Public opinion surveys predicting a big victory by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in California’s recall election were accurate, the first good news in a while for the beleaguered polling industry in a campaign with national implications.
“No” on the recall was trailing the “yes” vote 64% to 36% with 70% of votes reported. That outcome tracks with the trend in the RealClearPolitics polling average in the campaign’s waning days, which stood at 56% in opposition to removing Newsom from office compared to 42% in favor as the final voting commenced in California on Tuesday. The results had to be relieving for professional pollsters, battered recently by big misses in presidential and key down-ballot elections.
Veteran Republican pollster Frank Luntz has a theory for the accuracy of the surveys amid the unusual unpredictability of a special election held in mid-September. It involves former President Donald Trump and his supporters.
“The key is in the sampling,” Luntz told the Washington Examiner. “Trump voters have started participating in polls again because they want to be heard. If they think their voice matters, they’ll participate. If they think the information is going to be used against themselves, or against Trump, they won’t.”
The polling industry has faced myriad obstacles in recent years that have made the job of producing accurate surveys more difficult, including the proliferation of cellphones, resistance to answering calls from pollsters, and hesitance to participate in surveys, because some voters do not trust polls.
Regarding Trump, some pollsters and analysts have speculated there are “shy” Trump voters — voters who support him but prefer not to say so publicly because of his behavior or other social stigmas. Others have said Trump supporters were refusing to participate in polls because they believed the surveys were being purposely manipulated to downplay support for the former president to undermine his prospects.
Perhaps the initial enthusiasm among Republicans in California that Newsom might get prematurely booted from office, as well as a desire to make plain their dissatisfaction with the governor and convey that his political future was in jeopardy, encouraged GOP participation in the polling surrounding the recall campaign.
The initial surveys showed that a majority of voters might support recalling Newsom, a factor that rested on Democratic disinterest in participating in the election. Once talk radio host Larry Elder became the leading Republican contender on the replacement side of the ballot and Newsom was able to paint him as a Trump-like bogeyman, Democratic interest in the recall picked up, and Newsom’s prospects brightened.
Still, some analysts say not enough is known yet to make sense of why the recall polling delivered accurate data. Although the current results would suggest the polls underestimated the opposition to the recall, it is possible that the final outcome will be much closer to the final surveys once all of the votes in California are counted.