Where Will the Recall Lead?

LMU President Timothy Law Snyder, Ph.D., sat down with Professor Jessica Levinson of LMU Loyola Law School and Professor Fernando Guerra of the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles for an insightful discussion to consider what the recall election means for the future of elections in California, including the 2022 election, permanent vote by mail, and recall reform. Transcript below.

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LMU President Timothy Law Snyder
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Professor Jessica Levinson
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Professor Fernando Guerra
Pres. Timothy Law Snyder:   [00:00:30]Hi, I’m Timothy Law Snyder, president of Loyola Marymount University. The attempt to recall California Governor Gavin Newsom failed by an overwhelming margin. On the ballot were two questions. First, whether Newsom should be recalled as governor. And if so, question two, who should replace him? Of course, millions of dollars were poured into this election and now we are faced with another gubernatorial election in a matter of months. What does all this mean? And how will California change? How will we pivot? Will we just stay the same?
I am joined by two of our nations leading experts in the political process and elections who in the month and a half leading up to the special election were interviewed over a dozen times on outlets like KCAL-9, CBS-2 LA Times, New York Times, and Univision to name a few. First, Fernando J Guerra, professor of political science and Chicano/Chicana, Latino/ Latina studies, is the founding director of the LMU levy center for the study of Los Angeles. Professor Guerra has served on standing committees, blue ribbon committees, and ad hoc task forces for the city of Los Angeles, the state of California, and regional bodies in Southern California. He is a source for the media at the local, national, and international level, and is published in the area of state and local government and urban and ethnic politics.Jessica Levinson clinical professor of law and director of LMU Loyola Law School’s Public Service Institute, studies the law of the political process, including election law and governance issues. Her work focuses on constitutional law, ethics, political corruption, voting rights, campaign finance, ballot initiatives, and redistricting. She’s also host of the podcast Passing Judgment, is a legal contributor to CBS news and an opinion columnist for MSNBC, and has a weekly segment on a NPR member state in Los Angeles, that’s KCRW.
So, I welcome each of you. Welcome Jessica, welcome Fernando. Let’s start with what happened and what led to this recall. How does something like this happen in California, which as we know is a hugely democratic state? Jessica, why don’t we start with you?
Prof. Jessica Levinson:   [00:02:30]So, how does this happen in California? This is such a good question because we are a deep blue state. We are a much bluer state than we were the last time we had a gubernatorial recall and that one was successful back in 2003. And the answer is in part because there was just a perfect storm here. One is that there was a recall effort that was frankly, kind of fizzling out. And then a couple things happened, a state court judge made a decision to allow the proponents of that recall more time to gather signatures. If that judge hadn’t made that decision, we wouldn’t be here talking about this at all. And then Newsom made the decision not to appeal that state court decision. So that stood. That allowed signature gathers the time they needed to qualify for the ballot.
What else happened? There was a surge in the pandemic, and I know that this is an overused two words when we talk about the recall, but French Laundry, French Laundry, French Laundry. So, governor Newsom at a time when he asked us to sacrifice, to not see our families, to not see our friends, really to be home with our household as much as possible, he’s out having an extravagant meal. Is it the type of thing that takes down democracy? No, but that meal was so politically costly for him. So that’s how we get a recall on the ballot. We have just this perfect storm of things happen.
Snyder:   [00:04:00]Fascinating. So, when we look back at the entirety of the process and certainly the outcome, what surprised each of you the most? Fernando, why don’t we start with you?
Prof. Fernando Guerra:   [00:04:30]I think number one, even though a lot of us who do inside baseball were paying attention to this, that the voters of California were actually not paying attention to this until the last month when they were really activated. And so, that led to the misperception that it was closer than it was. That was number one surprise. Number two is the extent to which people voted no. My educated guess was that he was going to defeat the recall, but it would be in the high fifties, 58, something like that. So, it’s a very impressive victory for a variety of different reasons. Number three is that media didn’t learn from the previous recall or even just covering politics. They love to chase the story. So, for instance, when Caitlin Jenner announced her candidacy there were hundreds of stories about her. She ended up with 1% of the vote.
