GOP hopes of ousting Gavin Newsom fading in the California recall election?

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File

There are 12 days left to turn this around but the trendline is a bummer after a bunch of polls several weeks ago showed that Newsom might be in real trouble. The latest ones suggest otherwise. Behold the FiveThirtyEight polling average:

A month ago SurveyUSA found “recall” leading comfortably, 51/40. A month later, Newsom seems to be pulling away. What happened?

Two things, I think. We’ll get to those in a second, but let’s stick to the data for now. Two polls released over the last 48 hours have boosted Newsom and one of them is familiar to Trump fans. Remember Trafalgar, the firm that called Trump’s upsets in the midwest in 2016 and recognized that he would overperform the polling consensus last fall? They’ve earned a reputation for detecting the sentiments of “hidden” Republican voters who end up being overlooked by more well-known firms. But even Trafalgar has Newsom leading fairly comfortably in their new survey:

The other poll comes from the Public Policy Institute of California and sees an even bigger lead. Note the Latino numbers:

Democrats are terrified that Newsom will underperform with Latinos in California, not just because that would put him at risk of losing but because it would validate their fear that the GOP has made durable gains with that group after Trump improved with them last November. If Latinos let Newsom down, Dems will have a five-alarm fire on their hands in the midterms. A YouGov poll taken in early August found California Latinos evenly split on the recall question, an ominous sign for lefties. But PPIC has them breaking strongly towards Newsom now, 66/27. They also have his job approval at 65/29 among that demographic (and 53/43 among the total population). Whatever he’s been doing over the past month seems to be working.

In fact, the newest poll from SurveyUSA also shows a reversal. They had “recall” winning by 11 in early August. Now they have Newsom ahead by eight. How’d he do it?

The first of the two factors I mentioned above is the pandemic. California’s Delta surge appears to be leveling off in the nick of time for Newsom, who can contrast these results with the massive waves in the American southeast as evidence that his administration’s policies worked better than the GOP’s:

Average daily deaths in California stand at 88 at the moment, way off the winter peak of 561 and even below last summer’s peak of 144. The PPIC poll above has Newsom at 58/39 approval on the pandemic — precisely the same as his lead on the “recall” question — and Latino support at 68/28. “Recall” is a tougher sell to an electorate that’s suddenly optimistic on COVID.

The second factor is pure, uncut negative partisanship. The way the GOP is/was going to win the recall was by making it entirely a referendum on Newsom and his foibles. Biden ran that strategy successfully against Trump last year, spending most of his time in his basement and trusting that swing voters would render a negative verdict on Trump so long as Biden didn’t give them any reason to reconsider. That strategy became harder for California Republicans this past month when a well-known conservative bombthrower like Larry Elder emerged as Newsom’s main competition, though. His rise in the polls gave Democrats an opportunity to turn the election from a referendum into a choice between Newsom and a Trumpy media star whose politics are far out of line with most Californians. And they’ve taken advantage:

Newsom has blanketed California with ads attacking the top GOP candidates, casting them as devotees of former President Trump who oppose state mandates for COVID-19 vaccinations and mask wearing, a clear strategy to rally California’s left-leaning electorate.

At a event in Oakland on Tuesday promoting vaccination, Newsom said Californians needed to treat their vote in the recall as a life-and-death decision, since leading GOP candidates have said they would rescind his administration’s mandates for schoolchildren to wear masks in classrooms, mandatory vaccinations for healthcare workers and requirements that state employees, teachers and school staff members either be vaccinated or tested regularly for the virus…

Newsom, in a Zoom call with Move On activists Wednesday night, broadened his attacks against Elder and the rest of the Republican field, saying they would work to dismantle abortion rights and the public school system by allowing parents to received state vouchers to send their children to private school.

Elder’s had a conveniently timed scandal to deal with too. Result: SurveyUSA saw the share of California Democrats who are likely to vote surge from 62 percent last month to 81 percent now, a figure comparable to Republicans and an easy win for Newsom in a deep blue state if it holds. The PPIC poll found that there are now more crossover voters on the GOP side (17 percent), i.e. Republicans who’ll vote no on “recall,” than there are the other way on the Democratic side (seven percent).

If Newsom ends up holding on and winning, one of the what-ifs of the election will be “What if Republicans had consolidated behind a little-known garden-variety GOPer like Kevin Faulconer instead of a lightning rod like Elder who was destined to scare liberals?” The only thing that can stop Newsom from winning the recall is a wide enthusiasm gap between Republican voters and Democrats. Elder’s ascension in the polls made that less likely.

I’ll leave you with this clip of Newsom tying the two strands of his campaign pitch together. If California wants to keep its progress on COVID going, he says, it needs to stay away from anti-mandate righties like Elder.