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Analysis: What to Make of Republicans' Chances in 2021

Last week’s polls show the potential for Democratic underperformance in 2021 and 2022. President Joe Biden’s approval rating dropped six points in a month in Gallup polling, and Emerson College’s survey of California indicates that Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom will be fighting for his political life ahead of the September 14th recall election.

Gallup pegs Biden’s approval rating at 50%, with 45% disapproving, down from 57% approval in April and 56% in June. Former President Donald Trump achieved 49% approval per Gallup on several occasions and never crossed the 50% threshold, but the 2016 and 2020 elections indicated that polls systemically understate Trump’s support among American voters.

Democrats and independents, not Republican partisans, are the reason for Biden’s plunge. His support among Democrats declined from 98% in February to 90% today, and he similarly went from 61% to 48% among independents. 12% of Republicans give Biden good ratings, up one percentage point from February’s survey.

While a 50% approval rating in a tightly divided country is nothing to cry about, Biden’s popularity has more room to fall as the $1.9-trillion splurge that defined his honeymoon period becomes a distant memory.

Biden’s legislative agenda sans infrastructure is stalled and may only pass via budget reconciliation along party lines, if at all. Price inflation, which is officially running at 5.4% year-over-year, would be at near-1970s levels had the government maintained its methodology over the years. Illegal border crossings are clocking in at well over six figures per month, violent crime is rising in small and major cities alike, new unemployment claims are unexpectedly on the uptick, and some analysts suggest that the economy is at risk of receding.

What will matter the most is Biden’s approval rating come this fall, when there will be the recall election in California as well as regularly scheduled gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia. These are all blue states where Democrats are favored, but certain dynamics may assist Republicans.

In New Jersey, which has America’s highest per-capita COVID-19 death rate, incumbent Democrat Phil Murphy’s approval rating is declining and Republicans nominated a credible former state assemblyman. Polls presently favor the Democrats.

Virginia Democrats nominated former Governor Terry McAuliffe and Republicans are running millionaire investment wunderkind Glenn Youngkin. The polls are very tight and some analysts give the GOP—which is running partly against economic stagnation, crime, and critical race theory—a fighting chance.

California’s recall election may the most interesting of all. Amid crippling state lockdowns, an educational shutdown, and regular wildfires, anti-Newsom campaigners collected more than 1.7 million signatures in support of a vote on whether to remove the governor from office.

The ballot will ask voters whether they want Newsom recalled, yes or no, and then list the 46 people proposing themselves as alternatives. If more than 50% of Californians vote “yes” for recall, then the leading replacement candidate would receive the keys to the Governor’s Mansion.

Perhaps surprisingly for those who did not read my December 2020 analysis of California’s voting trends, the recall race is shaping up for a photo finish. Los Angeles County recently reimposed an indoor mask mandate amid relatively low vaccination levels for a blue state, refreshing voters’ memories of California’s grueling winter of lockdowns and death and framing what will be a referendum on their “boy wonder” governor.

Newsom is flailing, with 43% of California registered voters telling Emerson College that they will vote to recall him and less than a majority (48%) saying they will vote to keep him in office. Additionally, 54% of independent voters are in support of recall, as is a plurality of Hispanics.

The fact that Newsom is in the black by five points is no consolation in a state that Biden just won by 29 points. Support for Newsom’s removal jumped from 38% to 43% since March; Emerson College is historically biased toward Democrats, per FiveThirtyEight; and 58% of voters want Newsom out after the regularly scheduled 2022 election.

The last time that California held a recall election—on October 7, 2003–voters ousted incumbent Democrat Gray Davis and installed Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger, who had a credible Republican opponent (Tom McClintock), wiped the floor everywhere except the Bay Area and even won deep-blue Los Angeles County.

This time, Republicans have a robust field of candidates who have either name recognition or political experience. Contenders include radio host Larry Elder, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Olympian and TV star Caitlyn Jenner, Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, former Congressman Doug Ose, state Board of Equalization member Ted Gaines, and 2018 GOP nominee John Cox.

Republican Larry Elder

Elder grew up in South Central Los Angeles, went on to Brown University and the University of Michigan Law School, and has a national following. Emerson pegs him as the replacement-ballot frontrunner with 16% of the vote. The Newsom-appointed secretary of state attempted to disqualify Elder because he redacted his public-facing tax returns, but a judge found that these returns were not required by law (and, even if they were, Elder would have been in the clear).

With no credible Democrats on the replacement ballot, 53% of voters are undecided on Newsom’s potential successor. It is possible that Republicans and independents turn out disproportionately on Election Day and oust Newsom, given that California’s partisan makeup is only 46.1% Democratic. Republicans, independents, and minor-party affiliates make up the balance.


Democrats will win in California, New Jersey, and Virginia if Biden maintains majority approval, national conditions stay roughly stable or improve, and state dynamics are in their favor. After all, 2021’s electoral battles will be fought on blue territory. But if Biden’s approval rating continues to plunge, national conditions sour, and state dynamics shift in Republicans’ favor, the fall of 2021 could be a banner season for the GOP.

My efforts will be focused on North Carolina’s local elections. I am most excited about Mike Miltrich and Tricia Sisson, who are running for reelection to the Cornelius Town Commission.