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Total recall failure shows voters haven't been moved

Analysis: California Gov. Gavin Newsom's victory over a recall attempt hardly screams harbinger of future results.
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WASHINGTON — It will take a while to count all of the votes in California's recall election, but Gov. Gavin Newsom's victory was so clear and compelling that the top Republican — Larry Elder — actually conceded.

Aides to President Joe Biden, who campaigned for Newsom, were quick to attribute the result to voters endorsing the White House's approach to combating the Covid-19 pandemic.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison went further in claiming both a mandate for Biden's broader platform and a portent of future electoral success.

"Yesterday was a win for the bold agenda put forth by President @JoeBiden, @GavinNewsom, and Democrats in Congress to build our country back better, deliver on their promises, and get our country back on track," he wrote on Twitter. "I am confident we will continue to do so in 2021, 2022, and beyond."

And yet sometimes, an election is a discrete event.

In this case, the numbers are instructive. With about 70 percent of the vote in, 36.1 percent of voters wanted to oust Newsom and 63.9 percent wanted to keep him. That margin isn't much different from Newsom's spread in winning the governorship in 2018: 62 percent to 38 percent. It's also roughly in line with the share Biden took in defeating then-President Donald Trump, 63.4 percent to 34.3 percent, in California in November. And finally, it's not far off from the 2-to-1 registration edge Democrats hold over Republicans in the state.

"Breaking: there are a lot more Democrats than Republicans in California," Dave Wasserman, U.S. House editor for The Cook Political Report and an NBC News contributor, wrote with more than a hint of sarcasm. "Fortunately for Republicans, they don’t need to win any Biden +29 states/districts to win back Congress in 2022."

Indeed, if anything, the results suggest not much has changed in the partisan makeup or voter preferences of Californians since the nation last tuned in to the state's politics. Furthermore, a recall election is such an unusual two-variable question that a swing in a single state's electorate would be hard to use as a portent for next year's midterms, much less the 2024 presidential election.

Democrats are right to be happy that the bedrock of their electoral coalition — the biggest state in their "blue wall" — showed no cracks at a time when Biden's approval ratings are upside down.

But the outcome hardly screams harbinger.

Political number-crunchers in both parties will more closely scrutinize results in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races in less than two months, where the electorates in a series of competitive congressional districts are likely to provide more reliable snapshots of voter sentiment.

Between those elections and the November 2022 midterms, states will redraw the boundaries of House districts. Governors and state legislatures will be mindful of any lessons they can learn from blue-tilting New Jersey and Virginia, but the California recall will be further from their minds.

Republicans have an advantage in redistricting because they control the process in more states than Democrats do, which means that Democrats may have to perform better than they did in 2020 to hold power in Congress. But with Biden's popularity numbers flagging, the status quo is good right now for a Democratic Party trying to hold on to narrow majorities. Among other things, the recall denied Republicans evidence that voters will punish Biden and his fellow Democrats for pushing vaccine mandates.

But it didn't change the calculus for 2022 or 2024 in any measurable way.