Recall lessons

California Gov. Gavin Newsom amassed a huge vote count, 63.4 percent, to defeat the attempt by Trump Republicans to recall him. (The exact number could change a bit as the state continues to count ballots for some weeks, but it will likely be pretty close.)

Pundits and strategists alike are already deriving lessons from this great victory and urging Democrats nationally to take note.

The potpourri of recommendations include: Just focus on turnout; bring in political celebrities from across the country; run straight at Donald Trump; run on mask and vaccine mandates; run to the left on issues.

“We said yes to science,” Newsom argued, “we said yes to vaccines. We said yes to ending this pandemic. We said yes to people’s right to vote without fear of fake fraud and voter suppression. We said yes to women’s fundamental constitutional right to decide for herself what she does with her body, her faith, her future. We said yes to diversity. We said yes to inclusion. We said yes to pluralism.”

While I don’t necessarily disagree with any of the lessons already gleaned, permit me to bring some other California numbers to bear to put the guidance in perspective:

63.5 percent

61.9 percent

63.5 percent

There is a certain sameness to all these figures. 

Joe Biden garnered 63.5 percent of the California vote, 1/10th of a percent more than Newsom has at this point.

Newsom won the governor’s chair with 61.9 percent in 2018. His performance this month was 1.5 points better. In most of the state’s large counties, he was between zero and 2 points stronger in the recall than in his successful 2018 gubernatorial campaign. 

California congressional Democrats who competed against Republicans took 63.5 percent of the vote in 2018 and 62.2 percent in 2020. 

It would seem that statewide, a candidate with a D next to her or his name, facing a Republican, has a hard time getting less than 62 percent, or more than 64 percent.

I take nothing away from the outstanding campaign put on by Newsom and his backers, and no sane Democrat wants to conduct the experiment, but one has to wonder whether a much different campaign would have still landed in that same narrow interval between 62 percent and 64 percent. 

Certainly, though, with good effort and no glaring weakness, on a statewide basis, a candidate carrying the Democratic brand can expect to earn 62 percent-64 percent of the vote against a Republican.

Which is to say that the big winner in California this year was partisanship, as it has been nationally over the last couple of cycles.

Party is voters’ most potent political identity, and politics is frequently about identities. Those basic political identities — Democrat or Republican — dictate how the vast majority of us vote, nearly all the time. Exceptions exist, but they’re fewer and farther between.

California’s politics is as sclerotic as the nation’s, frozen by mostly unshakeable partisanship. With Democrats in clear control at every level in California, your partisan columnist is pleased with that outcome in the Golden State, but less so about its impact in some 20 others, like Florida, Ohio and Texas.

For me, the single most important lesson of California’s recall is the continuing power of partisanship. Different years, different candidates, different races, different messages, but Democrats and Republicans get pretty much the same level of support. 

Other putative lessons need to be assessed in the context.

If you live in a state or district where Democrats routinely capture 62 percent of the vote, or more, replicating Newsom’s moves will likely serve you well.

If your political geography is a little less friendly, you may want to think carefully about how those lessons may play out in your particular constituency. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.  

Whether winning for you means getting more votes than your opponent, selling more product, changing public policy, raising more money or generating more activism, The Mellman Group transforms data into winning strategies.