Nobody took a look at, was she setting up an infrastructure? Was she fundraising? What were the policies? Et cetera. There were a couple of stories about she’s really thin on policy, et cetera, but, they just wanted to cover the celebrity status. And then when Elder joined the race and how they covered him. And so, the media was covering it in terms of how can we get coverage for? What’s the most outlandish thing that we can say? Or the person… It’s celebrity driven. And it wasn’t about politics. It wasn’t about the issues on the initial aspect of anything that happened in terms of the recall. There were substantive stories. There were a lot of them, but there were always the second or third story. The lead story every time something happened was this celebrity issue, this issue of isn’t it a circus, et cetera. And I just think that the media did not do a good job in terms of covering this.
Snyder:   [00:06:00]Right, the basic issues. Jessica, what surprised you?
Levinson:   [00:06:30]Well, I’m a lawyer. So, let me kind of answer and kind of not answer the question. I agree with Fernando in terms of what surprised me. Other things that surprised me is that Newsom really made a number of mistakes. We already talked about that state court decision and his failure to appeal. We already talked about how tone deaf it was to go to French Laundry, but we didn’t talk about his failure to even file a form to indicate that he is in fact a Democrat. Now how many people voting in the recall didn’t know that, I’m not sure, but he had a couple of those little missteps and frankly what surprised me, although it probably shouldn’t have, is that I think the turning point is when and one of the greatest things that happened for Newsom is not when he really started to make his case to California voters, it’s when it looked like it was really, really close. And I think that his biggest weakness is that he doesn’t engender an amount of personal support, that people were against the recall, but not necessarily really deeply for him. So when he was able to point to that poll to say, “This is a dead heat. This is not just a fringe movement. I need your support.”
It surprised me how much he needed that. I thought he wouldn’t need a poll showing that it was a dead heat. And it surprised me how much he needed to point to a specific person, a specific front runner on the Republican side, conservative talk show host Larry Elder to make his case for California voters why our lives would be different if he was recalled. He needed that poll. He needed that opponent in order to say, there are concrete, specific ways where if you recall me, your life will be different and it will be worse. And regardless of whether or not he needed that as Fernando pointed out, this the anti-recall effort very successful, resoundingly defeated. So, he made some missteps, he needed some help, but this was in a lot of ways a huge vote of confidence for him in the end, at the end of the day.
Snyder:   [00:08:30]And only at the end. Let’s talk about those polls a bit. And I know Fernando you’re considered a guru of polls and polling. Of course, as Jessica just shared with us in the days leading up to the election, the polls were indicating people wanted to keep Newsom in the mansion, the governor’s mansion, but throughout the summer of course, the polls were telling us a sort of different story. On the late morning the day of the election, I had a chance to chat with the governor and in no away, even at that point, was he confident he would win. I think he had a sense he would, but I certainly didn’t get any sense of confidence. I think it’s possible even to say he was a bit nervous about the results. So, what happened in the polling from that midsummer even 50/50, we’ll see what happens to the later predictions. Was it an Elder phenomenon? Was it the governor’s behavior? Was it voter awareness? What do you think turned the polls around?
Guerra:   [00:09:30]Yeah, I think it was all of that, but it was also just pure political science and methodology. And what I mean by methodology is how you conduct a poll. What is the sample size? What’s the questions? Et cetera. I know that’s very political science or social sciences and we teach that quite a bit here at Loyola Marymount University. Every student in political science, sociology, et cetera, has to take a methods course where we talk out this. And the pollsters committed errors that had they been in my class they would’ve gotten an F in terms of how to sample size, the question ordering, all that made a big difference. And as I always say to people, people aren’t even sometimes aware of why you’re asking these questions because they didn’t even know there was a recall happening. And so, it’s difficult. So, when you do a poll, months before you’re trying to simulate and think what will the turnout be like in September or November?
