Weak Parties and the CA Recall

With an appearance by Caitlyn Jenner's choice of party.

Pending the final review of signatures on recall petitions, there is going to be a vote to recall California Governor Gavin Newsom (D). Newsom is facing criticism over his handling of the Covid pandemic, as well as other issues. As detailed below, the odds are that he will withstand the attempt and remain in office to complete his term. Ballotpedia has the run-down of the signature situation (Gavin Newsom recall, Governor of California (2019-2021)):

Supporters turned in 2.1 million signatures by the March 17, 2021, submission deadline. The California Secretary of State is in the process of verifying those signatures. If at least 1,495,709 signatures are deemed valid, there will be a recall election. As of March 22, 1,188,073 signatures were deemed valid. The additional procedural steps dictate a recall election take place within 60 to 80 days of signature verification. For more information on the status of signature submissions, click here.

For context, 12,464,235 votes were cast in the 2018 gubernatorial contest. The just shy of 1.5 million signatures needed underscores the fairly low threshold needed to spark a recall:

12 percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election, with signatures from at least five separate counties equal to one percent of the votes cast in that county in the last gubernatorial election

Source: Ballotopedia, “States with gubernatorial recall provisions

For Newsom to be recalled 50%+1 of the voters have to vote to recall him. This is unlikely. While Newsom’s popularity has suffered, it is not at levels that suggest he will be recalled (unlike Gray Davis in 2003). A poll at the end of March indicated that only 40% of Californians would vote to recall. Newsom won election in 2018 with 61.9% of the vote and the state is heavily Democratic. The linked poll has Newsom’s approval with adults at 54% (down from a peak of 65% in May of 2020). None of these numbers suggest Newsom is at any real risk of being recalled.

But of what use is any of this for understanding the weakness of US parties?

Glad you asked.

The recall process in California is such that voters are asked the recall question and given a list of possible replacements. If the vote to recall is Yes, then the plurality winner of the list of replacements is elected governor.

The last time this happened was 2003, when Governor Gray Davis’ (D) approval was tanking in the face of ongoing blackouts and other issues and he was removed after only 11 months in office. It was this recall process that first brought Arnold Schwarzenegger to the governor’s mansion.

Here is what the 2003 ballot looked like.

Gray Davis recall ballot.png

There were 135 candidates on the list, including Larry Flynt, Gary (“What you talkin’ about, Willis?”) Coleman, Ariana Huffington, comedian Leo Gallagher (yes, the watermelon guy), and porn star Mary Carey. See the NYT at the time for more info: THE CALIFORNIA RECALL: THE CANDIDATES; California Voters Wonder: Is Anyone Not Running?

Schwarzenegger won almost an absolute majority of the vote, with 48.58% (Davis was recalled with 55.4% in favor).

With a list of 135, it is easy to see how name recognition (and a long, unique name) would have been a plus.

It is worth noting that there are multiple Republicans and multiple Democrats on that list. Indeed, there were 59 Democrats, 47 Republicans, 41 Independents, 4 Greens, 3 Libertarians, 2 American Independents, 2 Natural Laws, and 1 Peace and Freedom.

That is either the worse version of the Twelve Days of Christmas or a clear illustration of the weakness of American political parties. (Or, you know, why not both?).

The most fundamental element of a political party is its label. It is a container into which everything else is poured. If there is no control over the label, then there is no real control over the party. The party becomes what the officeholders who have the label by their name make it to be.

In systems with stronger parties, there is a party organization that controls the label. To use the labels means you have to conform to the party’s platforms and goals. A fairly recent illustration of this was when British PM Boris Johnson kicked out 21 members of the Conservative Party for not voting the way he wanted in Parliament. They were, therefore, not allowed to run as Conservatives in the next election, which effectively ended their political careers.

In the US, control of label is usually filtered through primaries, but that is a profoundly decentralized process that means that the party can take very different pathways depending on who wins nominations. On the national level, for example, a Bernie nomination in 2016 would have been quite different from the HRC nomination in terms of the broad definition of the Democratic Party. And we have talked her ad inifinitum about how Trump’s ability to win the primary has shaped the GOP.

The 2003 recall illustrates what can happen when even primaries don’t act as gatekeepers over label. It also shows how celebrity candidacies can stand out in a large crowd.

Celebrity candidates are also signs of weak parties because a significant amount of the attention a celebrity brings to a campaign is name recognition and fame for something other than politics. A celebrity candidate is unlikely to have risen to political competition because they conform to party orthodoxy and just happen to also be famous.

