Tuesday, September 14, 2021

What to Expect when you’re expecting a Recall Election – California Reboot edition

(Sorry, but once again, I better put a link for the book up top -- and it's also available to read for subscribers on Taegan Goddard's Political Wire).

I’m happy to say that I got to serve as one of the guest live-bloggers at fivethirtyeight.com for Election Day. I still want to provide some thoughts here, so I’m going to put up an abbreviated (well, by past standards) Election Day post. Most of this will link back to past coverage.

There are a number of outlets to check for Election coverage and up to the minute numbers. Obviously fivethirtyeight is one place I’d recommend checking out, and it has been a go-to site for all recent elections. Taegan Goddard is probably the first place I look at in the morning and he will almost certainly have a round-up of key commentaries from across the spectrum.

There are tons of outlets covering the results, though once again, I have to recommend Daily Kos’s incomparable Election Day Live coverage, which has been the gold standard for the granular look at results.  They are on the left, so fair warning if that’s a problem for you (though the coverage is not cheerleading and if numbers look bad for Democrats, they will say so unsparingly). After all these years, I’ve never found an outlet that provides the same immediately hit on the level that election junkies demand.  I don’t have a similar outlet on the right. If there is one that I’m missing, I’d be happy to check it out (and please, let me know what that is). No judgment there – these blogs are hard to maintain in the best of times.

 What to Expect when you’re expecting a Recall Election – California Reboot edition

California Governor Gavin Newsom is facing the voters again on September 14th.  I’ve said a lot on this, but more important than my guesses, predictions and opinions are the facts. A lot of this summary will be links to past blog posts – otherwise, it’ll just be the book. But let’s check out the background, history and facts on the use of the recall and what it means for September 14 and beyond:

You have selected Regicide:  Past Governors' facing recalls:
Newsom is only the fourth Governor in US History to face a recall vote. The first was in 1921, when 
North Dakota's Lynn Frazier (Non-Partisan League) was ousted (the linked article by Fresno State Professor David Schecter has an excellent discussion of the Frazier recall). The second was against California Governor Gray Davis (Democrat) in 2003. And the third was Scott Walker (Republican) in 2012.

Additionally, a recall was approved against Arizona Governor Evan Meacham (Republican) in 1988, but Meacham was impeached and removed by the legislature on the day the signatures were verified.

Despite the fact that gubernatorial recalls rarely get on the ballot, there have been tons of attempts to recall Governors. There have been 55 attempts in California, including six alone against Newsom. Last year 15 Governors faced recall attempts.

Just Win Baby – the recall’s Reversal of Fortune:
As a general rule, recalls are very successful. There's no hard and fast numbers, but most politicians seeking reelection win -- it may be at a 75-85% clip. Obviously, that is a self-selecting group of people who are popular enough to run for reelection, but it is still a powerful statistic. Recalls turn that number on its head. 

Over the last 10 years, 60 percent of recalls have resulted in removal, with another 6 percent resulting in a resignation. California is even more extreme – 78% of officials are kicked out.

Among the governors, we have 2 out of 3 losing their seats so far. Among the 39 state legislative recalls, 21 were successful. That number is much worse when you realize the heavy skew caused by the recalls in Wisconsin in 2011-2012, where 10 of the 13 state senate recalls failed.

But…perhaps for governors it’s what price you have to pay to get out of going through all these things twice:

Many recalls get very different results than the original election. But so far, this has not been the case with gubernatorial recalls. Walker finished a little less than a point above his 2010 race. Davis finished 3 points behind his 2002 performance. And Lynn Frazier in 1921 went from 51-49% in his favor to 51-49 against.

Perhaps we can see a result mimic 2018?

Is the Newsom recall like 2003 or 2012?

Nearly all the comparisons for the Newsom recall have been with the 2003 Gray Davis one – California, lots of candidates and celebrity names. But the reality is that 2003 was a strange event that seemed to lack much of a partisan feel (though Davis did pull in 76% of the Democratic vote) and the circus angle and weird crop of candidates topped all other subjects.