And pollsters were influenced by what has happened at the national level where all the polls were wrong in 2020 and 2016, not all of them, but a vast majority of them because they underestimated the white male Trump supporter. And so they didn’t want to make that mistake here in California. And so, they overestimated them this time in the way they did their methodology and it made it seem close. It was never as close as they said. Never. And the question wording that we took a look at, et cetera was wrong. Even right now when there was an exit poll conducted, it’s still showing that there are errors in some of the subgroups and how they voted that have come out. And so, I’m very concerned. It’s much more difficult, much more expensive to conduct polls nowadays than before for a variety of reasons that we can’t get into.But it did play a major role as Jessica said, because people gave these polls legitimacy, they were repeated. And it actually helped Newsom that these polls were so bad because it was able for him to create urgency, to create fundraising, to create mobilization to a much greater degree than he would’ve had these polls accurately reflected that he was going to easily win. As a matter of fact, I was actually communicated to by a campaign person from the Newsom campaign saying, ” Hey Fernando, stop saying that the race is not as close as it is. Don’t say that he’s going to win easily because then Democrats will say, ‘Oh, it’s easy that we’re not going to have to go out to vote because he’s going to win.'” They were very concerned about that throughout the campaign. These polls helped them fight complacency and that was very important for the No Newsom Campaign.
Snyder:   [00:12:00]Fascinating. So, you’ve linked the polls to the turnout and of course we all know the outcome is ultimately dependent on the various subsets who show up to vote or at least show up at their mailbox to vote. So, what can you share about that turnout?
Guerra:   [00:12:30]Well, the turnout’s very impressive for an off-year special election being held in September. Just in raw numbers, go back to 2014 when Jerry Brown got reelected and ran against a nobody, most people wouldn’t even be able to tell you who the Republican nominee was then. It, by the way, was Neel Kashkari. And in that election, only 7 million people voted and that was a November general election. And you fast forward to this and so far, we’ve counted 10 and a half million votes. We’ll probably get up to about 12 million. Dramatically increased. Now the percentage turnout will still only hover a little bit above 50% or so, but in absolute numbers there’s been a revolution in mobilization in California, but more important a revolution on how we vote and how much easier it is for us to vote. And that’s a dramatic difference that California politics has changed so much just in these six last years, half a decade, in terms of how we conduct elections and who turns out to vote.
We are the state that is most ahead in inclusiveness and making it easy to vote. We’re not the first ones that use universal vote by mail. We’re not the first ones that use voting centers, et cetera, but we are the state that combines all of these different efforts more so than any other state. We have made it as easy as possible for people to vote. And yet there’s absolutely no indication of fraud. And so just here in Los Angeles county, you were contacted four or five different times by the LA County Registrar about the election. You were your ballot. You were sent another statement. You were reminded that you were supposed to vote. And so government itself is now mobilizing in a nonpartisan way just by reminding you to go and vote. You would have to purposely be ignoring all this stuff. And that’s what I think has really improved turnout in California.
Snyder:So, let’s talk about the consequences of this election and what they might pretend for the future. So, on election night, Jessica, you were on KCAL-9 and you said the following.
Levinson:   [00:14:30]Is it time to revamp our process? Yes, but we don’t need to wait until tonight. We knew this years ago. We have an incredibly generous system of direct democracy in California. And it’s very easy to, for instance, change the constitution in California, to repeal a law, and in addition to recall a candidate.
Snyder:So, what does this mean for the future of the recall system? Is it time for reform and how does that happen and what do you see as the likelihood of that happening?
Levinson:   [00:15:00]Yeah, and I was on with Fernando. We got to virtually spend the evening together, which was one of the highlights of being on KCAL and CBS. So, what do I think about the future of the recall? I’m going to say two things that seem like they’re at odds. One, yes, the recall process absolutely should be reformed because we can have a situation where let’s imagine the following a hundred people show up to vote, 49 vote no on the recall, meaning 51 vote yes on the recall. The recall passes, but the candidate who gets the most votes gets only eight votes. That just looks anti-democratic, let’s say that candidate is Larry Elder. So, now Larry Elder who has only eight votes worth of support becomes the next governor even though 49 people who showed up are just fine with Gavin Newsom. So, that situation just cries out for reform. And there are whole bunch of other parts of the recall that I just don’t think make a whole lot of sense. It’s just too easy to get a recall on the ballot, it’s very expensive, and as I talked about the way that you have those two questions can lead to really bizarre and anti-democratic outcomes.Now, having just made the case that really this is a system that cries out for change, I’m going to say this probably, one, won’t happen and I’m not entirely sure that we really need to solve this problem. Let’s think back to how long we’ve had the recall. We’ve had direct democracy in this state since 1911. We’ve had two gubernatorial recalls, one in 2003, which was successful where Gray Davis was recalled, and we had The Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger became the governor. And then this last recall, which I would view as a terrible waste of money, but two in 110 years.
