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9 takeaways from the California governor recall election

We can learn from Tuesday’s result without jumping to dramatic conclusions about 2022

Democrats were excited to see the California governor recall trailing in Orange County, where GOP Rep. Young Kim, here at a remembrance ceremony on the east front steps of the U.S. Capitol for the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, will be seeking reelection.
Democrats were excited to see the California governor recall trailing in Orange County, where GOP Rep. Young Kim, here at a remembrance ceremony on the east front steps of the U.S. Capitol for the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, will be seeking reelection. (Photo by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s convincing victory in a recall election has led to some overanalysis and overestimation of Democrats’ chances in next year’s midterm elections. But the result should be considered more like that of a special election, to be handled with restraint, because of its unique circumstances.

Considering the sheer size of California and the lack of other big races right now, I understand the temptation to take the result and extrapolate it to 2022. But it’s OK to hesitate before jumping to dramatic conclusions about precisely what strategy will work 14 months from now — and that’s the right approach, no matter how the recall election had turned out.

That doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything. Here are some of my initial thoughts:

A win is a win is a win. Republicans started this battle, and Democrats finished it in a big way. I’m not sure exactly how much credit Democrats get for a Democratic candidate winning big in a heavily Democratic state, but they won in the face of the unique dynamic of Question One — whether Newsom should be recalled — and multiple simultaneous crises. They earned their victory lap.

Democratic control of Congress is still in peril. The Democratic House and Senate majorities were at risk before the California result, and after. The margins for Republicans to take control of each chamber are very narrow (they need a net gain of five House seats and a single Senate seat), and history is working against Democrats. In addition, Republicans don’t need to win any districts or states with a similar partisanship to California to win those majorities.

Republicans may not need Orange County. Democrats were specifically excited to see the recall trailing in Orange County, where GOP Reps. Michelle Steel and Young Kim will be seeking reelection. But setting aside the fact that we don’t know what the congressional lines will look like until the redistricting commission releases them, Republicans may not even need those two districts to get to the majority. Depending on the outcome of redistricting in other states and the overall political environment, Kim and Steel may not be essential.

Democrats aren’t dead yet. California Democrats proved that Democratic voters can still be motivated to vote, particularly by a polarizing candidate and the threat of former President Donald Trump. This blueprint will be used by Democratic candidates and campaigns around the country next year. But rallying Democrats won’t be enough to win in the districts and states that will decide the majorities.

More attention doesn’t lead to electoral success. I hate it when candidates blame their lack of success on the lack of media coverage. Republican talk radio host Larry Elder is a great example of why that is not accurate. Elder’s bid to replace Newsom had the recall succeeded was actually hurt by more media attention.

The more voters heard from him and learned about him, the less they liked him. Elder probably would have done better if voters knew as little about him as possible. So please, stop blaming reporters and analysts for your own inability to attract votes.

The 2022 elections will not be about Elder. Democrats will be running against stronger GOP candidates than Elder in the districts and states that will decide the majority next year. And the most controversial potential GOP nominees are running in Republican states (such as Ohio and Missouri).

While the California race showed that Democrats can still gain some mileage with the Trump message, the 2022 midterms are more likely to be a referendum on President Joe Biden, whose job approval rating is still in a slump.

Polling isn’t dead yet. Even though there are still thousands of votes to be counted in the coming weeks, it’s clear that public polling was good at identifying the dynamic of the race. As of late Wednesday morning, the recall effort was failing 64 percent to 36 percent, a margin of 28 points.

The FiveThirtyEight final pre-election average showed the recall failing 57 percent to 42 percent, a margin of nearly 16 points. That’s a wide gap on the margin, but it is likely to narrow as Election Day votes (which are likely to be more Republican) are counted.

But proceed with caution on polling. A SurveyUSA poll in early August, which showed the recall winning by 9 points, demonstrated the ability of a single survey to affect the polling averages, and thus define the narrative of the race. Because there weren’t a lot of surveys around that time, it drove the polling averages to show a much closer race than was likely to be the case.

No, this doesn’t contradict the previous point about the accuracy of polling. It is a reminder, however, to be wise connoisseurs of polling, including trying to identify outliers.

Pretty good night for political handicappers. Political prognosticators have taken their lumps over the years, but not this week. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales, The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter and Sabato’s Crystal Ball all had the recall rated as Likely Democratic for months. But I know I won’t get too cocky since a humbling election seems to always be around the corner.

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