But 2012, which has been overlooked, seems like a much clearer comparison. The Walker recall was seen as very partisan and was originally focused on a wedge issue that is popular with one party – at that time labor relations. Much as in this year, the original issue was effectively sidelined by the time the campaign started in high gear. In “More Than They Bargained For,” reporters Jason Stein and Patrick Marley note that the Democrats focused on corruption and Walker looked to job creation. The recall really became a rerun of the election, much to Walker’s benefit. I’d say we are seeing similar results in 2021, as Covid has been dropped as issue by Republicans (but most certainly not by Democrats), and right now it feels like it may be a rerun.

"The dead have risen! And they're voting Republican!"

There’s another similarity to 2012. Larry Elder and Donald Trump have decided to preemptively cry fraud over the results of the recall before any results have come in. This is not a new development – and I’m not referring to previous Trump claims of fraud by both parties. The Wisconsin recall saw the same issue. Scott Walker expressed concerns on voter fraud, claiming that he needs to win 53% of the vote (exactly the amount he ended up receiving), and claiming that voter fraud is responsible for 1-2 points, which is borne out by absolutely no statistics whatsoever. Future Speaker of the Assembly Robin Vos also claiming fraud in a Senate recall. In 2016, Roger Stone would claim that Walker won due to fraud, though that was a one-off claim. Vos’ estranged wife faced charges that she voted despite being a resident of Idaho. And the one fraud charge was for a Walker supporter who voted five times.

Come on up for the rising: Can Turnout be overrated?

Once again, turnout is the order of the day. The fabled ground game is being discussed with the usual reverence. Going into the recall, there was a belief among many commentators that turnout would plummet. This is belied by the history of gubernatorial and high profile mayoral recalls, where turnout has actually shot up – notably in the Gray Davis one. You can read the post for thedetails.

In 2012, with the Walker recall, I threw some cold water on the discussion of turnout. I believe (and still do) that turnout was not the determining factor in that one. But California in 2021 is much different and the mail-in ballot makes it even more of a question.

Because of the Democrats overwhelming registered voter advantage, turnout for Newsom is key. If the Democrats show up in enough force, they should win. In the Davis recall, Democrats did not come out to play, but those that did were overwhelmingly in Davis’ corner (76% according to the exit poll). That was in a less partisan environment. What would happen today?

The Plurality Conundrum:
California’s recall procedure – what we can call the one-day/two-step process – has come under heavy fire over the possibility that Newsom could get millions more votes in losing the Yes/No vote than the replacement can get in winning that seat. With 46 listed challengers (not even including the write-in candidates), Newsom can lose with 49.9%, while the replacement gets under 3%.

This didn’t happen in 2003, but in five separate California recall elections since 2011 (including the State Senator Josh Newman recall in 2018) the replacement winner finished with fewer votes than the recalled individual.

Many states have a version of the plurality issue, though a good number use the two-day/two-step process. Others use replacement by law (Lieutenant Governor) and still others use a new election. Here’s much more on the subject.  

The end of the beginning or just the closing credits?
Will the recall of governors spread to other states? The recall appears to have grown heavily in use, at least on the state-level (see below), but a look at the laws of the different states suggest that gubernatorial recalls will remain a rare occurrence. Only 19 or 20 states have the recall for governor (Virginia is the 20th, but a likely no) and seven (or now, maybe six, thanks to an Alaska decision) of those states have a "judicial recall" or malfeasance standard, which demands some misdeeds by the official.

So, we are just looking at 11 or 12 states. Recall laws differ greatly by jurisdiction. Some of those differences make a gubernatorial recall both more difficult and potential counterproductive.

Note also that the recall has operated as a 
Bermuda Triangle of politics (and academia).

