by Phil Bump, Washington Post
At both the 10,000- and 10-foot levels, there’s every reason to assume that California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) will not be recalled from office in this week’s election. At the 10,000-foot level, California is a heavily Democratic state, one that preferred Joe Biden to Donald Trump by a nearly 2-to-1 margin last year. As of writing, more than half of the ballots that have been returned in the recall race come from Democrats.
At the 10-foot level, polling has consistently shown that Newsom is in a safe position, but for one outlier that wasn’t replicated. Polling from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) shows that more than half of likely voters approve of the job Newsom is doing as governor (plus-10 points on net), approve of the job he’s doing on the pandemic (plus-19), are more likely to say things would get worse than better if Newsom is recalled (plus-8) and oppose the recall effort itself (plus-19). Again, those are the likely voters, people who might be expected to return a ballot.
This is not the profile of an electorate that wants to hand control of the state over to a conservative radio host, Larry Elder, who is the preferred choice of only 26 percent of respondents when they’re asked who they’d like to have replace Newsom. Newsom’s support is twice as robust as Elder’s, but, if the recall were to pass, Elder appears to be the most likely beneficiary, given the two-step process in California that allows a simple plurality to elect an official ousted by recall. But, again, there’s little reason to think that ouster will occur.
Once upon a time, the next part of this story would have been uncomplicated. Should Newsom win, Elder and the other candidates would offer gracious statements, some offering to work with the governor to ensure his success. Such statements can sting, but they are generally acknowledged as an important part of the post-election process, a recognition that the people have weighed in and that their opinion has been respected.
But, again, that was once upon a time. Now, in the ongoing aftermath of a 2020 presidential contest in which the losing candidate has rejected such niceties — and reality itself — Elder is already claiming that the election-he-hasn’t-yet-lost was lost because of election fraud.
On Monday night, NBC News reported on a website run by Elder’s campaign called “Stop CA Fraud.” The site reads like it was written by a conspiracy theorist from the future, stating that “[s]tatistical analyses used to detect fraud in elections held in 3rd-world nations … have detected fraud in California resulting in Governor Gavin Newsom being reinstated as governor” — wrong both because Newsom was never not governor and because, of course, the results haven’t yet occurred. It claims that “[i]nstances of undocumented ballots have been discovered,” whatever that means, and insists that any future “audit” of the results must be conducted by outside groups, not actual election officials — previewing an Arizona-style partisan review of what happened.
How transparent is Elder’s fraud allegation? At one point, the site claims that the “primary analytical tool used” to show fraud “was Benford’s Law and can be readily reproduced.” The goal of that statement is to get credulous people to mutter “ooh, Benford’s Law, wow” and assume that it means anything. But, as was explained at length after the 2020 election, Benford’s Law, a statistical analysis considering the distribution of numbers in sets, does not itself prove fraud occurred. It is also of debatable use in even spotting possible fraud for a variety of reasons. But most importantly, it depends on large data sets for analysis — sets of data that don’t currently exist! Not only can it not be readily reproduced, it couldn’t have been conducted in the first place.
All of this is in service of getting people mad.
“When … officials, either through laziness or incompetence, allow thieves to steal amidst the dead of night and cheat our ballot box, we can no longer rely on its contents,” the site reads. “Will we now have to fight the California jury box, in the hope that the final box — the one most akin to Pandora’s — remains closed?” That final box, the page makes clear, is the “ammo box,” suggesting that the purported fraud in the election that hasn’t yet occurred might necessitate people taking up arms.
This is obviously toxic, to understate things, and — given that the election hasn’t happened — delusional. But it is also itself wildly lazy, ginning up these shrugging claims of fraud and pushing people to civil unrest even before anything happens.
In one of the Halloween episodes of “The Simpsons,” Homer puts on Death’s robe and assumes his power to take lives. In short order, he’s gotten used to the power. Wanting better seats at a baseball game, he casually gets up and starts tapping people along the aisle with his now-bony finger, creating a corpse-littered path to an improved vantage point. What’s it to him? He got what he wanted. No downside for Homer!
This, in essence, is what Elder’s website is doing. It’s just using the fervor about fraud generated by Trump’s false claims about 2020 — what’s come to be called the “big lie” — and the revolutionary fury that resulted (as seen on Jan. 6) to get people riled up about his own probable loss.
But why? In part, clearly, because he and his party increasingly see post-election adjudication as a possible do-over for elections they lost. It’s sheer power-grabbing, using the actual will of the voters as a steppingstone to the real fight, a bare-knuckles struggle to somehow seize power despite those results. Maybe a phony “audit” that can block certification of the real results? Whatever it takes.
Not to mention that such efforts are lucrative. Fighting fraud isn’t free, gang! Click that big old “Donate” button and help us prepare to overturn the fraudulent election that hasn’t yet occurred. If Elder’s team follows the Trump playbook, that means millions pouring into bank accounts and little-to-nothing moving back out to actually challenge the results.
What’s important to remember about all of this is that it suggests that Elder is well aware that he’s not going to win the recall effort. His team has polling, too. The site seems to have been created to transition his effort to unsubstantiated claims of fraud after that loss but, it seems, it published too early. That, too, reinforces that the claims of fraud are nonsense: If you are asserting statistical anomalies of data before the existence of that data, it seems pretty obvious that you’re just making things up.
It’s easy to laugh at all of this, given that it is ridiculous. And who knows, Newsom could still be recalled and Elder could still be the state’s next governor, however unlikely it seems. But we can’t simply sit back and marvel at the gall of claiming fraud in a race that a candidate is likely to lose. It can’t become normal to treat elections as something that serve only as a jumping-off point to legal fights or brute-force attempts to wrest power away.
For decades, campaigns have been lucrative for political consultants with often negative results for voters. Imagine how negative the results will be if we normalize making lawyers, consultants and candidates rich after the elections are over.
Philip Bump is a correspondent for The Washington Post based in New York. Before joining The Post in 2014, he led politics coverage for the Atlantic Wire.