And that brings us to 2021 and the announcement yesterday an entrant into the recall mix. via CNN, Caitlyn Jenner announces run for California governor in likely recall election.

My snap assessment is that Jenner is a vanity/novelty candidate and since her business and brand (and the broader Kardashian empire) has been about being famous for being famous, I can’t help but think this is just a publicity stunt.

But, that really isn’t what drew me to comment.

What struck me is that Jenner plans to run as a Republican. This just so thoroughly illustrates my point about party weakness and the personalistic nature of our politics (with a helping of the power of the duopoly thrown in) that I couldn’t resist.

Keep in mind that I cannot get into Jenner’s mind, nor would I attempt to (beyond the reasonable inference that this is likely more about publicity than sincere office-seeking). Maybe she sincerely wants to be governor, but that really isn’t the issue. In a world wherein parties had some level of hierarchy and coherence (and therefore more rigidity in meaning of label) it is very difficult to see a transgender woman running as a Republican. And, moreover, it is hard to see a Republican Party wanting a transgender woman to run under their label.

After all, we are seeing a nationwide effort to curtail trans’ rights by Republicans (see, e.g., The Daily A Wave of Anti-Transgender Legislation or via CNN, This record-breaking year for anti-transgender legislation would affect minors the most). If we go back a few years, there was also the moral panic about transgendered persons and bathrooms. The GOP, as a party, clearly is opposed to transgender rights and many officeholders with Rs by their names are vocally hostile to trans rights in general, if not to the very notion of transgender people specifically.

Given the fluidity of this election, it is actually interesting that she is not simply running as an independent. But, I think this is where the psychological power of the duopoly comes into play: Americans strongly identify with their parties and have a hard time giving them up, plus there is the knowledge that, for the most part, only Rs and Ds win office.

In short, the permissive nature of ballot access in the recall process will likely see a number of more novel candidates. Beyond that, however, the weakness of the major parties is clear here: there is not an organization that controls their label and therefore, candidates can seek to capture it and define it if they can win office.

There is also the fact the being a celebrity candidates is a way to short-circuit political career building and receive a disproportionate share of media attention, and perhaps votes, not because of well-defined political positions necessarily, but because one is known.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2021, Democratic Theory, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Jay L Gischer says:

    I think that while someone who has a media career can always be described as “attention seeking”, Jenner also has a substantive track record of trans and LGBT advocacy. So I view her candidacy through that lens, though I don’t think she has much of a shot. I can’t see that much disappointment with Newsom in Democrats, for one thing.

    However, if she polls at all well, and seems a viable candidate, that will force attention to her, and from a trans rights perspective that’s great.

  2. Jay L Gischer says:

    I remember that ballot. What a nightmare, trying to find the box you want to check on it. And all those names. I think it cost something like 200 bucks to get your name on it. Maybe 500. So lots of people decided to waste my (and every other CA voter’s) time.

  3. @Jay L Gischer: I don’t want to downplay her activism, although it is difficult for me to fully separate her public activities from the broader Kardashianverse.

    And if she is doing this to promote LGBTQ rights, more power to her.

    Of course, none of that changes my weak party point.

  4. Paine says:

    I remember that recall well. I was confident that the California voters would do better than to elect a completely unqualified actor to become governor.

    Then in 2016, I was confident that the American voters would do better than to elect a completely unqualified reality TV star to the become president.

    Clearly, my estimation of the electorate is way off base.

  5. Modulo Myself says:

    I’m not sure about the weak parties. Jenner is trying to do what Andrew Yang is doing and the Democrats in NYC are not a weak party. What Yang is running on is the idea that the city is a byzantine mess and all you need is a couple of bros who are cheerful and respectful and real good at taking standardized tests to fix it. So I think it’s more about hard situations and the urge to believe that you, the voter, can figure out because you’ve read a couple of op-eds, and that you certainly know more than some administrator who has spent twenty years doing bureaucratic work.

    I think that Yang has a good chance at winning the race. I don’t think Jenner has a good shot at all, partly because the outrage against Newsom seems very small-businessy, as in it’s coming from the people who think that hate for their little restaurant and business made the government issue stay-at-home orders rather than COVID. These people are nutty and self-involved, and have been egged on by people paid to egg them on.

  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    Imagine if the Coca-Cola brand was defined as, ‘whatever beverage people want to make in their bathtub.’ I don’t suppose the parties could trademark the name? But if you were to launch a new party I imagine you could incorporate and trademark. Could some group incorporate as True Republicans, Inc, with ‘True Republican’ protected?

