What Exit Polling Tells Us About Voters in the Recall

The only exit poll from California’s recall election showed Gavin Newsom winning with an unusual coalition.


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What the exit polling tells us about the California electorate, and why it might be wrong.

A poll worker processed ballots at the Tally Operation Center in Downey, Calif., on Tuesday.Credit…Allison Zaucha for The New York Times

Sept. 15, 2021Updated 5:47 p.m. ET

The only exit poll from California’s recall election showed Mr. Newsom winning with an unusual coalition. In a departure from nearly every recent election, longstanding racial and ethnic divides between white voters and voters of color seemed to vanish.

According to the exits, 63 percent of people of color and 60 percent of Latino voters chose “No” on the question of whether to remove the governor, compared to 59 percent of white voters. Typically, Democrats fare somewhat worse among white voters in California, but much better among other voters. The 63 percent and 60 percent showings of people of color and Latinos would be the weakest for a California Democrat in memory.

If true, the exit poll result would mark a seminal moment in California’s political evolution. It would suggest that growing Democratic strength among college graduates — and weakness among those without degrees — has begun to significantly reduce the gap between white voters and others, and nearly eliminate it altogether in the state.

But the actual results of the recall election tell a different story. They don’t show much of anything unusual at all. The results suggest that Mr. Newsom won with a fairly typical coalition for a California Democrat in recent years, one not too dissimilar from the one that elected him in 2018 and elected President Biden in 2020.

The governor may have fared somewhat worse among nonwhite voters than Democrats did a decade ago, but in the end, California voted for the Democrat — and it seems to have done so in about the same way it has in recent cycles, including among Asian and Latino voters.

Millions of votes remain to be counted, and a clearer picture may emerge in the coming days as more votes are tallied. But so far, the county-by-county results are nearly identical to those from 2018 or 2020. There’s only one county — Riverside County — that flipped from 2018 so far, and it flipped to Mr. Newsom.

On average in the recall election, the “No” vote in a typical county was only about 2 percentage points different than Mr. Newsom’s vote share in 2018. It’s hard to reconcile the stability of the results so far with the huge shift in Mr. Newsom’s coalition indicated by the exit poll. The results don’t show evidence of a stark drop-off in Democratic support among Latino voters, either.

Mr. Newsom performed about as well as he did four years ago in relatively diverse Southern California, including in heavily Latino stretches of the rural Central Valley and the Imperial Valley, where Democrats only compete on the strength of Latino voters.

Still, Mr. Newsom’s support there was already relatively weak for a Democrat: He often fared about as poorly as Mr. Biden, and worse than Gov. Jerry Brown did in 2014. The 2018 exit poll showed Mr. Newsom winning 64 percent of Latino voters, down from the 73 percent share won by Mr. Brown in 2014.

The exit poll on Tuesday was conducted by Edison Research and sponsored by major television news networks. Unlike traditional in-person exit polls, most California exit poll interviews are typically conducted by telephone to reach early and mail-in voters. This year, the recall exit poll added an online and text message component.

It is possible the additional online and text interviews may have contributed to some of the unusual shifts that were apparent in the poll.

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