Let’s also remember that in order to have meaningful reform of the recall process, you’re almost certainly going to need constitutional change, California constitutional change. What does that mean? It means going back to a vote of the people. I’ll end by saying this, if there’s one thing that tends to unite voters of all stripes, not just in California, but elsewhere, it’s the idea of reform that takes any power away from them. Think about reforms where we say, “Do we really need to vote for judicial officers?”, “Do we need to vote for the county assessor?”, “For the district attorney?”, fill in the blank, or shouldn’t we make it harder to have our systems of direct democracy to change the constitution by initiative? And the answer is always, basically don’t take my power away from me and I suspect that’s the same thing that would happen if we really do try to reform the recall.
Guerra:   [00:18:00]Yeah. I totally agree with Jessica. I would also add that you got to remember what Jessica said. It was a perfect storm to get this on the ballot. At the same time that this was going on, there were all kinds of other recall efforts and there were several stories saying, “Oh my God, we’re in recall fever.” There’s a recall attempt against the district attorney of Los Angeles, three city council members, all this happening, et cetera. And what I kept trying to remind journalists and other commentators is there’s always recall efforts. There are thousands of recall efforts in a period of over four years, because it’s really easy for you to say, “I want to recall this person. I’m submitting my papers.” That anybody can do. I could do a semester project with my class of 20 and I could get 20 recall efforts going no big deal. The issue is collecting the signatures.
And so while all this was going on, the recall effort against George Gascón has failed because they didn’t have enough signatures. The against Councilwoman Raman that’s failed. There’s one going on in terms of the council member that represents LMU Bond and that’s going to fail. These things don’t get on the ballot. And so, yes, should we reform it? Yes, but it, something really unique has to happen, with what Jessica talked about all these three things that converged and allowed this to happen. So, I don’t know that we need reform, but I do have a lot of ideas about how to reform this, especially for the governor. There should be no second questions because we have a lieutenant governor and we as people have always already spoken and voted that the lieutenant governor should the governor if something happens.And so for governor, it should be do you recall the governor? Yes, no, and that’s it. And then the lieutenant governor takes over. That would be number one reform. And I have all kinds of other ideas, but at the end of the day, no one’s going to waste their effort because this hardly ever happens. You would need a great unique situation. Now, the other consequence is at a couple levels regarding Newsom. What does it mean for his political career? And then also, what does it mean for the state of California? For Newsom, it is my position that he just got reelected to a five and a half year term. Who’s going to run against him now in June? I mean, he just clearly showed that he’s going to easily win. No it’s going to be very tough. Yes, there’ll be a formal vote in June and in November, but he’s in for the next five and a half years, right?
And it showed a way to defeat a Republican effort in terms of talking about COVID and he has a mandate for mandates now. And you see that already happening. You saw president Biden start to move in that direction. Second, in terms of public policy, you saw Newsom already start to sign some bills that he held off for a while, but more important than this, this recall, this mandate along with the budget that California has with so much money, a surplus, plus all the federal money that’s coming in, Newsom has the opportunity to be the best governor in the history of California because he can do some dramatic things. He can change higher education or our definition of education, climate change, et cetera. He has the mandate, the money, and the desire, and that could really change California for the better. And it depends on his ability to put all of this together.
Snyder:   [00:21:30]Of course, and that’s certainly a good trio of things to have for a change. I’m thinking from the Republican perspective right now, Jessica, there’s obviously has to be a plan. So, Fernando has said, forget the coming election, but there’s also the question of what happens afterwards. So, if you’re a Republican strategist or at least those with whom you are familiar, is there a path forward? And if so, what would that be?
