Most Californians think the state government has either done an excellent (28%) or a good (50%) job handling distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines.

The poll results are based on a survey of 1,706 California adult residents, including 1,254 interviewed on cellphones and 452 interviewed on landline telephones. Voter interviews took place Aug. 20-29. Results in the "likely voters" group of 1,080 Californians is accurate within +/-4.5 percentage points.