Life in California feels as if it is finally returning to normal.
Hit a popular restaurant at the wrong time, and you’ll be waiting for an hour or more. Movie theaters are open indoors.
In Santa Monica, crowds of tourists are visiting the pier and the beaches. Yes, as The Los Angeles Times reported, the hordes of revelers led to worries about yet another spike in cases — although the county’s case levels are now low enough to lift even more restrictions.
In coming days, millions more Californians will be eligible for vaccines, and the Biden administration has assured Americans that plenty of doses for everyone are on the way.
You could say the news is good for many Californians — and what’s good for many Californians is good for Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Newsom is facing the very likely prospect of a recall election, meaning voters would be asked two questions on a special ballot later this year: Should the governor be ousted early from his job, and if so, who should replace him? If a majority of voters say no to the first question, the latter becomes moot.
A poll conducted in March by the nonpartisan firm Probolsky Research found that about 46% of voters would vote against recalling the governor if the election were held today. That’s compared with 40% who said that they would vote to recall him, and 14% who said they were unsure or preferred not to say.
“The recall would fail if the election was today,” Adam Probolsky, the firm’s president, said in a statement.
Similarly, the Public Policy Institute of California, which regularly surveys residents across the state about lots of important issues, found in its March poll that 56% of likely voters would vote no on recalling Newsom, while 40% would vote yes.
Both polls split clearly along party lines, with Republicans supporting the recall and Democrats opposing.
Early this year, in the depths of the state’s deadly winter surge, frustration with the state’s pandemic response grew. Momentum for a recall seemed to build, but a deadline to submit petitions was still months away.
Mark Baldassare, the institute’s president and chief executive, told me at the time that the January survey — which asked likely voters about whether they approved of the job Newsom was doing, but not whether they’d vote to recall him — suggested that there was enough support to lead to a recall election.
But whether the largely Republican disapproval of Newsom would translate into the votes to actually oust him from office was far less clear.
While his approval rating had dropped significantly from a peak in May, it was still 52% among likely voters.
The effort to quickly vaccinate as many of California’s 40 million residents as possible, Baldassare said at the time, would play a large role in whether those numbers went up or down in coming months.
Californians said they’d been hit hard by the pandemic and many were less than optimistic about their economic and health prospects.
Now, here we are at the end of March, and Newsom himself has acknowledged that a recall election is probably going to happen.
But Baldassare told me Tuesday that approval of Newsom’s job performance has largely held steady, while Californians said they had a much brighter outlook.
About 3 in 4 Californians said they believed the worst of the coronavirus pandemic is behind us — an increase of 16 percentage points from January. If that proves to be true, then Baldassare said the worst of the recall effort may also be in the rearview for Newsom.
“Memory is fading that things got off to a rough start,” Baldassare said. “People are feeling much more relieved about where things are with COVID and the vaccines.”
So if we’re on track to have a recall election, but one whose results are likely to reinforce the status quo, what is Baldassare, a longtime California pollster, watching?
“Who decides to run?” he said. “And will there be anyone that changes the dynamics in place right now?”
Already, the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, has warned Democrats against throwing their names in the ring, lest they snatch votes from the governor.
But Baldassare said that a recall election would inevitably affect the governor’s race next year, which is when Newsom would be up for reelection anyway.
“There’s always a possibility that this doesn’t make it easier for those who want to see change in the governor’s office in 2022,” he said. “Because you’ve just had an election.”
In any case, Baldassare said we shouldn’t overlook some of the other significant shifts in public opinion that have most likely been driven by a historic public health crisis that has highlighted the ways in which everyone’s health is connected.
A large majority of Californians, 66%, support providing health care coverage to undocumented immigrants, up from 54% in 2015, which was the last time the institute asked that question.
“If there’s one thing I saw where I thought, ‘Well this must be something the pandemic has really moved the public opinion about,’” he said, “it’s this.”