A simple sign made the point. Woman wants Gavin Newsom to get the boot. Photo by Chris Stone

Gov. Gavin Newsom and his pals in the Legislature thought they were being very clever when they advanced the date of his recall election several weeks to Sept. 14.

At the time, less than a month ago, events seemed to be going Newsom’s way and an earlier election would, they believed, take advantage of those circumstances while giving his enemies less time to persuade voters to oust him.

Newsom had lifted the personal and economic restrictions he imposed to battle COVID-19, the economy seemed to be picking up, he had signed a state budget loaded with cash payments and other new benefits, and he was launching an extensive tour of the state to tell voters that it was “roaring back.”

It’s possible, however, that advancing the election will backfire on Newsom because events are no longer going his way. A new strain of COVID-19 is hitting the state hard, wildfires are burning out of control and drought has led to shortages of water.

This week, Newsom interrupted his “roaring back” tour to impose vaccination mandates on some public employees and health care workers, urge private employers to do the same and beg millions of Californians who have shunned vaccinations to get the shots.

Foremost, from a purely political standpoint, a new statewide poll shows him just breaking even among voters who are most likely to cast ballots on the recall.

The poll, conducted by the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC-Berkeley, found that 50% of likely voters favor Newsom, but nearly as many, 47%, favor the recall. While Newsom enjoys a strong lead among all registered voters, the poll said Republicans are highly motivated to turn out and vote against the governor, while Democrats and independents tend to be apathetic.

“The higher GOP turnout is being driven by several factors,” poll director Mark DiCamillo said. “First, Republicans express far greater interest in voting in the recall election than Democrats or No Party Preference voters. Second, there is a widespread expectation among Democrats and No Party Preference voters that Newsom will defeat the recall, which may be fostering greater complacency among recall opponents than among supporters.

“Third, voters in most jurisdictions will see only two questions on the recall ballot, the Yes/No vote on the governor’s recall and who should replace Newsom if he were to be recalled. The very limited nature of the two-question ballot contrasts with other statewide elections in which voters are drawn to the polls by numerous state and local candidate and proposition races.”

Election day is just seven weeks away and mail ballots will be available in mid-August. By a 10 percentage point margin, likely voters say California is on the “wrong track” and all of the current negative factors, particularly fires and the new surge in COVID-19, are likely to worsen over the next few weeks.

Newsom will be under pressure to take more aggressive steps to curb the revived pandemic, such as imposing new mask-wearing or vaccination mandates. Schools are set to reopen during the voting period and how they will do so is still somewhat uncertain.

Will local school systems insist that teachers be vaccinated as a condition of returning to the classroom? Newsom was asked about that, but ducked the question. With COVID-19 once again flaring up, no one knows how many parents will keep their kids at home.

It’s a political minefield and the Berkeley IGS poll indicates that Newsom must do more to motivate friendly voters to cast ballots while avoiding major mistakes, or the earlier election will blow up in his face.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.

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