California governor recall election night guide: What to watch for as results come in

James Ward Michele Chandler
Redding Record Searchlight

Millions of Californians may go to bed Tuesday evening with anxiety over whether Gov. Gavin Newsom will be recalled and who may replace him in Sacramento. 

On Wednesday, California voters may very well wake up with just as much anxiety. That's because if the election is close — and some polls show the race is tight despite recent surveys that found Newsom widening his lead to comfortable margins — it may take weeks to get final results because of the state's voting rules. 

Unregistered voters can ask for a same-day voter registration form up to Election Day and cast ballots, potentially pushing back final results for days after Election Day. In addition, all ballots postmarked on Election Day have until Sept. 21 to arrive and be counted at county elections offices. 

Those recall ballots will ask two questions: 1) Do you want to recall Governor Gavin Newsom? and 2) If the governor is recalled, who do you want to replace him?

If more than 50% vote YES, the governor would be removed from office, and the person with the most votes would replace him. If 50% or more vote NO, the governor would remain in office.

Current polls show talk show host Larry Elder is the leading candidate to replace Newsom if the governor is recalled from office. 

More:California recall: Environmentalists fear a one-time climate change denier could oust Newsom

To help you make sense of what’s bound to be one of the most unusual Election Days in California history (well, at least since 2003 when a movie star from Austria was swept into the Governor's Office via a recall election), the USA TODAY-Network-California has put together a guide to analyzing voting history from different parts of the state and what early results from those regions might mean for Newsom and the 46 candidates who hope to replace him in Sacramento on Election Night. 

Orange County — Traditionally a fortress of conservative Republican votes, the Southern California county has turned to toss-up territory over the past several elections because of changing demographics. In the 2018 gubernatorial election, Newsom narrowly beat his Republican opponent John Cox 50.1% to 49.9% in the county, while winning the statewide election 61.9% to 38.1%. Longtime political pundit Bob Shrum, director of  USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future, says recall supporters must win Orange County by a large margin to have any shot at success. "And that's not going to happen," Shrum said. So if early results show either a narrow "yes" or "no" vote, it will be a long night for anti-Newsom forces. 

The North State and San Joaquin Valley — Anti-Newsom forces had their most success collecting signatures for the recall in both regions, which in 2018 also overwhelmingly voted for Republican contender Cox. Both regions are expected to vote heavily in favor of the recall on Sept. 14. Louise Gliatto, legislative analyst with the Siskiyou Conservative Republicans, said "lots of 'Recall Newsom' signs" were spotted at four rallies the group organized recently against mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations. Since Siskiyou County received above the number of signatures the area needed to get the recall on the ballot, “I know that those people that eagerly signed that petition will be voting,” Gliatto said. But the problem for recall supporters is there aren't enough anti-Newsom votes in either region. "People vote, not land," Shrum said. Dan Schnur, professor at the University of California – Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, agrees, saying if anti-Newsom turnout and votes aren't exceptionally high in both regions, recall supporters' chances of winning are low. "The recall’s supporters would need to pile up very large margins in Orange County and the Central Valley to have a shot at winning," Schnur said. 

Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay Area — In the 2018 gubernatorial election, Newsom ran up insurmountable leads with 60% to 70% of the vote in both regions. If Newsom's support slips into the mid 50% range in either area, the governor may have a long, nervous night. "The biggest potential danger sign for Newsom would be very low turnout in Los Angeles and the Bay Area," said Schnur. "These are the two most heavily Democratic areas of the state, and low turnout there would suggest that Newsom was not able to motivate his party’s base to vote." Schnur, though, doesn't see that happening. "Newsom is building up a formidable advantage on mail votes, so the first results on Election Night should lean strongly in his favor," he said.

San Joaquin Valley exceptions — The outliers in the otherwise solid conservative Republican San Joaquin Valley are Fresno and San Joaquin counties. In 2018, Newsom narrowly won San Joaquin County and Cox narrowly won Fresno County. Similar results in the recall election would bode well for Newsom. If both counties show strong support for the recall, it may make the governor nervous.

San Diego County — This is another that county recall supporters must win by a large margin if they hope to remove Newsom from office, Schnur said. It will be an uphill battle. In 2018, Newsom cruised to an easy win here. Even a close "yes" recall vote in San Diego would make the math difficult for anti-Newsom supporters. 

Historical bellwether counties? David Paleologos, director of Suffolk University Political Research Center and USA TODAY Network pollster, found that in the 2003 recall of Gray Davis, both Lake and Santa Barbara counties' results uncannily reflected the statewide outcome. Lake County, two hours northeast of San Francisco, voted 55%-45% in favor of the recall, while coastal Santa Barbara County voted 57%-43% to oust Davis. Statewide, the vote was 55%-45%. Both counties’ votes for replacement candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger also came close to mirroring the movie star's statewide winning 49% margin in the replacement portion of the ballot. Election observers may well keep an eye on both counties on Election Njght to see if 2021’s results prove a bellwether as well. 

Michele Chandler and James Ward are reporters for the USA TODAY Network-California.