Second verse, same as the first?
In 2018, Gavin Newsom torched Republican standard-bearer John Cox. Cox is one of the replacement candidates once again. Cox is running again, but he seems like an also ran. However, we have a long history of recall reruns. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the losing Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2010, lost to Walker again in 2012. In 2018, California Democratic Senator Josh Newman was ousted by Ling Ling Chang, who Newman beat in 2016 – and came back to top in 2020. 191

There may be a few reasons for the lack of rematches, 
which I discuss here. Perhaps the best is that it allows the incumbent to tag the election under the "sore loser" designation, that being said, there are enough examples of recall rematches.

Party Line -- Is one party more likely to use recalls?:
I constantly get asked about the party breakdowns of the recall. Most of the recalls are on the local level, where the position is elected on a nonpartisan basis. When there is a partisan position, the party label is frequently a misleading method to judge recall use, as many are not based on D v. R partisan motivations. Sometimes Republicans recall Republicans, and Democrats recall Democrats.

However, you would see both parties are not shy about using recalls (for example of the 14 state legislative recalls from 1981-2008, most were launched against Democrats, and ethics played very little role in those recalls). Democrats have launched the majority of the recalls last year on the state level, which makes sense as the lost power in 2010.

Republicans or their backers have not been shy about using the recall for partisan gain (for example, Michigan, 1983, California, 1994, 1995 and 2003). Same thing with Democrats (Wisconsin and Michigan in 2010, 2008 California).

So, which party is most likely to launch a recall? Simple -- the one that is not in office.

Recall Explosion?
There has been a lot of talk of a recall boom, especially in California. Well, not yet. There is a very good chance that Idaho ends up having more recalls than California this year (Idaho is at 8, California will be 6 after today). 2021 may see the least amount of recalls get to the ballot of any year since I started the blog in 2011. What we have seen is an explosion of recall attempts, with other 500 attempts already. This is mainly due to  the pandemic and steps taken to mitigate it.  The big target – school board members. At least 177 school board members have been targeted – which is much less than your average year (50-70).

Automan and the technological revolution that may be driving the recall:
I see 
technological changes as a major driver in the recalls growth. The Internet, email and social media allow unconnected voters to be drawn into a fight over a politician's alleged misdeeds and raise funds. Smartphones, spreadsheets and demographic data can maximize signature-gathering efforts. Even basic items like printers and word processing programs have made it simpler and cheaper to make high-quality fliers and other basic documents over the past several decades. This may be that why the recalls seem to have started taking off in the 1980s. Look at 1983 as one example, which featured prominent recalls against two Michigan Senators and San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, in the same year that saw the introduction of Lotus 1,2,3, Microsoft Word and, of course, Automan.

Ain’t Misbehaving: Why Corruption was not the motivating factor for the adoption of the recall
Despite the widespread belief that the recall is only suppose to be used for criminal conduct and malfeasance, only four of the state legislative recalls, and none of the gubernatorial ones, history could claim to be based on conduct. The rest were on policy votes and politics. Despite the allegations against Scott Walker (or really, his aides) in the John Doe investigations, the Walker recall was clearly not about corruption. Neither was the Gray Davis one.

How important was the corruption issue in the adoption of the recall? I think it is hard to argue that it was really the motivating factor for the creators of the recall (especially the Father of the Recall, John Randolph Haynes). I can't link to the original articles, but here's a great write by 
Rod Farmer on the Progressive Era recall debates.

Get ready, cause this ain't funny, I'm Gavin N. and I'm about to get some money:
California, like Wisconsin, has an unusual campaign finance law for the recall – 
no limit on donations (California’s is even more permissive, as Wisconsin’s no limit period ends with the certification of the recall).

The result is that Newsom and the recall campaign raised over $70 million. Is that a lot? Maybe it sounds like a lot, but in a world in which longshot Senate candidates raise $100M+, it feels kind of light. Scott Walker raised $58.7M 10 years ago, before campaign finance really took off. The state legislative recalls in Wisconsin raised $45M. The 2011-2012 recalls combined spent over $135M. California is also more than six times Wisconsin’s size. It feels like Newsom could have raised a bit more money.

