Matt Stiles

Reporter and data journalist @latimes & @datagraphics.

Jun 17, 2021
Published on: Los Angeles Times
1 min read

It’s been almost two decades since Californians ousted then-Gov. Gray Davis in a historic recall election. Critics of current Gov. Gavin Newsom hope to repeat the feat later this year.

While the rules of the recall have stayed the same, much about the state has changed since the 2003 vote.

California’s population today is more diverse and educated. Those shifts have helped power a political swing toward the Democratic Party and could shield Newsom from the forces that doomed Davis.

These are among the key factors set to shape the race, according to data analysis by The Times and interviews with experts on Golden State politics.

Landslide to the left

California voters have moved even more to the left since Davis’ ouster, which ushered in the state's last Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

That shift allowed Newsom to take office in a stronger position than Davis. In 2002, a year before the last recall, Davis narrowly won reelection with just 47% of the vote. Newsom enjoyed a landslide victory in his 2018 gubernatorial campaign, receiving 62% support.

When comparing how the major party candidates split the vote in those two elections, the trend is clear. Only 11 of the state’s 58 counties — all in less-populated and more rural areas — dropped in Democratic support. Most other places saw their electorates shift to the left.

Vote total

In the 2002 race, a beleaguered Davis faced multiple opponents, likely reducing his vote share. In 2018, Newsom faced only one opponent, Republican John Cox, perhaps boosting his share.

Still, the change is undeniable. Take Los Angeles County, home to a quarter of the state's population, for example. Support for the Democratic candidate in those two races increased 10 percentage points from Davis to Newsom.

Other places have experienced even more dramatic change. Marin and San Diego counties saw a 13 percentage point shifts respectively in favor of the Democrats.

The trend is similar, though less pronounced, when comparing the results of presidential elections. The state shifted 10 percentage points in favor of the Democrats between the 2000 and 2020 campaigns, with President Biden winning 5.2 million more votes than Al Gore.

“This is literally a different California,” said Fernando Guerra, a political science professor who directs the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. “The shift has been dramatic.”