By León Krauze
On Monday, California began mailing ballots to registered voters for the upcoming recall election of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. Set for Sept. 14, the process is only the second in the state’s history (voters ousted Gray Davis in 2003). Just six months ago, Newsom seemed certain to avoid Davis’s fate. When I interviewed him in February, he dismissed the recall campaign as a “distraction.”
“I’m focused on the state’s challenges,” he told me. Things have changed. Now, less than four weeks from the election, Newsom seems to be in trouble. Recent polls show most voters oppose firing him, but just barely. Faced with an energized conservative base, Newsom could very well lose his job and be replaced by a figure on the opposite end of the political spectrum, such as controversial radio host Larry Elder.
It would be a strange turn of events for Newsom, who has faced criticism for his handling of the pandemic (including questionable personal decisions early on, such as dining at an elite restaurant during restrictions), but whose administration has been a far cry from, say, the calamitous scenario in Florida under Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). Newsom’s potential defeat at the polls would also stand in stark contrast with his overall approval figures, which are mostly positive. Newsom’s 57 percent approval rating is more than 30 percentage points better than Davis’s numbers before his own recall.
The election is now underway, and Newsom is back on the campaign trail. With a nearly 10-point enthusiasm gap between Republican and Democratic voters, nothing should concern him more than voter motivation. Newsom will need Democratic turnout, and no one could be more important than Latinos.
The recall election comes at a painful yet promising time for California’s large Latino community. The pandemic and its economic effects have hit Latinos hard in the state, but 2020 also saw historic gains among California Latinos in voter registration, early voting and younger voter engagement, according to a recent Univision analysis. This should bode well for Newsom. In 2018, 64 percent of Latinos backed him.
But Newsom would be unwise to take the Hispanic vote for granted. Within the past six months, polls have been inconsistent, suggesting both that he enjoys considerable Latino support and that said backing could be fickle. Another red flag for Newsom? Many Latinos remain open to the idea of recalling Newsom.A voter survey made available to me by Univision’s Political, Advocacy and Government group, which collects data on Hispanic voters for groups and campaigns interested in reaching the Hispanic community, suggests 44 percent of Latino voters remain undecided.
If enough of those ambivalent Latino voters turn against Newsom, he will lose the governorship. In a recent column for the Los Angeles Times, Gustavo Arellano suggests Latinos might just be angry enough at Newsom to vote him out of office, even if it’s not on their own self-interest. This might well be the case.
But there is another possibility that could also spell trouble for the Newsom campaign. Hispanic voters might be planning to abstain. Latinos are now 28 percent of California’s registered electorate, but UCLA research suggests that they could fall well below that potential for the recall. The Univision-commissioned survey confirmed that 76 percent of Latinos plan on voting, four points less than what the research shows among non-Latino voters.
How to explain this lack of enthusiasm for the recall, an election that could have significant and immediate consequences in a state with a growing Latino population? Latinos, especially younger voters, could be unaware of the specific policy changes the election could bring about, from mask mandates to immigration policy. It wouldn’t be the first time. Hispanic voters often protest that campaigns don’t talk to them effectively, Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) successful outreach effort being an exception.
Newsom must use the following weeks to clearly convey the consequences of the recall, in Spanish, and in the community. With four weeks to go, the Newsom campaign asked California Sen. Alex Padilla, a stalwart Newsom ally, to record a campaign ad. Last weekend, Newsom made a campaign stop in East Los Angeles. Alongside well-known Hispanic figures, such as local Councilman Kevin De León, Newsom aimed his message squarely at the Latino community. It might not be enough.
If Newsom’s efforts fall short with Latino voters, he could be in for a nasty result on Election Day. It would come with a tough lesson: In today’s California, there is no future without Latino support. And, eventually, as California goes, so goes the nation.
León Krauze is an award-winning Mexican journalist, author and news anchor. He is currently the lead anchor at KMEX, Univision’s station in Los Angeles. Twitter