California recall forces split in Republican ad strategy

Republican candidates had to urge participation in the election in addition to self promotion.
14 September 2021
California recall election
Chris Sebastian

Analyst, U.S.

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The logistics of the California recall process created a noticeable divide in the messaging and broadcast strategies of Democrats and Republicans.

While those against the Sept. 14 recall only needed to convince Californians to show up to the polls and vote “no,” Republican candidates in favor of the recall found themselves in a complicated position. They had to convince a majority of Californians to reject Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and set themselves apart from their fellow Republicans as they did so. All this had to be done within just a few months, and with a level of political care that did not alienate Californians from participating in the recall entirely.

The most obvious manifestation of these different goals can be seen in the total quantity of advertisers present in the race. Standing in contrast to the divided Republican field, California Democrats have stood in favor of retaining Newsom. This in and of itself was a political gambit - by standing by the current governor at the outset of the recall process, the California Democratic Party risked losing the governorship to a Republican candidate. Successfully gathering the signatures required for a recall is often indicative of an unpopular politician, and “cutting their losses” and replacing him on the ballot with a new candidate would not have been impossible or even unusual.

Still, unifying behind Newsom has allowed them to pool most of their resources and energy into just one group with just one message. Stop the Republican Recall of Governor Newsom, the Democrats’ principal advertiser on the airwaves, is responsible for 97% of the $22 million spent so far by those opposed to the recall and delivers a top level framing of the election so concise that it can be gathered from the group’s name alone.

In contrast, the field in support of the recall effort was fractured. Republican spending spread more evenly and across far more groups – eight, as opposed to the Democrats’ three – and no one group is responsible for a majority of spending. Leading the Republican field in both spending and spot count (the number of times an ad airs) is John Cox, an early entrant to the race on broadcast. He has, since May, spent $4.6 million. Conservative radio talk show host Larry Elder follows him, spending $3.5 million through his Elder for Governor 2021 organization. Former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer comes in third in the candidate rankings with $850,000 spent by his campaign. The non-candidate Fund for a Better California (a PAC supporting Faulconer and principally financed by real estate developer Gerald Marcil) has spent $1.4 million. Trailing the other groups in spending, the pro-recall and candidate agnostic Reform California has spent $17,000 since late August.

The balancing act Republican candidates face is clearest in the case of Elder, the party’s second-most prolific candidate advertiser. Since the first week of August Elder has spent $3.5 million through Elder for Governor 2021, urging Californians to recall the governor and – most importantly for his campaign – vote for Larry Elder. More recently, however, a new group has spent $1.1 million on a campaign urging only to recall the governor, a group that does not directly mention Larry Elder in the messaging of its ads. That group is Larry Elder Ballot Measure Committee Recall Newsom - a legally distinct organization, principally funded by Elder for Governor 2021.

In most races, the idea of intentionally dividing one's resources between two legally distinct groups sharing the airwaves with one another is viewed as unwise. But the dual challenge facing Republican candidates necessitates such a measure, and Elder (as a high-polling pick for a Republican replacement) has found himself in the position of running and maintaining two separate campaigns with semi-unique goals, one boosting himself as a candidate and the other urging only that people vote to recall the governor generally.

Such a situation is not only unique to the California gubernatorial recall process, but unique to this election in particular - one in which Republican hopefuls find themselves in a divided field (resembling a Republican primary) against a single viable Democratic opponent. While the unique challenge Republicans face have splintered their funding and advertisers, their ad messaging has become well honed. Republican groups and candidates keep their allegations simple, unified, and directed almost entirely at Newsom – taxes are high, the housing crisis remains, and the governor is corrupt. The exact manifestations of these complaints vary from campaign to campaign, but the majority of spots aired by Republicans in California carry them. Taxation, for example, shows up in one form or another in 67% of all Republican spots aired in the state. Issues of housing and homelessness appear in just over 50%.

Mentions of the coronavirus pandemic — an issue that once fueled the recall petition process — are comparatively sparse. The tenth-most commonly seen issue in Republican recall ads, overt discussion of coronavirus appear in only around 7% of spots. Instead, most mentions of the pandemic are within the context of allegations of corruption made against Governor Newsom - oftentimes referencing the French Laundry scandal of last November. Additionally, COVID-19 vaccination, a staple of Democratic messaging, is near absent. Issues of employment and unemployment (a staple of Republican political advertising) are relegated to about 4% of spots aired.

Across the aisle, the pro-Newsom forces behind Stop the Republican Recall have run a campaign that tracks closely to Democratic messaging seen in 2020 general races. Last November, California delivered 55 electoral votes for President Joe Biden, voting for the current president over former president Donald Trump by 29 points.

Highlighting associations between Republican candidates and Donald Trump appears to be a core part of Stop the Republican Recall’s strategy to get Democratic voters to the polls. These creatives most often target Elder, to whom Stop the Republican Recall has paid extra attention in on air messaging. Still, more general allegations that the recall process is Trumpist (or a reflection of the former president’s political influence within the GOP) exist within Stop the Republican Recall’s broad anti-recall message. In total, Trump appears in 68% of spots broadcast by Democratic organizations. 

Outside of mentions of the former president, anti-recall messaging covers a wide swath of issues. Coronavirus appears as a topic in 60% of Democratic ads, with messaging centered specifically around the COVID-19 vaccine (appearing in about 55% of Democratic ads, or nearly all those that mention COVID-19 in one way, shape, or form). Coronavirus messaging is followed in prevalence by prescription drugs (55%), education (51%), public safety (34%), healthcare (33%), unions (31%), and voting issues (24%) – all topics that appear in at least a quarter of spots aired by groups aligned with Newsom. Notably absent from the top of the pack, however, is housing. The housing and homelessness messaging that is found in the majority of Republican recall spots goes almost unmentioned in Democratic ones, appearing in only about 8% of all aired spots opposed to the recall. 

While there are other noticeable differences in the ad strategies of those involved in the California recall, all of them return us to the central problem facing Republican gubernatorial hopefuls. How can one set themselves apart from fellow Republicans, while also drawing up a convincing argument against the incumbent Democratic governor? The balance they must strike to motivate Republicans and independents to vote without alienating them from the field of candidates entirely has led to a Republican landscape that doesn’t quite resemble a primary, nor a general election, nor even a special election. Rather, it is a complicated mix of all three, standing in stark contrast to the comparatively unified anti-recall front presented by those allied with Gov. Newsom.

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