Positive results on handling the pandemic, unfavorable views of the Republican Party and a turnout advantage among Democrats cemented Gov. Gavin Newsom's efforts to retain his seat in California's recall election, according to exit poll results.
ABC News projected shortly after polls closed that Newsom would not be recalled, according to preliminary exit polling data and early vote totals.
Some results were less incumbent-friendly: Nearly 6 in 10 voters called the cost of living in their area "unmanageable," and the electorate divided evenly in rating the state's economy positively or negatively, 50-47%. But neither was enough to deny Newsom his win.
More voters called the pandemic the state's top issue, 31%, than picked any of four other issues offered in the exit poll -- and 80% of those voters supported retaining Newsom in office. In sharp contrast, among voters focused on the economy, 68% voted to remove him, as did 89% of those who cited crime as the state's biggest problem.
Indeed, the election came as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released positive data on the pandemic in California, reporting that it is lowest nationally in per-capita weekly COVID-19 cases, tied for the second-lowest death rate and the only state to have less than a high level of community transmission. Eighty-four percent of adults in the state have received at least one dose of a vaccine, ranking it in the top-10 states nationally.
Overall, 55% in the exit poll results approved of the way Newsom is handling his job, 54% said he's in touch with their concerns and 55% said they'd be "concerned" or "scared" if he were removed.
Just about 3 in 10 said Newsom's pandemic control measures are too strict, countering a key argument in the recall drive against him. A broad 70% supported the state's student mask mandate and 63% sided with the governor in seeing vaccination as more of a public health responsibility than a personal choice. Notably, just 24% said the pandemic is getting worse in the state; a plurality, 39%, said it's improving, with the rest saying it's staying the same.
Tellingly, among voters who called Newsom’s pandemic policies too strict, 92% voted to recall him. But he won nearly as many, 86%, of those who called his measures about right -- as well as 82% of those who said they weren’t strict enough.
Underscoring the GOP's challenges in California, 62% rated the Republican Party unfavorably, compared with a tepid but still positive 51% favorable rating for the Democratic Party. More fundamentally, Democrats outnumbered Republicans in exit poll data by 17 percentage points, 43-26% (with the rest independents and others). That resembled the electorate in Newsom's 2018 election as governor, 46-23%, Democrat-Republican.
Newsom only managed an even split among independents; they voted 50-50 on the recall. But the wide turnout advantage of Democrats over Republicans tipped the scale.
It was far from a replay of the recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in 2003. Then Democrats and Republicans were evenly divided, 39-38%. A vast 83% rated the state's economy negatively. And just 27% approved of Davis' work as governor, half of Newsom's approval now.
For his part, President Joe Biden – who campaigned with Newsom on Monday -- had a 56% approval rating in these exit poll results. Biden won the state in 2020 with 63% support; in this election, 55% of voters said they voted for him a year ago, 33% for former President Donald Trump.
Just 34% expressed a favorable opinion of Newsom's leading challenger, Republican Larry Elder, while 50% saw him unfavorably. That made Elder less of a draw than Arnold Schwarzenegger, who held a 50-45% favorable-unfavorable rating when he unseated Davis 18 years ago.
Indeed, while Elder was bidding to become California's first Black governor, 81% of Black voters (a slim 7% of the electorate) cast their ballots to retain Newsom.
A far larger group in the state, Hispanic/Latino voters, made up a quarter of the turnout in exit poll results. That compares with 31% in the 2020 presidential election, but surpasses this group's share of the electorate in previous midterms in data since 1994 and in the 2003 recall contest alike. Fifty-eight percent of Latinos voted to retain Newsom -- including 62% of Latina women, declining to a closer 53-47% retain/remove vote among Latino men.
His weakest group was non-college educated white voters; per the exit poll data, 57% in this group voted to recall him.
Regionally, the exit poll data indicated support for Newsom peaking in the Bay Area and Los Angeles County, together home to 4 in 10 voters, while voters in extensive inland California voted by a 10-point margin to remove him.
The recall election exit poll was conducted with a mix of telephone, email to web and text-based interviews with early and absentee voters and in-person interviews with Election Day voters at a sample of polling places. Results are final after weighting adjustments.
As noted, 31% in the exit poll data cited the pandemic as the most important issue among five offered, compared with homelessness, 22%; the economy, 17%; wildfires, 14%; and crime, 8%.
On an additional issue not included in the top-issue list, 60% called climate change a very serious problem for the state and 19% call it somewhat serious. Just 17% didn't think it's serious.
Eighty percent of voters, according to exit poll results, cast their ballot in advance of the election day, mostly by mail rather than at a drop-off location. Majorities in the exit poll results reported voting by mail across partisan lines -- 85% of Democrats, 73% of independents and 61% of Republicans.
If follows that late campaigning can't have made much of a difference: Eighty-seven percent of voters say they made their choice more than two weeks ago; indeed, nearly 7 in 10 say they decided before August.