Analysis: How Gov. Newsom changed the narrative and easily defeated the recall

For a moment this summer, it appeared California Governor Gavin Newsom's job was seriously in jeopardy. Polls showed the recall election was neck and neck. So, how did the Governor and his team easily defeat the recall? 

In short, they convinced Democrats that the election was a referendum on Trumpism instead of a referendum on Gov. Newsom’s job performance. 

It also, in a sense, became a referendum on the current Democratic vs Republican approach to COVID-19.

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Finding enough votes to throw Gov. Newsom out of office was always going to be difficult. Why? Simple math. There are nearly twice as many Democrats as Republicans in California. 

Gov. Newsom won by 24% in 2018, President Biden won the state by 30% in 2020. 

To win, recall proponents would need Republicans to turn out in astronomically high numbers, independents to be on their side, and for some Democrats to abandon a Governor they voted for. More than anything, they needed a large number of Democrats to simply not vote.

There was (and continues to be) a reason for genuine bipartisan frustration in this state. Issues including homelessness, housing affordability, rising crime, business and school closures, and EDD fraud anger Democrats and Republicans alike. 

Plenty of Democrats signed the recall petition, hoping for a change.  

In July, polls indicated a significant number of unmotivated Democrats intended to sit this election out. 

But by September 14, that changed. The Governor’s team hammered home the point that Democratic indifference would lead to a "Trump clone" running California. 

How did they do it? A combination of ruthless strategy and some lucky breaks.

Among them:


California’s recall ballot has 2 questions. 

  1. Should the Governor be recalled?
  2. If he is recalled, who should replace him?

The Governor’s team twisted every arm in the state to keep a high-profile Democrat from running on Question 2. Billionaire activist Tom Steyer and former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraiogosa both considered running, but ultimately decided against it. 

Back in 2003, Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante ran on Question 2. To this day, Gov. Gray Davis says that decision cost him his job.  

In 2003, Democrats tried to run on the message that it was a "Republican recall." But, Bustamante’s presence as a genuine alternative made that hard to do. 

Not this year. 

The choice was simple: vote to keep Governor Newsom or get a Republican replacement. 


The pandemic sped up California Democrats’ plans to mail every eligible voter in California a ballot whether they requested one or not. 

Surprise! When you make it easier for people to vote, more people vote. 

In a state with twice as many Democratic voters, more people voting is a huge benefit for Democrats. 

Going to a polling place and waiting in line on Election Day takes a real commitment. Super motivated, angry Republicans hoping to recall the Governor are willing to put in that work.  

Lukewarm Newsom supporters may not have been willing to go through all that. 

But, they were willing to put their ballot back in their own mailbox over the course of a month. 


Every high profile Democrat in the country campaigned for Governor Newsom: Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Barack Obama, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez…just to name a few. 

All of them had the same message: Gavin Newsom is a Democrat, he’s on our team & the other guys are Republicans and they’re on Trump’s team. Their implicit message: even if you don’t love Newsom, you might love me…and Newsom is our guy. 

They spent tens of millions of dollars to share this message over and over again on TV, radio, and online. 


Larry Elder speaks in concise, understandable, entertaining and often provocative soundbites. That’s why he’s been successful for three decades as a communicator. 

He energized California’s Republican base more than anyone in decades.  

The problem for him? The overwhelming majority of Californians are not conservative. 

The Newsom team had thousands of hours of Elder’s comments to pour through & create attack ads over. 

Did they take some of the things he said out of context? Yes. But, most voters didn’t realize the nuance. 

Larry’s more libertarian instincts on things like ending the minimum wage, legalizing drugs, etc. created an opportunity for attack ads that the Newsom team couldn’t have run against other candidates.  


On paper, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer had a chance to be the ideal Republican candidate to win in a blue state. 

In policy and in style, he’s a moderate. He’s pro-choice, believes climate change is real, thinks there should be a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented, and speaks Spanish. He has experience working with Democrats on his city council tackling California’s most vexing challenge: homelessness. 

But, he supported President Trump in 2020. 

And in 2021, he refused to break with the President. For millions of Democrats, that makes him a non-starter. 

Then, Faulconer decided to take on Larry Elder, which frustrated millions of Republicans. 

In the end, he was left with no natural political base. 


At the beginning of this recall election, Governor Newsom’s slogan was "California Roaring Back."

His goal? Highlight the fact that California was moving on from COVID-19 pandemic restrictions in businesses, ending mask mandates, and voluntarily encouraging vaccine use. 

At the time, most Californians were exhausted by COVID-19 and ready to turn the page. So was the Governor. 

Then, the highly contagious delta variant hit. The science behind COVID-19 changed. 

In some Republican states, they banned some mask and vaccine mandates. 

California, on the other hand, led on implementing new COVID-19 restrictions. 

In real-time, it became clear that California’s health outcomes during the delta variant surge were statistically better than many of the red states.  

All of the Governor’s top challengers vowed to immediately end the statewide mask and vaccine mandates and adopt models more similar to Texas and Florida. 

The problem for recall proponents? About 2/3 of Californians support the Governor’s restrictions and it became the top voting issue, according to exit polls. 


For years, Joe Biden has used this line on the campaign trail. 

"Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative!"

In a sense, that’s what the Newsom team was able to do in this race. Make it about the alternative & not his own record.  

Going forward, the Governor told me he’s focused on tackling many of California’s major challenges before running for re-election…in a matter of months. 

Here we go again!

Elex Michaelson anchors the FOX 11 News at 5, 6, 7, and 10 p.m. weeknights. 

He also hosts and produces California's only statewide political show "The Issue Is: with Elex Michaelson.

Over the last several months, Elex conducted one on one interviews with Governor Newsom & all of his challengers. He also co-moderated the first televised debate among the recall challengers

Tune in to FOX 11 Los Angeles for the latest Southern California news.