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The final Newsom recall results are in at last. They show California is getting even more polarized

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 10/20/2021 By Nami Sumida
While the statewide recall results are similar to results from the 2018 gubernatorial election, county-level shifts show a more polarized California electorate. © Stephen Lam/The Chronicle

While the statewide recall results are similar to results from the 2018 gubernatorial election, county-level shifts show a more polarized California electorate.

The final results for the unsuccessful September recall election targeting Gov. Gavin Newsom are in, and the data shows a more polarized California electorate compared to 2018, when Newsom was elected governor.

Counties had to report final vote counts for the recall election to the Secretary of State by last Friday. With no remaining unprocessed ballots, The Chronicle compared the results to Newsom’s margin in the 2018 gubernatorial election.

The data shows Newsom increased his margins in counties where majorities voted for him in 2018. For instance, roughly two-thirds of voters (68%) in Contra Costa County voted for Newsom in 2018. That grew three percentage points to 71% voting to keep him in office in 2021. Similar shifts occurred in most of the Bay Area counties to varying degrees.

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean more Bay Area voters support Newsom. While the governor faced criticism from both parties for his handling of the pandemic, for most Democrats, the recall may not have been a referendum on Newsom’s actions or policies. With mostly Republican candidates and no prominent Democratic opponent in the race, a vote for Newsom meant a vote for the Democratic Party — or against the Republican Party. Therefore, it’s possible that what appears to be growing support for Newsom is simply an increase in the number of Democrats in the Bay Area — a trend for the past 20 years.

Counties that had majorities opposing Newsom in 2018 were likely to further oppose him in 2021. For example, only 38% of the 437,000 voters in Kern County were against the recall. That’s 2.9 points fewer than the share that voted for Newsom in 2018. In neighboring Kings and Tulare counties, Newsom support decreased by 4.3 and 3.9 points, respectively.

Similar patterns emerge in some northern counties, though their populations are much lower. For instance, Lassen County, with about 16,000 registered voters, had the smallest share of voters against the recall at 16%, which is nearly seven points fewer than the share that voted for Newsom in 2018.

There are some exceptions though. Some red counties saw support for Newsom grow slightly. In northern Shasta County, though only 30% of voters cast “no” recall ballots, that’s up 1.5 points from Newsom’s 2018 vote share. Nearby Trinity County had a 1.6 point increase, while support in Placer County in the greater Sacramento area increased 1.4 points.

Few counties with majorities that supported Newsom in 2018 had sizable negative shifts. Imperial County, a historically blue county at the southern border of California between San Diego County and Arizona, had a 2.3 point decrease from 62% to 59%. While that shift is fairly small, it’s a similar shift to what happened in presidential elections; though Biden won the county in 2020, his margin narrowed by 17 points compared with Hilary Clinton’s share of the vote in 2016, the largest swing of any California county. Several economic and health factors may have caused these swings. The county was hit hard by the pandemic — it has the highest COVID-19 death rate in the state — and unemployment remains high, at 19%, in the largely agricultural county.

Despite shifting support across counties, the overall state share remained the same from 2018 to 2021 — 62% of Californians voted for Newsom, and the same percentage voted against his recall in 2021. A slightly higher percentage of Californians voted for Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election (64%).

The recall had lower participation than the 2018 election, with 58% voting in the recall, seven percentage points down from 2018. This was largely expected for an off-year election, but the voting rate was high compared to past special elections in the state, which tended to have under 40% participation.

Nearly all counties had lower participation in the recall than in the 2018 election. However, the counties with the smallest decrease in participation were most likely to oppose Newsom in the recall. Of the 10 counties with the highest relative turnout from 2018, all but two — Contra Costa and Yolo counties — had majorities voting “yes” on the recall. These eight counties tend to be small rural counties in Northern California or the Sierra Nevada.

Nami Sumida is a San Francisco Chronicle data visualization developer. Email: Twitter: @namisumida


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