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10 p.m. ET: Polls are closed in California’s gubernatorial recall race

Will we get a call tonight?

If we do, it won’t be the one that Larry Elder is hoping for. There’s a nonzero chance that Newsom loses the recall but no chance at all that he loses it so overwhelmingly that the pros will be able to determine that this evening. Many millions of ballots have been cast by mail in California, remember. The counting will go on for days. If Newsom lost a tight one, it may take a week or more to confirm it.

There’s a fair chance, on the other hand, that he’ll win so decisively that election-watchers will be able to make that call tonight. It depends on what the same-day turnout looks like. If Republicans end up turning out below expectations, or if Dems turn out above expectations, the bar in a deep blue state will be too high for Elder to clear.

The polling lately is grim:

Once Elder jumped out to a big lead on the second ballot question of who should replace Newsom as governor, Newsom smartly reframed the race as a de facto “Newsom or Elder” choice. Having a big-name populist conservative media star as their nominee made things harder for Republicans in a very liberal state. Since then, Newsom has consistently described Elder as Trump but worse, hoping to goose lefties into turning out and casting a hate-vote against the Republican. Some of Newsom’s special guests on the campaign trail have echoed the point:

A poll published over the weekend had Newsom winning handily on the recall question, 60.1/38.5. Is it possible that the polls are badly underestimating the Republicans, just as they badly underestimated Trump (and Susan Collins) last year? For sure. But the polling was accurate in California last fall and it would have to miss by a much bigger margin than it missed in states like Wisconsin in 2020 for Elder to pull the upset. In fact, it would take an historic polling fail. Nate Cohn:

There was no state in either the 2016 or 2020 presidential elections where the final polls missed by 16 percentage points. Perhaps the worst recent polling miss — Senator Susan Collins’s comfortable nine-point victory after trailing in the polls by three points — is in the ballpark, but would still fall five points short of erasing Mr. Newsom’s lead.

Many of the most embarrassing and high-profile misses for pollsters, such as the seven-point polling errors in Wisconsin in 2016 and 2020, might still leave Mr. Newsom with a double-digit victory.

It is hard to find many precedents for such a large polling error. According to Harry Enten, a writer at CNN, there are only four cases in the last 20 years where the polling average in a race for governor was off by at least 15 percentage points.

It’s not an encouraging sign that both Trump and Elder have taken to preemptively crying fraud about the results. In fact, Elder’s campaign has already rolled out a website inviting people to report alleged cases of voter fraud in California. That site is barebones today but some of the language there yesterday suggested Elder is prepared to declare that he was cheated irrespective of the evidence — just like Trump did last fall:

“Statistical analyses used to detect fraud in elections held in 3rd-world nations (such as Russia, Venezuela, and Iran) have detected fraud in California resulting in Governor Gavin Newsom being reinstated as governor,” the site reads. “The primary analytical tool used was Benford’s Law and can be readily reproduced.”…

The page suggests voters may turn to the “ammo box” if they can’t trust the ballot box.

“They say that in America, there are four boxes of liberty. The soapbox, the ballot box, the jury box, and the ammo box,” the website reads, pledging to bring legal cases. “Will we now have to fight the California jury box, in the hope that the final box — the one most akin to Pandora’s — remains closed?”

How can a statistical analysis “have detected fraud” in an election whose results aren’t known yet? It can’t, obviously, which makes this the latest reminder that “rigged election” screeching is bad-faith propaganda designed to save face after a disappointing loss. Presumably Elder’s team had already drafted the language they intend to use to allege fraud when the race is eventually called and someone hit “publish” yesterday by accident.

The unsubtle threat of violence is a nice touch, though, since it’s true to the spirit of populism. “The people” can’t be defeated at the ballot box, and if they are, it can only have been due to cheating. In which case “the people” have no choice but to assert their will through other means.

Pundits on both sides are already preparing their spin on the results. If Newsom underperforms, it’ll be treated as a harbinger of Democratic apathy and/or Republican discontent and evidence that a red wave is gathering for next fall. Depending upon how tight the race is, the Dem establishment could find itself in a panic. If Newsom overperforms, California Republicans will be second-guessed for rallying behind a firebrand like Elder instead of a more moderate Republican like Kevin Faulconer. Tim Miller surveyed the electoral map today and noticed that firebrands from either party almost never win in states controlled by the opposition; the only exception is Sherrod Brown, a progressive who somehow keeps hanging onto his seat in Trump-dominated Ohio. Everywhere else that the minority party has managed to elect one of its own to statewide office, it’s done so by nominating a centrist. If Faulconer had been the GOP’s pick instead of Elder, the recall might have remained a referendum on Newsom’s tenure as governor instead of a choice between him and “Trump but worse.” And that would have left Newsom in trouble.

One other detail to watch out for in the results: How strongly do women end up backing Newsom? One recent poll had him winning two-thirds of women in California, a big number that will invite interpretation if he matches it in actual votes. Is it because Elder’s past comments about women alienated those voters? Is it because women who left work during the pandemic to care for out-of-school kids were worried about Elder slashing programs to help them manage? Is it because of the attention paid lately to Texas’s abortion law, with women in California galvanized by the attempt to undo Roe? The takes will be flying tomorrow if the race is called for Newsom tonight.

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