Biden on the ballot.

John Ellis
7 min readSep 5, 2021

A number of subscribers have asked about the gubernatorial recall referendum in California. Following are the basics:

(1) Election Day is 14 September, 2021.

(2) All “active” registered voters in California are eligible to vote. Every one of them has already received a ballot in the mail. All mail-in ballots are valid if postmarked by September 14th. Mail-drop ballots must be “cast” by September 14. In-person precinct voting on Election Day ends at 8 p.m. Pacific Standard Time.

(3) What is a recall election? How does it differ from a “normal” election? The answers to both questions were concisely answered by Ben Christopher of Cal Matters back in March. He wrote:

Recall elections can be unpredictable.

A run-of-the-mill election for state office in California follows a predictable two-step. First, every candidate crowds onto a single ballot and voters cast their ballots for whomever they like — regardless of party. Next, the top two winners from the first round go head-to-head in a second and final contest.

That “top-two” set-up ensures that the candidate who wins will have received more than 50% of the vote. The will of the majority rules, guaranteed.

Recall elections offer no such guarantee. Voters are first asked whether they would like to give the incumbent the boot. Then, in a second question, they are asked who ought to be the replacement. Under California law, incumbents can’t run to replace themselves. (So Governor Newsom is not on the “replacement” ballot).

If more than 50% of voters opt for a “yes” on the recall question, whoever comes first on the replacement list is immediately hired as the state’s next chief executive.

4. What do the polls say? A recent poll says that Governor Newsom will survive the recall referendum, with relative ease. Two other polls say he survives but an upset is still possible.

5. If Governor Newsom is recalled, who would replace him? At the moment, “conservative populist” talk show host Larry Elder is the front-runner. He has the support of roughly one quarter of likely voters, which, remarkably, is more than anyone else, by a lot.

6. If Newsom is recalled and Elder is elected, will it make any difference? Not really. Democrats have veto-proof control of both houses of the State Legislature and would have zero interest in helping Elder advance any kind of “conservative” agenda. They will do anything and everything to make his time in office a living misery. Should he win the replacement election, Elder’s chances of winning “re-election” in 2022 fall somewhere between a cold day in hell and none. Perhaps counter-intuitively, Elder’s irrelevance makes it easier to vote for Newsom’s recall.

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So what’s the big deal? Mickey Kaus argues that a vote to recall Newsom would terrify moderate, swing district Democrats in Congress and make passage of President Biden’s “$3.5 trillion No-Program-Left-Behind ‘soft infrastructure’ bill,” as conceived, much more difficult, if not impossible. Kaus writes:

…..Dems worry about losing swing districts in November (2022). A Newsom loss — let alone an Elder win — would be shock treatment for vulnerable Democrats in Congress, indicating that .. well, voters, even in a super-blue state, are really pissed off.

They wouldn’t be pissed off just about immigration: The recall largely reflects anger at liberal policies on crime, homelessness, political correctness, and Covid restrictions. What Democratic pol wants to make himself one of the Newsoms of 2022 by passing Biden’s budget-busting agglomeration of still more liberal policy dreams (including, at the moment, another immigration amnesty)?

Kaus’s analysis seems undeniably true and speaks to a larger “truth” about modern American politics: Tip O’Neill’s famous maxim — “all politics is local” — no longer applies. These days, all politics is national.

On one level, obviously, California’s recall election is a local matter. But on a more important level, it’s a referendum on Democratic Party governance of the Biden kind. And shrewder swing district Democrats will not apply a binary measurement (win/lose) to the referendum’s outcome. They’ll measure the outcome against the results of the 2020 presidential vote and 2018 gubernatorial elections in California.

Last November, former President Trump lost California by a nearly two-to-one margin, receiving ~34% of the total vote. In 2018, Governor Newsom won the state’s governorship in a landslide, receiving ~62% of the total vote. If the vote to recall Newsom is 39% or less, swing district Democrats will breathe a sigh of relief and likely press on with Biden’s agenda. If the vote to recall lands in the mid-40s, swing district Democrats will start to panic about Biden’s agenda and begin “social and political distancing” from the administration. If the vote to recall is successful, swing district Democrats will abandon Biden, immediately.

Going into next year’s mid-term elections, the Biden Administration political fortunes hang by the proverbial thread. The White House political team mishandled the Covid crisis, wishfully thinking that July 4th would be “independence day” from the pandemic due to “herd immunity” levels of vaccination. The president’s science advisors were more realistic, correctly anticipating variants and warning about the beginning of the 2021 school year. 500,000 school buses move (mostly) unvaccinated kids to and from school every weekday. Add a virulent variant to that mix and you have a disaster in the making and yet more strain on a medical care system already cracking under the existing strain of the virulent Delta variant. The science advisors were blithely ignored while the political team sold the fantasy of a “return to normalcy.” Normalcy won’t be returning any time soon.

