California recall: Latest polls offer good signs for Newsom with Election Day approaching

Tom Coulter
Palm Springs Desert Sun

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – With less than two weeks left until California’s recall election, polls released this week indicate that a majority of the state’s voters want to keep Gov. Gavin Newsom in office, a change of course from recent polls that have forecasted a tight contest.

A poll released Wednesday by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 39% of likely voters in the recall election say they would vote to remove Newsom, while 58% are opposed to the recall.

Opinions on the recall contrasted sharply between parties, with 82% of Republicans in favor of ousting Newsom, compared to just 7% of Democrats, according to the poll. Independent voters, meanwhile, were fairly split, with 44% in favor of the recall and 49% opposed.

More:California Republicans skip endorsement fight in September recall election of Gov. Gavin Newsom

The responses also indicate that most California voters are engaged with the election, despite earlier polls indicating Democrats were less enthusiastic. About 70% of likely voters say that the recall election is “very important” to them, including solid majorities among both Republicans and Democrats, and 47% of voters say they are more energized than usual to cast their ballots.

The PPIC poll was released the day after another poll found that a majority of California voters would vote "no" on the recall. That poll, conducted by SurveyUSA for the San Diego Union-Tribune, found that 51% of respondents wanted Newsom to keep his seat, while 43% said they would vote to remove him.

The polls this week offer some positive signs to Newsom’s team, especially after polling this summer indicated that the race was in a dead heat. For example, a UC Berkeley poll released in late July found that just 50% of likely voters were in favor of retaining Newsom, while 47% supported the recall.

The numbers have been trending in Newsom’s favor the last couple of weeks. Polling averages from the data and politics website FiveThirtyEight show 51.1% of voters opposed to the recall and 45.3% in favor of it — figures that had not yet been updated Wednesday to include the PPIC poll’s far wider margin. In early August, the same averages showed Newsom with a razor-thin margin of 0.2 points.

Larry Elder, who has emerged as the Republican frontunner in recent polling and fundraising for the Sept. 14 recall election of California Gov. Gavin Newsom, rallies with supporters on July 13 in Norwalk.

Elder still leading replacement candidate

The PPIC poll released Wednesday also found that attorney and conservative talk show host Larry Elder remains the election's leading replacement candidate, supporting the findings of other recent polls.

Elder was by far the leader among the field, with 26% of likely voters supporting him in the poll. Former San Diego Mayor and Republican Kevin Faulconer was a distant second among the candidates, with 5% of respondents planning to vote for him.

The poll also underscored the strange dynamics of the recall election, in which Newsom and Democratic party leaders have been encouraging their supports to leave the second question blank — a move allowed in the state’s recall process.

Their messaging seems to have worked to some extent, as a quarter of likely voters said they wouldn’t select a candidate on the ballot’s second question. Another substantial portion, 24% of respondents, said they were still unsure of how they would vote on the replacement candidate question.

The poll released by the PPIC also offered some insight on what is driving Californians to vote in the recall, with COVID-19 ranked as the top issue among a plurality of respondents, followed by the job market and homelessness.

Most have been supportive of vaccinations efforts by Newsom and state leaders. The poll found that more than three in four respondents think the state is doing an excellent or good job distributing COVID-19 vaccines.

Additionally, 61% of Californians favor requiring proof of COVID vaccination for large outdoor gatherings or certain indoor spaces, according to the poll. That stance puts most Californians at odds with Elder, who has vowed to fight governmental mask and vaccination mandates if elected.

Newsom's approval rating, meanwhile, stood at 53% in the PPIC poll, and has remained fairly level throughout this year. However, fewer than half of respondents, 47%, say that California is headed in the right direction — down from 58% in May 2020. 

But the PPIC poll noted that less than a quarter of voters thought California was headed in the right direction under former California Gov. Gray Davis, the state's only governor to be recalled, before his defeat in 2003.

"The mood today is decidedly better than when Governor Davis was facing a recall in 2003 (24% right direction in September 2003)," the poll's authors wrote. 

Youth, Latino turnout lagging so far

While recent polls favor Newsom to defeat the recall, initial voting data suggests that the first-term governor still has some work to do in getting young and Latino voters to turn out for him.

After ballots were sent out to every registered voter statewide in mid-August, 21.3% of those, or about 4.7 million out of 22.3 million, had been returned as of Tuesday, according to the California Secretary of State’s office.  

More:California recall: Is a higher turnout better for Newsom? Polls show GOP voters motivated

Turnout could play a crucial role in the race, with registered Democrats outnumbering Republicans by about a two-to-one margin. So far, Democrats have returned more than twice as many ballots as Republican voters, according to research conducted by Political Data Inc.

“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,” Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc., said in an email. “But this recall special election seems to be poised to blast past those kinds of numbers.”

Still, some crucial voting blocs have yet to return their ballots. Just 10% of registered voters ages 18 through 34 have returned their ballot so far, according to Political Data Inc. In contrast, 37% of voters ages 65 and up have already returned their ballots.

The trend is especially crucial for Newsom, as 56% of voters in the 18-to-34 age demographic are registered Democrats, compared to just 15% who are registered Republicans.

Latino voters, who have been targeted by both Newsom and his opponents in recent weeks, also have reportedly been slow to return their ballots, with just 13% having done so.

While some groups have been slow to return their ballots, the mailing of ballots to every registered voter – a move approved by state lawmakers as a COVID-19 precaution – should lead to some increase in how many Californians ultimately weigh in.

Andrew Hall, a political science professor at Stanford University who specializes in elections, said the effects of universal vote-by-mail are greater in off-year elections, such as this one. He estimated turnout could be up to 6% higher than if California didn’t have the universal provision.

Election Day is Tuesday, Sept. 14.