On The Trail: California recall tests vaccine politics

A year and a half of cruel, brutal lockdowns in the face of a deadly virus has ripped American politics in half once again, pitting public health against economic libertarianism and further poisoning the already acrimonious nature of our modern debate.

Anchors on MSNBC judge those who have yet to receive a coronavirus vaccine or refuse to wear masks. On Fox News, hosts express outrage over President Biden’s decision to mandate vaccines for federal workers and companies with more than 100 employees.

These polarized opinions dominate the conventional wisdom of politics today, but one significant group could deliver a decision on the winner of the public health debate: voters.

As the delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus sends the United States back into the depths of another wave of disease, the first test of these opposing views comes this week, when California voters decide whether to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom (D).

The polls do not look good for Newsom’s foes, led by Larry Elder, the conservative Republican radio host who has emerged as the most prominent challenger likely to lead the field of replacements on Tuesday’s ballot. Over the summer, surveys showed Newsom barely surviving the recall attempt. But now, about 60 percent of California voters say they plan to keep him in office.

Newsom earned the ire of more than 2 million voters who signed a recall petition in the year after he issued initial lockdown orders. But the governor has taken an improbable path to his current and far more favorable situation: He has doubled down on his calls for vaccine mandates, mask mandates and for the strictest adherence to public health measures that he says are necessary to protect Californians.

He has run advertisements critical of Elder’s opposition to vaccine mandates while issuing his own orders that state health care workers and teachers obtain jabs to protect themselves from the virus.

In doing so, Newsom has made a prominent bet, one that is instructive to Democrats across the country: While the loudest voices in the room may be furious about vaccine mandates, the silent majority of voters embrace mandates and see them as the path back to normality.

“We should not be afraid to campaign on vaccines. We should not be afraid to directly challenge, do you want a vaccine mandate or a lockdown mandate? That’s the choice,” said Christine Pelosi, the former chairwoman of the California Democratic Party’s Women’s Caucus and a longtime party activist.

The message could work well in California, where more than 83 percent of adults over the age of 18 have received at least one jab so far, making it one of the most vaccinated states in America. That title helped blunt the surge of the delta variant, which hit harder in states — especially in the South — where vaccination rates are lower.

“We are in a state where most voters are in fact vaccinated,” said Mark Di Camillo, polling director at the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute for Governmental Studies. “We’re talking about an electorate that’s pretty sold on being vaccinated.”

Polling suggests the United States, the Western democracy that is more libertarian than any of its European cohorts, is remarkably in favor of the government mandating medical interventions. A Gallup survey released last week showed that majorities of Americans favor requiring businesses to demand proof of vaccination for those who want to travel on an airplane, go to the office, attend an event with a large crowd or even dine in a restaurant.

A poll conducted in the middle of last month by the National Opinion Research Center for The Associated Press found that 55 percent of adults support requiring Americans to wear masks when they are around others outside their homes. Only a quarter of adults said they opposed those mask mandates.

Those results stand in stark contrast to Republican governors and the loud voices on social media who say mandates are not the answer.

“Notwithstanding all the noise from the aggressive constituency that takes issues with the vaccine, the actual polling shows the pop is supportive of vaccines, is supportive of mask mandates,” said Josh Newman (D), a California state senator who has backed Newsom.

Newsom is likely to become the first California governor to survive a recall attempt, 18 years after former Gov. Gray Davis (D) was ousted in the midst of an energy and budget crisis. It appears that the silent majority, this time, may be on the Democratic side.

“This is becoming the vaccinated versus the unvaccinated, and a majority of voters are vaccinated. So the math isn’t hard to do,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist who worked for former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). “By the time the ballots arrived, [Newsom’s] pro-vaccine mandate, pro-mask mandate policies were popular with a majority of voters, including 40 percent of Republicans.”

Some Democrats hope the lessons from California — one of the most liberal states in the country — will transmit to other competitive contests. The next election on the calendar happens in Virginia, where former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has embraced vaccine mandates and tried to paint his Republican opponent, former Carlyle Group executive Glenn Youngkin, as an opponent of the mandates.

Youngkin is no fan of mandates, but he is running an advertisement urging people to get vaccinated.

“The lesson that we’ll take right into Virginia is that vaccines work,” Pelosi said. “Vaccines and masks are the best, shortest distance to life and getting back to normal.”