Opinion: Newsom is a historically popular California governor and needs to capitalize on it

Gavin Newsom
Governor Gavin Newsom delivers his State of the State address in Sacramento on March 8. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr./CalMatters

The balance sheet is now clear and the numbers are staggering.

In 2018, Governor Gavin Newsom won 62% of the general election vote, the most of any Democratic governor in state history. In 2021, Newsom defeated a recall effort with the same percentage of voters choosing to retain him. While some votes go uncounted, Newsom is poised to claim 59% or more this year – a resounding double-digit win for a second term.

They are historical figures. Of Newsom’s recent predecessors, only George Deukmejian has won 60% just once, earning almost 61% in his 1986 re-election bid after performing less than 50% in 1982. Compare that with the government of era. Ronald Reagan, who won 57% in 1966 before falling below 53% in 1970; Pat and Jerry Brown, who together averaged 55% over six elections; Arnold Schwarzenegger, who never exceeded 56%; and Gray Davis and Pete Wilson, who hovered between their 40s and 50s.

To find a governor whose electoral success rivals Newsom’s, you have to go back in time nearly 80 years to 1946, a decidedly less partisan time when Earl Warren won 91% of the vote when he ran for re-election. (as a candidate for the Republican and Democratic parties), and 64% in 1950.

To match Warren in getting votes – that’s rarefied political air. But skeptics will discount Newsom’s success predictably and superficially.

The first objection is that Newsom enjoys the structural advantages of a deep blue state. However, this is not enough to explain such wide margins. The fact is, Newsom has surprising support from non-Democrats, including 48% of California independents, according to an October survey by the Public Policy Institute of California. About 13% of California Republicans approve of Newsom’s performance so far.

For perspective, the same poll found President Joe Biden garnering a more modest approval of 44% of California independents and just 8% of Republicans, challenging Newsom’s national narrative as a partisan pugilist and Biden as a peacemaker. . But it’s also telling in another way. That underscores Newsom’s support across the political spectrum, the secret sauce to winning such high vote shares in a state whose registered voters are still mostly non-Democrats.

The second objection is that Newsom only looks strong because his opponents are so weak. This is also false. Many conveniently forget that the 2021 recall showed real momentum until Newsom overcame it in the latter stages of the campaign. He also forgets that challengers and outside groups have spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to defeat Newsom in three gubernatorial contests.

The best theory of Newsom’s success is also the simplest: voters think he’s doing a good job. While there’s disagreement over his approach to issues like housing and COVID-19, there’s broad appeal for his no-nonsense leadership style and ambitious goals.

None of this is to say Newsom has time to enjoy a victory lap. Homelessness is still bad and getting worse. On its way to becoming the fourth largest economy in the world, the cost of living in California is unbearably high. Californians are feeling the brunt of climate change and increasingly see crime as a top concern.

In that sense, Newsom’s historic vote share is much more than political anecdotes or fodder for horse racing commentary. On the contrary, it should be the indispensable tool for uniting constituencies and solving some of California’s intractable problems.

In other words, the question isn’t whether Newsom is historically popular with California voters — he is. The question is rather: how will he use this popularity wisely?

Timothy Perry is a private attorney. He served as co-chair of Newsom’s 2018 “Defending California Values” policy committee and former chief of staff for the governor’s Office of Emergency Services. He wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism company committed to explaining how the California Capitol works and why it matters.

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