One other point – Newsom could get reimbursed for spending. California law allows for officials who survive a recall vote to get reimbursed for their spending. This article by Chuck McFadden in Capitol Weekly claims that it will only cover certain expenses, not including TV ads and the like (which was clearly the bulk of the spending). However, the statute has only been tried once, by Michael Machado in 1995. His reimbursement (for $889,000) was rejected, but Machado never pursued it in court.

Newsom’s not going to try for the reimbursement – the political cost is too high to bother. But it would be an interesting postscript.

Man is opposed to fair play, he wants it all, and he wants it his way:
We have heard, and will continue to hear complaints about the unfair use of the recall (see the post above on corruption). But these complaints can generally be dismissed out of hand. Why? There have been a number of principled opponents of the recall. 
Alexander Hamilton and William Howard Taft lead the pack in US history with their great dislike for the recall. Among modern commentators, the only one that I can think of is George Will. But they are few and far between.

Most of the people who complain about the recall are just really complaining about the recall being used against their side.  
Scott Walker signed petitions seeking policy-focused recalls. Bill Clinton was certainly not supporting the Gray Davis recall.

Polls have repeatedly shown most voters want a limited recall, as in both Wisconsin in 2012 and California in 2021, there are polls that 60% of voters want a malfeasance standard recall law (and 10% in Wisconsin want no recall whatsoever). But 47 percent voters in Wisconsin cast ballots to kick out Scott Walker. So, at the end of the day, cognitive dissonance rules.

Newsom's Great Campaign move:

Democrats came under criticism for not backing a safety replacement candidate. You can check here to see why that does not work. 

Newsom’s odd campaign strategies:

Newsom has made a number of surprising campaign (and personal) decisions in the recall effort, that may not cost him anything, but should be look at. The French Laundry dinner was not the most important moment in the recall effort. The difference was really a Superior Court decision granting petitioners an extra 120 days to gather signatures. This was the reason the recall got on the ballot.

What is odd is that there was no appeal of this ruling. The Secretary of State (Alex Padilla, who Newsom later selected to replace Kamala Harris as U.S. Senator) had previously filed no opposition to the extension requests for the two ballot initiatives, so the judge allowed the signature extension for all of the matters. There is no official reason why there was no appeal (it may be because of support for one of the initiatives), though Democratic consultant Garry South suggested that “…it got lost in the shuffle.”

Newsom also came under fire for sending his kids to school during the pandemic and recently for selling his house, which maybe could have waited a couple of months?

On the strategy front, Newsom could have delayed the recall vote as much as two months. During the Senator Josh Newman recall effort in 2017-2018, Democrats pushed forward a number of changes in the law that had the effect of allowing the party in power to effectively delay recall votes by a few months (and also added in a strike law, which allows a counter-signature collection strategy). When the going was good, the Democrats basically waived a few provisions of this law (they had to do with budgeting) and that pushed the recall months forward. It may work, but I don’t like it as a strategy. Newsom needs to get turnout up and he gave up a chance to get more of his voters to the polls, as well as risk the blowback from a potential bad school re-opening. Additionally, thanks the campaign fundraising law that allows Newsom to donations in unlimited amounts, you would imagine he could use these two months to blanket the market. Instead, they decided to roll the dice on the earlier date and the good numbers they were seeing.

The other odd development is the lack of mail. In most California elections, voters are flooded with campaign mailers. I’m still throwing stuff out from 2018. Most of these are due to initiatives, but they really are for all types of races (except the presidency – neither party is wasting a dime on that one). In this election, I’ve gotten one solitary piece from Newsom. David Nir of the Daily Kos pointed out that it is particularly strange because everyone is getting a mail ballot. You may think that the day I got that ballot there should have been 10 pieces telling me to vote No (the Yes side had a very logical reason to not send mail to anyone in the Bay Area). The strategy may have worked, but I don’t get it.