Levinson:   [00:22:00]You need a paradigm shift at this point. I mean, let’s think about registration numbers in California, about half of registered voters are Democrats, about a fourth are Republicans, and about a fourth are declined to state voters. Now, those declined to state voters, we could have a long conversation and Fernando and I have in class about who exactly they are, but depending on where they’re from, depending on which district they’re from, they probably either lean right or lean left. They’re kind of disaffected members of either party, but the math is just against Republicans in California. And so, you have to have a moment where you think why is that and how do we appeal to a broader base? So, I think when Republicans have to try to get the votes of those disaffected declined to state voters, the people who probably left the party, but they’re still gettable.
And two, Republicans have to, I think, move on to the less likely voters, the younger voters, the voters who are minority voters who don’t show up in the same numbers that are commensurate with their percentage of the electorate. But frankly from my perspective, a lot of that means changing what is being proposed here. So, I think a lot of what we heard, and again, just my perspective from the Republicans who were running in this election, particularly Larry Elder, was not just out of step with the average member of the California electorate, but out of step with even a lot of declined to state voters. And if you look at these Republicans, none of them look like for instance, Arnold Schwartzenegger.And one of the things that we heard from the Republican side that I really hope stops, and this is something that I suspect in the short term, if we’re looking beyond California, we’re going to hear in the midterms, we’re going to hear in other states throughout the country, is that there was voter fraud. It’s something that Fernando brought up when we were talking about vote by mail. The Larry Elder campaign actually had kind of accidentally before the election, before any vote was tabulated, linked to a website that allowed people to report voter fraud and said, “We’ve seen that there were statistical anomalies.” It’s time to have policy proposals. It’s not time for these baseless attacks that make people just lose faith in the integrity of our electoral systems. It’s time to have better ideas so more people show up. It’s not the time to suppress votes. It’s not the time to make it more difficult to vote. And so, I hope that that’s what both parties do.
Snyder:   [00:24:30]Yes, and of course lying within all of that is simply admitting and admitting the truth, right? Admitting in the sense, if you don’t want to share whatever that truth is, you should just admit that it is so, but the other thing is admitting it, as in allowing it into the front door. Let’s talk just a little bit before we go about the mail-in ballot system. So, there’s right now a bill being proposed that would ensure that all active registered voters receive the mail-in ballot. And this will be for all elections going forward. And of course this will be the decision for the governor to make. And all the question is, do you think Newsom will solidify this process? And if so, would he do so in order to affect the 2022 election?
Levinson:   [00:25:30]I think governor Newsom will sign a bill like that because he believes it’s good public policy. And I think it actually is good public policy. So, do Democrats tend to benefit that when there’s more voter participation? Yes, but I hope that we reach a day where we just have a battle of ideas, not a battle of how easy or hard it is to pick the voters we want to be able to show up. So, California has had a robust system of vote by mail for years now. This is not our first rodeo, so to speak. Have there been problems with our election administration? Of course. Has there ever been widespread fraud or any type of corruption that would undermine our electoral process? No, that’s just nonsense.
So, it’s hard to think of why we wouldn’t just decrease the barriers to entry. Let’s lower those thresholds. If you are an eligible voter in California, take part in the process. We’re not anywhere near, and Tim, I thought that we would be. When I was a student at LMU or when I was a student at Loyola, I did not think that in 2021, I would be having a conversation saying we’re nowhere near are voting online, but we’re nowhere near voting online. So, let’s try and bring the process to people’s homes and use the vote by mail system. And I suspect that Governor Newsom will sign the bill for a whole host of reasons.
Snyder:   [00:27:00]So, obviously, we still have all these big issues in our state and we have the pandemic continuing to haunt us. We have the continuing problem of homelessness. We have our wildfires. And now with the recall in his rear view mirror, I think governor Newsom was going to need to hit the ground running while preparing himself to Mount his new campaign, which he’ll have to do certainly within the coming year. And I think for the sake of our great state, we’re all rooting for him to succeed no matter what our political platform because we all can certainly benefit. And I hope Fernando that what you stated about the prospects for the governor is true.
Jessica and Fernando, I cannot thank you enough. It’s fascinating to speak with either of you on any day, be it over coffee or over politics as was the case today. And I think it’s easy to see why so many of our media outlets look to you as experts and trusted guests. You’re also great people. So, being with you has been a joy. I thank everybody who’s listened. Thank you. And we’ll see you next time. Be well, enjoy.