Recall campaign faces a struggle in Inland Empire, Orange County

There was little shock when a recent poll found that a majority of likely voters in left-leaning coastal metro areas of California like Los Angeles and San Francisco oppose the recall of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.

But zeal for the recall is muted even in areas where the Republican Party remains a competitive force, like Orange County and the Inland Empire, the poll found.

“If the recall people can’t beat Newsom in the Inland Empire, they can’t beat him, period,” said John Pitney, a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College.

The new poll by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that 58% of likely voters want to keep Newsom, while 39% support a recall. In the Inland Empire, the poll found that 54% oppose the recall and 46% favor it, while in the Orange County/San Diego region, 50% oppose the recall and 45% favor it. The margin of sampling error was 3.4 percentage points in either direction.

“If we still have numbers like this in the election day vote, it’s game over — Newsom prevails,” Pitney said. But he added that “it’s possible there might be a surge. Perhaps a number of Republicans are waiting to vote in person.”

In the last gubernatorial race in 2018, Newsom trounced Republican challenger John Cox statewide 62% to 38%, though Cox had a much stronger showing in the Inland Empire and Orange County.

Riverside County narrowly voted for Cox over Newsom, 322,243 to 319,845, while neighboring San Bernardino County went for Newsom, 276,874 to 260,379. Orange County also favored Newsom, though only by about 3,000 votes out of more than 1 million cast.

The PPIC poll found that likely voters considered COVID-19 the most important issue confronting them, more than the economy, homelessness and housing costs.

Fred Smoller, associate professor of political science at Chapman University in Orange, said the findings of his own survey back that up.

“The most important issue in the campaign is the pandemic, and that’s it,” Smoller said.

Protesters have seized headlines in some Orange County cities for demonstrations against coronavirus rules. Former mixed martial arts star Tito Ortiz, who sneered at mask requirements and other public safety measures, won election to the Huntington Beach City Council before his resignation over the summer.

“While the noisy people get a lot of attention, most believe the virus is real,” Smoller said. “Most people believe that masks and vaccines and social distancing is the correct approach, and they believe that government overreach wasn’t the problem. The problem was the virus. That’s what will save [Newsom].”

Several of the recall candidates hail from the Inland Empire, and there are pro-recall tents and signs through the region. For the average resident, this doesn’t necessarily translate into knowledge about the recall, much less of the recall contenders’ names.

“I didn’t even know there was an election going on,” Mary Johnson, 69, said outside the Donut House in Calimesa. “I like Newsom. Are people trying to remove him? If they are, I’ll vote against it.”

Johnson, a retired flight attendant, bemoaned “COVID-19 denial” in her hometown of Houston and said she was grateful to Newsom for the “quick” vaccine distribution and for his emphasis on masking, “even when it wasn’t popular.”

“I don’t even know why anyone is trying to get rid of the governor, because he’s done a good job,” Johnson said.

In Orange County, Costa Mesa hair stylist Linda Greep, 27, said she was leaning toward voting yes on the recall but is not sure.

She said she lost her job for more than a year when the shop where she worked temporarily closed in March 2020. She said her co-workers and others in the hair care industry blame Newsom for crushing their businesses. Greep also doesn’t understand why salons were closed and “big box stores remained open.”

It is not that she ignores the hazards of COVID-19, she said. She got her first Pfizer shot in February. “It was a big weight off my mind to get the vaccine,” Greep said.

Watching his son skateboarding at Bonita Canyon Sports Park in Newport Beach, recall supporter Robert Wallace said he remained enthusiastic about the chances of beating Newsom. His recall sign has peeled off his Chevy Silverado, and now sits buried in his truck’s cab.

As a basis to replace Newsom, Wallace, 43, cites the “pandemic shutdown” he regards as disastrous, including the closure of small businesses and churches. Wallace said he and most voters he knows will wait for election day to cast their vote.

Wallace said the fervor to recall Newsom was at a fever pitch a few months back. Family and friends in and out of Orange County told him they signed the recall petition, which Wallace did not.

“I was late to the recall, but I believe in it,” he said. “If it doesn’t happen, you’re going to have vaccine passports in this state.”

His top two candidates are Cox and Larry Elder.

“It’s Democrats 2-1 in California, so it’s going to take a lot to kick the pretty boy out,” Wallace said. “I don’t know if we have enough.”

With Democrats’ vast numerical advantage, Newsom supporters are confident of victory if enough Democrats bother to vote. That has become considerably easier with the ubiquity of mail-in ballots.

“My thesis is Newsom will win, and he’ll have vote by mail to thank,” said Smoller, the Chapman University associate professor. “The edge that Republicans get in special elections has evaporated. The thing gets mailed to your home, everybody gets it. You don’t have to schlepp over to the voting booth, and it’s self-addressed and stamped. For the average person, that’s a big reduction in the cost of participation.”

So far, mail ballot returns show more than twice as many Democrats have voted than Republicans, a discouraging sign for the recall effort.

“The Republicans hate this guy,” Smoller said. “So wouldn’t you think they’d run to get those ballots in? You’d think you’d see a much greater surge. But you don’t see it.”

Among Newsom’s rivals, the front-runner is Elder, who opposes mask mandates.

“People will flirt with Larry Elder because they’re [angry],” Smoller said. “They’ll flirt with Elder but they’ll marry Newsom.”

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