The Republican Downside: Is it “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose” or “when you think you lost everything, you find out you can always lose a little more”

Republicans have acted like the recall can be viewed through as it’s a "when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose" event. The party has been driven so low in the state that it might as well roll on the dice on the recall. However, there's another, more recent Bob Dylan quote that may be applicable, namely: "when you think that you lost everything, you find out you can always lose a little more."

I don’t think a recall loss will have any real impact on the national level. It can just be shrugged off as an expected resulted in a blue state. But for Republicans in California, already at the bottom, they may have discovered that rather than try another option, the party’s strategy is to keep digging.

The problem for the GOP is that the loss comes after a surprisingly good 2020. Trump lost by 29%, but Republicans captured four house seats, the first time they ousted an incumbent Democrat since 1994. Instead of looking at this as green shoots to grow on for future races, they decided to immediately bet it all on a wild card. And if they lose, and lose by a good amount, what will the impact be on 2022? Will the Republicans have any hope of attracting a decent candidate to run as the standard-bearer? Could they be shut out of the top-two – as they were in the Senate race in 2018? And could this impact those four (let’s say three after the reapportionment loss) house seats that they just recaptured?

The Republicans can look at the 2003 recall as a positive moment, but in reality, it was barely a last hurrah. They have faded to irrelevance in the state. Trying to copy that past moment may cost them years in getting back in the nation’s biggest electoral prize.

Why the Democrats should celebrate recalls:

Democrats have been the primary target of recalls and now they are looking for changes in the process. The focus has been on the two Democratic Governors, but the party has a bigger claim. Since 1994, when the recall was used against a legislator for the first time in 80 years, six legislators have gone to voters early. And five of the six who have faced a recall have either been Democrats or were targeted because they supported Democrats.

Democrats may look at this information and feel that seven of eight recalls is the relevant information. It is not. The key point that should be looked at is the year 1994.

1994 was a great year for Republicans in California. Pete Wilson won re-election as governor, the fourth straight term for Republicans. No surprise there – the Democrats only had control of the governor’s mansion for 22 years in the entire 20th Century. In that same election, the Republicans took control of the California Assembly for the first time in 25 years. The Congressional delegation coming out of November was split 26-26.

In the senate race, Dianne Feinstein barely beat back a challenge from Michael Huffington. The surprise there may be that Feinstein won at all.  Republicans held at least one of California’s US Senate seats for all but 14 years of the 20th Century. And if we go back a little further, to 1988, we see George H.W. Bush won California’s Electoral College vote. No surprise here as well – Bush’s victory was the sixth straight for Republicans and the 10th over the last 11 elections. The party could rely on California. Its two biggest Presidential triumphs came from Californians Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan leading the ticket. In modern parlance, California may have been a purple state, but it was one with a decided red tinge.

Three decades and seven recalls later, we see a new world, one that calls into question any value that Republicans may have received from the recall. Gavin Newsom may be facing a recall, but his 2018 victory was the third straight by a Democrat – the first time the Democrats won three straight gubernatorial elections in California since before the Civil War and the longest stretch of continual Democratic control in the state’s history. The Democrats hold veto-proof majorities in both the Senate and Assembly. Since the 2003 recall, the party’s registration advantage has gone from less than 9% to over 22%.

On the federal level, the numbers are just as stark. Democrats have a three-quarters majority in the House Delegation – more than three times their overall majority in the chamber. This strong showing has given California’s Nancy Pelosi the Speakership. The US Senate seats are so safely ensconced in Democratic hands that in the last two elections in 2016 and 2018, the Republicans did not have a candidate make the run-off. It is not too extreme to say that right now, nobody thinks a Republican is going to capture Vice President Kamala Harris’ old seat in 2022. And after almost a half century of losses, the Democrats have won California’s Electoral College vote for the eighth straight election, winning it by 29 percent. Once again, virtually nobody believes that whomever the Republicans nominate in 2024, they have a chance at capturing California’s vote. This means that one-fifth of the margin needed for the presidential victory – larger than the smallest fourteen states combined – can be tattooed into the Democratic column.

