Trump may be losing popularity, but is ‘Trumpism?’ Here’s what California’s recall shows

Californians have voted overwhelmingly to keep Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in office until the end of his term. Newsom improved on his share of the vote from his first election three years ago. To discuss the results and any lessons they hold for the midterm elections, as well as the role of former President Trump in the GOP, we turn to Washington Post columnists Perry Bacon and Gary Abernathy.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Californians have voted overwhelmingly to keep Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom in office until the end of his term, this in a recall election where COVID and homelessness were big concerns.

    Ballots are still being counted, but Newsom improved on his share of the vote from his first election three years ago.

    To discuss the results and any lessons they hold for next year's midterm elections, we turn to two writers who both contribute columns to The Washington Post, Perry Bacon, who's in Kentucky, and Gary Abernathy, who's based in Ohio.

    It's great to see both of you. Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Perry Bacon, let me start with you.

    How do you explain Gavin Newsom winning?

  • Perry Bacon, The Washington Post:

    Well, California is a very blue state. So that's the first and the most important one, is that Joe Biden won there by a lot, and now Gavin Newsom has.

    But I do think there was an important thing that happened during the campaign, which is that Gavin Newsom really leaned into the idea that Larry Elder, who was the top Republican who was running in the recall, would be kind of a Donald Trump-like figure for California, particularly in terms of not supporting vaccinations and mask-wearing.

    So, I think once it became a race about who takes COVID seriously, and whether Larry Elder is kind of like a Donald Trump for California, that's what really drove up the no on the recall and made sure Newsom stayed in office.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Gary Abernathy, what's your sense of why Larry Elder didn't do better? He looked more formidable at one point in this campaign.

  • Gary Abernathy, Freelance Journalist:

    Yes, but I think Perry's right, Judy.

    I think that, as soon as you were able to make it a one-on-one race, and not just a recall and not just a referendum on the governor, but which one of these people do you want, and then able to paint Elder as a Trump surrogate, as do you want Donald Trump in California, and in California, the answer to that is clearly no.

    But part of me, frankly, is a little bit happy with the way it turned out, because I'm just not a big fan of interrupting people and trying to undo the will of the voters before a term is up, whether it's a recall election, or whether it's through impeachment or some other means.

    We need to start accepting election results and understand that people have a chance to weigh in again when that person is on the ballot again at the end of the term.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Perry, you talked about the role of COVID and some other issues in this campaign.

    What lessons do you see for Democrats coming out of this recall for next year in the midterms, when President Trump is not going to be on the ballot?

  • Perry Bacon:

    I think they're going to put him on the ballot. And I don't mean directly so.

    But I think, if you look at this race, when Newsom talked about Trump, and — that was when his numbers went up and the recall became less likely. So I think that the lesson here is, California is liberal, but it's still — there's still plenty of swing districts that, for the House, is particularly important who does well in California.

    One in every eight Americans live in California. So it is an important what happens there. And I think if you look at the campaign in 2018, 2020, now 2021, when the Democrats ran against sort of Trumpism broadly in 2018, 2021, even when he's on the ballot himself, I think that has worked.

    And, at least in this case, what didn't work — and I feel like this is unfortunate — Newsom has a pretty good record, from my point of view, in terms of accomplishing policies. But he didn't really run on those. It looked like it was better that he didn't run on those and kind of ran a negative campaign mostly, because that seems to have worked.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Gary Abernathy, pick up on that, I mean, in terms of whether Democrats try to make whatever campaign it is, they try to inject Donald Trump into it.

  • Gary Abernathy:

    Well, again, it's going to it's going to depend on the state, Judy.

    In California, putting Trump as your opponent is going to be successful. He's not popular there. In a lot of other states, that's not going to work so well, although I believe that Republicans need to more and more come to terms with the fact that Donald Trump is not going to be a winning factor for you in a general election.

    He may do well for you in a primary situation, but when it comes to general elections, a lot of moderate and swing voters are not going to come back to Trump, nor, in my opinion, should they. As you know, I used to be a Trump supporter, but his actions after the election, his refusal to accept Joe Biden's presidency, his role in the January 6 incursion really disqualifies him.

    But Trumpism, Trumpism is going to continue to be a popular philosophy with a lot of voters. But you just can't have Trump leading it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, how do Democrats thread that needle, Perry, the fact that, yes, Donald Trump himself may not be as popular, but there's still this philosophy that has got a hold on many Republicans?

  • Perry Bacon:

    So, I tend to think it depends on the issues a little bit.

    Like, I think the Republicans are — if the election this year, and the Republicans were running being skeptical of vaccinations and masking, which I think are pretty popular with most voters, a majority even in a swing state like Florida or in North Carolina, I think, if they're running sort of skeptical of vaccines and mask-wearing, that's not a great place to be in.

    If you talk about immigration or other issues. I think that's where it's closer, and maybe the GOP position is more popular. So I think it depends on where you are.

    But I think this sort of like, right now, in this moment in California, or I think in other places, too, in Virginia, I think it's going to be better to be the pro-mask, pro-vaccine candidate, and then that the Republicans are in a weak place right here.

    In November 2022, I don't know if COVID will be the big issue. And I think that a lot of people will be vaccinated. So, I think that may not be the issue this time next year. But, right now, sort of following the Trumpism into anti-vaxxism is not smart.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Gary Abernathy, you can pick up on that.

    But I do want to expand on what you — ask you to expand on what you said earlier about Donald Trump, the president, former President Trump, hurting himself after the election.

    How many Republicans do you think are coming to grips with this?

  • Gary Abernathy:

    I think more and more very, very slowly, Judy, are coming to that conclusion.

    We still see polls that say, oh, wow, Trump has 90 percent support among Republicans still. But think about it this way. That's 10 percent that have broken away from him. And that's a lot of votes. I mean, he needs every last vote if he himself is on the ballot, and he will lose more as time goes by.

    It's going to be a slow process, but I believe it'll happen.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we're waiting to hear from him whether he'd like to run in 2024. We will see.

    Gary Abernathy, Perry Bacon, very good to see you both. Thank you.

  • Gary Abernathy:

    You too. Thank you both.

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