  7. Michael Reynolds says:


    No one in this world, so far as I know—and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby. The mistake that is made always runs the other way. Because the plain people are able to speak and understand, and even, in many cases, to read and write, it is assumed that they have ideas in their heads, and an appetite for more. This assumption is a folly.

  8. @Modulo Myself: I am no sure I understand your comment.

    I spelled out pretty clearly (or so I thought) how Jenner’s candidacy illustrates party weakness.

    Yang, I would argue, does as well, although not in exactly the same way. Yang’s candidacy is very much about name recognition and personal appeal and is not the result of the formal party controlling its label and recruiting Yang.

    Yang is a semi-celebrity candidate himself, TBH.

    This hardly seems like a description of a strong party situation:

    What Yang is running on is the idea that the city is a byzantine mess and all you need is a couple of bros who are cheerful and respectful and real good at taking standardized tests to fix it.

  9. @Michael Reynolds: The easiest way for the parties to control their labels is to change the way they nominate candidates.

  10. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    I’m wondering about a completely different question–the question of where one’s name appears on the ballot. With 135 or so names, would Arnold have been as likely to win if his name had been, say in middle of the lower half of column 2 or the upper half of column three instead of being one of the first 5 names listed? Does any academic discipline have any speculations about that?

  11. @Just nutha ignint cracker: It has been a long time, but I want to say that the order of names was not set–either it varied by jurisdiction or even within jurisdiction so as to cut down on location-based advantages (and yes, there is a literature on that).

    But I can’t say that I remember defnitively.

  12. Thanks, Google!

    Officials will then make 80 different lists — one for each of the state’s voting districts — by moving each name on top of one list to the bottom of the next.

    So kind of what I was remembering.

    And the starting spot for the first list (which letter came first) was set by a random drawing.


  13. Scott F. says:

    I’m wondering, Steven (and others), if strong party control over the brand is irretrievable in the US. It seems to me that after all the history you recounted here ad infinitum, some powerful people – be they political leaders or party funders – would want to counter the trend. Where does the path back to the smoke-filled back rooms start?

  14. Mimai says:

    Steven, forgive me if you’ve explicitly stated this in the past, but you seem very much against the decentralization process wrt political parties. I’m curious to what degree does one’s general position on top-down vs. bottom-up politics/policy map onto their specific position on top-down vs. bottom-up control of political parties?

    Or less wordy, are right-leaning political scientists more likely to favor bottom-up control of political parties? And left-leaning political scientists more likely to favor top-down control? Do you have a sense of this (or even better, data)?

  15. @Mimai: My view is not ideologically derived, and has evolved over time.

    The issue really isn’t top-down v. bottom-up. I would have to dig up a bunch of posts, but the issue for me is that primaries undercut any incentive for new party formation. And so we have rigid parties with significant polarization, but very weak parties at the same time. It is not a good mix.

  16. And if there is a split amongst political scientists it is probably most likely to be between Americanists who consider primaries a long-term, normal aspect of the party system and comparativists who see it as an almost unique-to-the-US phenomenon.

  17. Mimai says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Sorry, I should have clarified that I was not focusing on you or doing some subtle jujitsu to cast aspersions. Having read many of your posts on this, I think I have a decent handle on your perspective.

    I was more interested in whether the crude distinction between top-down and bottom-up (that used to distinguish between our political parties) had any bearing on this particular issue. Your response indicates that it does not….or at least that it’s not a primary factor.

    Thanks for the response.

  18. HarvardLaw92 says:

    I’d take her candidacy more seriously if she were running as a Democrat. As it is, my gut says she could just be a stalking horse, but I’d take that idea more seriously if she were more of an actual celebrity. The majority of the Republican electorate is likely going to regard her at best as being a joke, and probably far less charitably. I’m not bothered by the trans thing, but the Kardashian thing is a non-starter.

  19. Gustopher says:

    With a stronger party system, would we have to have a Ridiculous Celebrity Vanity Party to bring folks like Jenner and Trump to the ticket? I’m pondering what platform and requirements such a party would have to have.

    I mean, you wouldn’t want the party infrastructure coopted by a sane candidate.

    Where would people like Bernie Sanders, Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich and that type fit in — people who think they’re serious, but have a very non-serious following.

  20. @Gustopher: Ron Paul and Bernie are great illustrations of my broader point (whether one finds them serious or unserious).

    Ron Paul was a self-described Libertarian (and one-time LP pres nominee) who could only win office by competing in the GOP primary to capture that label. The institutional party had no say in the matter.

    Likewise, Bernie is an independent who had the chance to take over the Democratic Party had he been able to win the nomination for president.