California is not the Democratic equivalent of Texas or Ohio or Florida. It’s not even Mississippi or Kansas. It is far bluer than any of those states are red. California is now the Democrats own Private Idaho.

Republicans have not come up with any response to this takeover of their party’s former electoral rock. Republicans actually had a good 2020 in California. Despite losing the top of the ticket by historic blowout margins, the Republicans managed to capture four house seats. It was the first time since 1994 that they ousted a Democratic incumbent.

But once again, instead of incrementally building on this success and tilling the voter soil, the Republicans have looked to a weapon of the weak and the easy fix of recalls. Much as the 2003 recall did not result in any long term benefits to the Republicans, we may see similar problems for the party here. Even ousting Newsom is unlikely to result in lasting change in the most valuable state in the country.

Republicans have succeeded in using the recall to oust people, including in the shocking Arnold Schwarzenegger triumph in 2003. They may succeed again. But the stagnation of the party suggests that they are paying a heavy price for trying the recall shortcut rather than working on building the party.

For the Democrats, there is a separate question. Why change any political laws whatsoever? If the price of complete domination of the state – a state that was the cause of so much heartache before the Republicans settled on the recall as a weapon– is that the party has to face a recall every so often, shouldn’t they be happy to write that check?

Changed the locks on my frontdoor? The inevitable post-recall reform act:
After major recalls, the first action by the recall opponents is to propose a reform to the law. We saw this in 1914 in California after the Senator E.E, Grant recall, as well as in 2017, with the Senator Josh Newman recall. Michigan changed its laws in 2012  following the successful Paul Scott recall). And occasionally, they do succeed in 
making an important change. Wisconsin future Speaker Robin Vos proposed an amendment to limit the recall to elected official misbehavior (the malfeasance standard/judicial recall standard). We are already seeing similar discussion in California, let’s see if they follow through. As I noted in the Hill, “we didn’t do anything about homelessness, but we handled the recall” is not a great campaign slogan.

Recall Survivors: Risin' up, straight to the top?
Surviving a recall can boost a career. Scott Walker instantly moved up to real contender status for the president.  Dianne Feinstein won the San Francisco Mayoral recall against her in 1983. By 1984 she was being talked about for the VP and was the US Senator by 1992. California State Senator Jeff Denham survived a recall in 2008, and was then elected to Congress. Scott Fitzgerald in Wisconsin pulled the same trick.

Comeback, Baby, Comeback: How a Resurrection Really Feels
Is a recall loss the end of a career? Not always. The most obvious example is North Dakota Governor Lynn Frazier was the first Governor to be recalled back in 192 as well as his fellow losers Attorney General William Lemke (five terms in Congress and ran for president in 1936, coming in 3rd on the Union Ticket) and Agriculture and Labor Commissioner John Hagan, who eventually got his job back and got the Republican nomination for governor in 1938 (though he lost). He was elected to the first of the three US Senate terms 18 months later. Seattle Mayor Hiram Gill lost a recall in 1914 and was back in office the following term. We also have recent examples: State Senator Josh Newman lost a recall in 2018 (to Ling Ling Chang, the candidate he beat in 2016). 2020 saw Newman come back and retake the seat.

No future, no future for you?
Another big question that I'm constantly asked: Will we see a cycle of recall revenge? Who knows. I remember similar questions after Gray Davis and Scott Walker were recalled, and in fact this has been a constant warning cry of recall opponents since the recall was first adopted over a century ago.

However, I think we will see the recall continue to expand, as voters realize that "hey, I can use that thing" and try to take out vulnerable incumbents on their own (or with party or interest group backing). The recall is having its moment in the sun, and it doesn't look like it wants to relinquish the spotlight so quickly.

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