Los Angeles Times
Democrats find right formula
Insights gained will inform party strategies leading into the midterms
WASHINGTON — Let’s get this much out of the way: An offyear recall election in a deepblue state like California can’t tell us how midterm elections nationwide will turn out more than a year from now.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s sweeping victory Tuesday night has no lessons to teach about the state of national politics. Political operatives have paid keen attention to the recall election not only because of the high stakes, but because Newsom’s campaign tested themes that Democrats are already using elsewhere.
Those same techniques may not work as well in a less Democratic state, and they hardly negate the problems that Democrats face, both in California and Washington, in turning their ideas into governing policy. But the campaign offered insights that will inform strategies over the next 14 months. Here are three:
Trump still delivers wins — for Democrats
“All of you know that last year I got to run against the real Donald Trump,” President Biden said Monday evening, making the sign of the cross as if to ward off an evil spirit as he appeared with Newsom at Long Beach City College.
“Well, this year, this year, the leading Republican running for governor is the closest thing to a Trump clone that I’ve ever
That pretty much encapsulated the No. 1 theme of Newsom’s campaign ever since he had the good luck to have talk show host Larry Elder emerge as the leading Republican candidate against him.
“Trumpism is still on the ballot in California,” Newsom repeatedly told voters.
Newsom is hardly alone in running against the former president.
In Virginia, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe is seeking a return to the statehouse, and he has been working overtime to tie his Republican opponent, Glenn Youngkin, a wealthy privateequity executive, to Trump. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, running for reelection this year, has done the same against his opponent, businessman and former state lawmaker Jack Ciattarelli.
All three Democrats have placed two related bets: that Trump remains a huge motivating tool for getting core Democratic voters to the polls, and that he also continues to alienate suburban swing voters.
Many Republicans worry about that too. A recent poll for CNN found that although 63% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they wanted Trump to lead their party, they split closely on whether they thought that having him as their nominee again would be an advantage: 49% said the party would have a better shot with someone else.
Keeping Trump at the center of voter attention can put Republican candidates in a bind — something that both McAuliffe and Murphy have exploited.
If Republican candidates stand firmly with Trump, as Elder did, they run the risk of losing centrist voters. If they criticize the former president, they risk the opposite — attacks from his acolytes, as Youngkin and Ciattarelli have encountered.
Of the three states voting this fall, California provided the easiest test of an antiTrump strategy: The former president lost the state by 29 points a year ago.
If the playbook works in November’s two elections for governor, however — especially in Virginia, which remains something of a swing state — expect to see Democrats step up their use of it nationwide. Even in a red state like Texas, running against Trump could help Democrats in some closely contested suburban districts.
That will be especially true if Trump interjects himself into the midterm races, a temptation he probably won’t resist.
After the Great Depression, Democrats successfully ran against President Herbert Hoover for more than a generation. Trump’s utility for his opponents may not last that long, but if this summer’s campaign teaches us anything, it’s that keeping his name figuratively on the ballot hasn’t yet worn out its charms.
The politics of vaccination
A year ago, when Trump was touting Operation Warp Speed’s efforts to develop a coronavirus vaccine, few would have predicted that opposition to vaccinations would have turned into an article of belief for much of his party.
To be sure, many prominent Republicans, notably Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who suffered from polio as a child, have consistently and strongly urged people to be vaccinated.
Many others, however, have taken an ambiguous, or in some cases hostile, stance.
This week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis hosted an event at which a speaker, with DeSantis standing nearby, declared that the vaccines could change a person’s RNA, an absurd falsehood the governor made no effort to rebut.
Trump was booed last month in Alabama when he urged a crowd at a rally to be vaccinated. He hasn’t repeated the call since.
In the recall campaign, Elder vowed to repeal California’s mask and vaccine requirements “before I have my first cup of tea.”
Newsom responded with an ad warning that if the recall passed, California could end up with “an anti-vax Republican governor.”
The vast majority of adult Americans — nearly 3 out of 4 — have been vaccinated, so being perceived as anti-vaccine isn’t helpful for a candidate. Republican complaints that they’re not “anti-vax,” just “anti-mandate,” haven’t helped much with voters, a significant majority of whom also favor at least some vaccine mandates.
More than 6 in 10 voters in Tuesday’s recall election said they viewed being vaccinated as a “public health responsibility,” with only about one-third viewing it as a matter of “personal choice,” according to the exit poll conducted for the major television news networks. And a similarly large majority viewed Newsom’s COVID-19 policies as either about right or not strict enough, with only about one-third seeing them as too strict.
The recall results were a voter verdict: “Yes to science, yes to vaccines ... yes to ending this pandemic,” Newsom declared after his victory.
That’s in California, but the picture isn’t dramatically different nationwide. A poll this week by Ipsos for the Axios website found that 60% of Americans backed a requirement that federal employees be vaccinated and a rule that companies employing more than 100 people require vaccination or regular testing for their workers, policies that Biden proposed last week. And 57% said they supported a vaccine requirement at their own workplaces.
But the survey, like others, found a deep partisan rift: 84% of Democrats and 62% of independents, but only 30% of Republicans, supported the mandate for large employers.
Politically, Republicans have backed into a corner on vaccine mandates that resembles the one they occupied four years ago on repealing the Affordable Care Act. Then, as now, their core voters fervently supported a policy that a large majority of the electorate rejected.
Republicans have positioned themselves as the party of personal freedom. In doing so, they have allowed Democrats to occupy the ground of protectors of public safety. So long as a large majority of voters feel that the pandemic threatens their health and their children’s, that’s not an even fight.
Polls, frauds and a boost in turnout
Partisans often accuse pollsters of having too much influence on elections, accusing surveys of dampening turnout for their side. Most of the time, however, the evidence suggests that polls don’t have such a major impact.
This election may be the exception. In July, a UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll done for The Times found that the recall was almost a dead heat among likely voters. The problem, the poll found, was that a large number of Democrats weren’t taking the election seriously.
Newsom’s campaign used that and similar polls to shock Democrats out of their complacency and boost turnout. When the poll surveyed voters again, last week, the numbers had shifted. Democrats were now just as likely as Republicans to say they were enthusiastic about voting. That final poll correctly forecast Tuesday’s result. Perhaps all those Democratic voters would have tuned into the election eventually without the polls. It’s without question, however, that Democrats used the polling numbers as part of a major, and successful, effort to motivate supporters to vote.
Republicans sometimes seemed to be trying to do just the opposite.
Starting last week, Trump, Elder and other conservative Republicans started making ominous — and baseless — statements about rigged elections and voter fraud, echoing the former president’s false claims about the 2020 presidential vote.
On Monday, Elder’s campaign website had a “Stop Fraud” button prominently on its homepage that linked to a site claiming that “statistical analyses used to detect fraud in elections held in 3rd-world nations (such as Russia, Venezuela, and Iran) have detected fraud in California resulting in Governor Gavin Newsom being reinstated as governor.”
Set aside for the moment the fact that Elder was claiming evidence for a rigged count more than 24 hours before the count even took place. (And give Elder credit for quickly conceding defeat Tuesday night.) But as a political move, telling your supporters that the outcome is rigged against them is hardly a turnout motivator.
In January, Trump’s claims about a rigged election may have depressed turnout in Republican parts of Georgia enough to allow the victories of Democratic Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. If Republicans continue to make claims of fraud central to their political message, they may see more close elections slip away.