California Is Far Less Republican Than It Was in the 2003 Recall Vote

Between 2003 and 2021, the fraction of registered Republican voters in the state plummeted to 24 percent from 35 percent, according to state data.

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California is far less Republican than it was in the 2003 recall vote.

Sept. 14, 2021, 1:15 p.m. ET

Sept. 14, 2021, 1:15 p.m. ET

Registered Republican voters in California have decreased since Arnold Schwarzenegger ran for governor in the 2003 recall election.Credit…Librado Romero/The New York Times

The last time a governor faced a recall in California, in 2003, voters removed from office Gray Davis, a Democrat, and replaced him with Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s critics are hoping for a similar outcome when election results are released on Tuesday night.

But experts say that the political landscape in California has shifted significantly over the past 18 years, with a smaller share of Republicans and more hardened party lines making a recall less likely.

Between 2003 and 2021, the fraction of registered Republican voters in California plummeted to 24 percent from 35 percent, while Californians registered as Democrats increased slightly, to 46 percent from 44 percent, according to state data.

Voters registered without a party preference increased to 23 percent from 16 percent, and those voters tend to lean Democratic, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

These shifts have resulted in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly two to one. That means that if everyone voted in this election, and voted along party lines, it would be impossible for Newsom to be ousted. (Recalling Mr. Newsom requires approval from more than half of voters.)

If overall election turnout hits even 60 percent, the proposed ouster of Mr. Newsom would be highly unlikely because of how many voters are Democrats, according to Paul Mitchell, a vice president of Political Data Inc., a nonpartisan supplier of election data.

This is a different scenario than in 2003, when Republicans weren’t such a small share of the electorate and the election didn’t fall so clearly along party lines, said Raphael Sonenshein, the executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

Then, it was more common to hear Democrats opposing the Democratic governor, Mr. Sonenshein said. And Mr. Schwarzenegger had cross-aisle appeal as a moderate Republican, and also a movie star.

“Arnold was to many Dems a perfectly acceptable alternative,” Mr. Sonenshein said. “Today the party lines are much harder.”

Political experts have been saying for weeks that Mr. Newsom’s success in beating back the recall hinges on boosting election turnout.

But, for Mr. Davis, who was battling Mr. Schwarzenegger’s star power and his own lower-approval ratings, “It wasn’t clear in 2003 that it was about turnout,” Mr. Sonenshein said.

In fact, 61 percent of Californians voted in the 2003 recall election, far higher than what would typically be expected for a special election. And Mr. Davis still lost.

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