Newsom, Trump, and the Independent Voter: Valuable Lessons from the Recall for 2024?

It appears the efforts to unseat Gavin Newsom from the governorship of California have failed. Media outlets have declared that Newsom will hang on to his executive role until the next election in 2022. 

As reported by CNN, “A group of conservative activists launched the recall last year because they disagreed with Newsom’s progressive policy stances, and the effort took off amid frustration among some Californians about what they viewed as Newsom’s onerous and ever-changing Covid regulations for business and restaurant owners, as well as for school re-openings.”

However, these activists, along with the political aspirations of such notable icons as Larry Elder and Caitlyn Jenner, have fallen woefully short.  According to the Christian Post, the recall ballot had two questions: “a voter first was asked whether they supported recalling Newsom and then, as a second question, they were asked which of the 46 registered candidates they wanted to replace Newsom as governor.” 

With regard to the first question, the Associated Press (AP) reported: “With an estimated two-thirds of ballots counted, ‘no’ on the question of whether to recall Newsom was ahead by a 30-point margin. That lead was built on votes cast by mail and in advance of Tuesday’s in-person balloting, with a strong showing by Democrats. While likely to shrink somewhat in the days ahead as votes cast at polling places are counted, Newsom’s lead couldn’t be overcome.”

Newsom reacted by stating, “‘No’ is not the only thing that was expressed tonight. I want to focus on what we said ‘yes’ to as a state: We said yes to science, we said yes to vaccines, we said yes to ending this pandemic.” 

Beyond measuring the popularity and resilience of Newsom, the results of the recall may act as a litmus test for larger national issues. As NewsTimes argues, “The race also was a test of whether opposition to former President Donald Trump and his right-wing politics remains a motivating force for Democrats and independents, as the party looks ahead to midterm elections next year.”

Vanity Fair corroborates this perspective, arguing “Trump may not be on the ballot in California September 14 or in the midterms next November, but his presence looms large over those races.” And Newsom himself said,”Eyes are now on the state of California because they recognize this is not just about the state of California. This is about the direction that we’re going as a nation.”

Gavin Newsom will retain his title as California governor (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Possibly in an attempt to distance himself from Trump, Elder accepted the results, saying “let’s be gracious in defeat,” However, with a nod towards the future, Elder indicated he may try again to unseat Newsom in the general elections, stating, “We may have lost the battle, but we are going to win the war.” Not to be outdone rhetorically, Newsom waxed philosophic, warning, “Democracy is not a football, you don’t throw it around. It’s more like — I don’t know — an antique vase,” Newsom said after his win. “You can drop it, smash it into a million different pieces — and that’s what we’re capable of doing if we don’t stand up to meet the moment and push back.”

Meanwhile, Republican candidate Caitlyn Jenner, who received slightly more than 1% of the vote, acted with dismay, exclaiming,”He didn’t campaign on not one of his successes, because he doesn’t have any. I can’t believe that this many people actually voted to keep him in office. It’s a shame, honestly, it’s a shame. You kind of get the government you deserve.”

Perhaps so, but as I have stated before in other articles, politicians that fail to individuate themselves from President Trump, both rhetorically and with regard to issues, are going to find themselves in trouble.

That’s because, in a close election, candidates typically win thanks to swing voters, especially so-called independent voters. And independents are increasingly exerting control on both the tenor and even the outcome of elections. As U.S. and News Report points out, “Independent and unaffiliated voters are having a moment. And this time, it appears that the moment is something more enduring, as those with no major party affiliation have increasing control over the fates of Democrats and Republicans seeking office.”

At the end of his presidency. Trump only garnered a 30% job approval rating from independents. Perhaps ironically, President Biden is also losing his sway with independents. A recent Reuters poll “showed that 46 percent of Independents Disapprove of the President’s performance up from 38 percent in June,” and that “[S]ince June, Biden’s net approval among independents has fallen by 14 percentage points overall.”

Trump, to his credit, still remains popular among Republican voters. The New York Post reports, “Republicans overwhelmingly back former President Donald Trump as the leader of their party but are split about whether he should be their standard-bearer in 2024.”  

So, while Republicans and conservative independents fumble with what they want in a candidate, Biden will have to find a way to restore his image. If not, he may face a recall of his own in 2024. 

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