On the war front, the Administration has been hammering away on two talking points: (1) the electorate supports President Biden’s difficult decision to end American involvement in Afghanistan’s “civil war” and (2) the evacuation of American troops, American civilians and Afghan allies, contrary to the hysterical and irresponsible press narrative, was an “extraordinary success.”

This seems as delusional as the “return to normalcy.” It is certainly true that a majority of Americans support the decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan. It is equally true that a majority of Americans were aghast at the withdrawal’s execution. And President Biden’s insistence that the evacuation was a success, that America’s standing amongst allies and adversaries alike was unchanged and that the whole thing was Trump’s fault to begin with raised yet more questions about his judgement and the possible impairment thereof.

The impact of these two mishandled crises has been immediate. The president’s approval rating has nearly collapsed. Concern about the pandemic has returned, with a vengeance. The view that the country is “off on the wrong track” has grown, substantially. And a widely shared and disquieting sadness about events in Afghanistan now overshadows relief over the war’s bitter end.

All of which puts pressure on the administration to produce a political “win.” Defeat for the president’s “$3.5 trillion No-Program-Left-Behind ‘soft infrastructure’ bill” (to borrow Kaus’s phrase) would leave Democrats with no legislative success to point to in their 2022 mid-term election campaigns and saddled to an administration perceived as incompetent, if well-meaning.

Even passage of the president’s “soft infrastructure” bill is fraught with peril, since no one voted for Biden to produce any such thing. People voted for Biden to get rid of Trump. That was his mandate from the 2020 election and he fulfilled it on 20 January 2021.

The day after that, he had a choice: Go big or go home. “Go home,” in his case, meant focusing his legislative agenda on shoring up funding for Social Security and Medicare, two wildly popular government programs that provide a social safety net for the people most likely to vote in off-year, mid-term and presidential elections. (Which is to say: old folks, who, reliably and in large numbers, vote against candidates, Republicans in the main, who propose “entitlement reform.”) Go home was a guaranteed winner, since voters, especially older voters, trust Democrats to “do right” by them on the issue.

“Go big” meant, in shorthand, Joe Biden’s New Deal, which materialized in the $6 trillion budget plan Biden unveiled on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend. The Wall Street Journal’s Editorial Page accurately conveyed the fiscal magnitude of the plan’s ambitions: “If Mr. Biden gets his way, spending in fiscal 2022 will still be $6 trillion, which is some $2 trillion more than before the pandemic in 2019. Then spending will keep rising and remain a little under 25% of GDP for the rest of the decade. That level has never been reached in a single year since World War II, and the postwar pre-Covid average was 19.4%.” (Ed. Note: Emphasis added)

Team Biden chose “go big,” in part to placate the party’s left wing, in part to flood the economy with stimulus in advance of the midterm elections and in part to prove Biden’s point that he, unlike Obama, could get “big” things done; that his was a transformational presidency and that he was the next FDR, “redefining” government’s role in the nation’s economic and social life.

Good luck with that. No one voted for it. No one was expecting it. Biden was elected to be a caretaker; to take care. He was not elected to be a revolutionary. Whether the “go big” plan passes or fails, the Administration’s proposed spending spree on every federal social program imaginable will likely be remembered as an act of epic overreach. The Administration’s only hope is that everything in the plan works as planned; that people’s lives are significantly improved, that the economy booms, that the program eventually pays for itself and, that, as a result, the future visibly brightens. Nothing ever works as planned.

All of which leads us back to Kaus’s point, which is that the California recall referendum will be interpreted as a kind of surrogate referendum on Democratic Party governance. Democrats understand this and are throwing the kitchen sink at the recall movement. Vast sums of money are being spent to defeat it. Endless messaging — via television, radio, social media, email and texts — insists on its defeat. The trashing of Larry Elder is now an hourly event. Benign neglect of the recall referendum has given way to a full frontal assault against it.

An old friend told me the other night that his best source on the subject of California politics, a veteran Democratic political consultant, told him that the recall referendum would almost certainly fail and that the press was wildly over-playing its importance. Fail it probably will. How it fails, however, matters. And it might not fail. It might pass.



John Ellis

Founder and Editor, News Items. Political analyst. Founder of and contributing editor to Bird News Items. Former columnist for The Boston Globe.