Governor Gavin Newsom
(Los Angeles Times)
Civic Life

How Newsom defeated the recall: Early leads in suburbs, overwhelming margins in big cities

Out of the more than 9.1 million votes tabulated as of early Wednesday, nearly 64% of voters in California’s recall election were in favor of keeping Gov. Gavin Newsom in office.

The movement to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom appears to have fizzled in large suburban Southern California regions and other “swing” counties, giving the incumbent a sizable cushion to defeat the effort to oust him, preliminary data show.

There are many ballots yet to be counted. But out of the more than 9.1 million votes tabulated as of early Wednesday, nearly 64% were in favor of keeping Newsom in office.

That overwhelming margin, which could still tighten as more ballots are processed, was fueled by lopsided victories in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles County — both traditional Democratic strongholds.

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In L.A. County, roughly 71% of ballots counted as of Wednesday morning were opposed to the recall. In San Francisco, the proportion of voters who favored maintaining the gubernatorial status quo was just under 87%, according to early results published by the California secretary of state’s office.

That Newsom would prevail in deep blue areas is no surprise. But it seems he also performed relatively strongly in the rest of urban Southern California, according to the preliminary results.

In San Diego County, California’s second-most populous, nearly 59% of votes counted so far were opposed to the recall. The margins were thinner in Orange County at 52.6%, Riverside County at 52.4% and San Bernardino County at 52%.

While “no” on the recall dominated California’s more heavily populated coastal counties, “yes” carried the day in much of the state’s rural north, along with much of the Central Valley — traditional GOP areas with much smaller populations.

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Though it’s still subject to change, Newsom is currently outperforming his margin in the 2018 election, when he prevailed with 62% of the vote.

The recall offered Republicans their best chance in more than a decade to take the helm of the largest state in the union.

But the effort was undercut when Newsom and the nation’s leading Democrats, aided by visits to California from President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, portrayed the campaign to oust the governor as a “life and death” battle against “Trumpism” and far-right anti-vaccine activists.

Preparing to tabulate votes on a voting machine
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Conservative talk show host Larry Elder led the 46 candidates to replace Newsom, but the second question on the ballot became moot after a majority of California voters decided to keep Newsom in office.

Newsom cast the rejection of the recall as a vote in support “of all those things we hold dear as Californians.” His victory, he said, was a victory for science-based COVID-19 vaccines to end the pandemic and abortion rights for women, as well as economic and racial justice.

“I’m humbled and grateful to the millions and millions of Californians that exercised their fundamental right to vote and express themselves so overwhelmingly by rejecting the division, by rejecting the cynicism, rejecting so much of the negativity that’s defined our politics in this country over the course of so many years,” Newsom said.

One factor that fueled the recall was Newsom’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which critics considered too strict. But polls show Californians generally supported his coronavirus performance.

Dave Gilliard, one of the Republican strategists who led the effort to oust the governor, said Newsom was in serious trouble up until August. That changed once Elder emerged as the leading contender to replace Newsom as governor.

“Once the focus moved away from Newsom and to his opponent, Elder in this case, his numbers improved greatly,” Gilliard said. “He was able to get Democrats interested again in the election.”

Elder was a perfect foil, Gilliard said. The Republican opposed abortion rights and supported offshore oil drilling — anathema to the state’s Democratic majority. Elder has also been a die-hard supporter of Trump, an immensely unpopular figure in California.

In fact, Gilliard said, recall proponents pleaded with Trump’s advisors to “convince him to stay out of it,” which was successful until recent days when he started making baseless claims that California’s recall election was “rigged.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.