Newsom Versus Davis: A Review of Two Very Different Recalls

July 11, 2021 Updated: July 12, 2021


I wrote Orange County Register editorials for the 2003 recall of then-governor Gray Davis and his replacement with then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. We supported the recall. But at that time, the paper’s commentary section didn’t support specific candidates for office, although it does now.

Things today are a lot different. With the recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom scheduled for Sept. 14, I’ll lay out some contrasts between the current recall and the Oct. 7, 2003, ousting of Davis.

When Schwarzenegger took office, it had been four years since a Republican led the state. It’s now been 10 years since California has had a Republican governor.

At the time of the 2003 recall, 43.7 percent of voters were registered Democrats, compared with today’s 46.2 percent. Conversely, the number of registered Republicans has dropped from 35.3 percent in 2003 to 24.1 percent today. The number of independent voters has increased from 16 percent to 23.7 percent.

Of California’s 21.8 million eligible voters in 2003, 15.4 million, or 70.5 percent, were registered. Of today’s 25.2 million eligible voters, 22.2 million, or 88 percent, are registered.

The state’s population has grown from 35.2 million in 2003 to 39.7 million today.

It appears that Californians have gotten wealthier between the two recalls, with 9.3 percent belonging to the top marginal individual income tax rate in 2003, compared with 13.3 percent now.

Today’s median house price of $818,260 is more than double the 2003 median price of $371,530, although the latter figure grows to $550,435 when adjusted for inflation.

Support for Recall

Six weeks before the Aug. 24, 2003 vote, 50 percent of people supported the recall, while 45 percent opposed it. On May 26, 2021—3 1/2 months before the election—40 percent of people supported the recall, and 57 percent opposed it.

Approval rating for Davis ahead of the recall was 24 percent; 72 disapproved of his leadership. Conversely, Newsom has a 52 percent approval rating, with 43 percent of voters unhappy with the way he governs California.

The cost of the recall has risen from $25 million in 2003 ($36.4 million when adjusted for inflation) to an estimated $278 million.

Media Shapeshifters

Social media didn’t exist in 2003.

Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube today dominate the news about campaigns, with censorship imposed on Republican candidates.

Newspapers at the time of Davis’s recall remained dominant, still three ways away from a sharp circulation decline. They’re now less influential than online and social media sources, but hanging in there.

The broadcast media’s coverage of state issues was sporadic in 2003, including for the recall, although Schwarzenegger’s star power generated interest.

Because so many news sources are now proliferated in today’s world, broadcast news largely centers on breaking crime stories. The recall is unlikely to generate more than sporadic interest. For example, ABC 7 Eyewitness News in Los Angeles is using AP stories.

Chinese Communist Party’s Influence

The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) influence on media was negligible in 2003, when media was still diffused and locally owned.

Freedom House analyst Sarah Cook said in 2021: “Chinese state media content reaches hundreds of millions of television viewers, radio listeners, and social media users abroad, in many cases without transparency as to its origin.

“Meanwhile, journalists, news consumers, and advertisers in countries ranging from Sweden to Russia, South Africa, the United States, and Australia are encountering intimidation or censorship of political content that the CCP considers undesirable. Beijing’s media influence not only distorts the information environment in the affected settings, it also undermines international norms and fundamental features of democratic governance, including transparency, the rule of law, and fair competition.”

The Christian Science Monitor wrote: “China is known for guiding public opinion at home, but how does the country shape public discourse globally? A seven-month investigation reveals how thousands of inauthentic accounts on Twitter and other social media sites amplify Chinese propaganda.”

Would the CCP care about a state recall campaign? Well, almost by definition, any California governor or senator is considered a future presidential candidate. Two recent presidents and the current vice president hail from the Golden State. And look at the back of your iPhone. It reads: “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.”

Then there’s this from Axios: “[A] Chinese national named Fang Fang or Christine Fang, targeted up-and-coming local politicians in the Bay Area and across the country who had the potential to make it big on the national stage. … Among the most significant targets of Fang’s efforts was Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.).”

Swalwell was a 2020 presidential candidate and close associate of Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) during the first impeachment scam against then-president Donald Trump. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) picked Swalwell to manage the second impeachment scam.

Does that have anything to do with Trump’s confrontations with China? Inquiring minds want to know.

Then there was the Chinese communist spy who served as the chauffeur to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). She has long been a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Republicans should start asking questions about the CCP’s influence over California politics.

Track Record

During the 2002 general election, Davis received 47.3 percent of the vote; Republican Bill Simon received 42.4 percent. Newsom received 61.9 percent of the vote during the 2018 election, a healthy lead against Republican John Cox, who received 38.1 percent of the vote.

The economy in 2003 was already recovering strongly from the dot-com recession. But it was also entering the real estate boom cycle that in 2007 crashed into the much worse subprime recession.

Today’s economy is strong, but the latest round of soaring housing costs has squeezed out most of the middle class from the California dream.

State Finances

California had a $35 billion deficit in 2003 under Davis.

By sharp contrast, Newsom claimed a $75.7 billion surplus in May.

As Dan Walters pointed out, “However, the Legislature’s budget analyst, Gabe Petek, has a sharply different take. He says the true surplus that can be spent or saved over two years is more like $38 billion—still a very substantial sum but lacking the political punch of the numbers Newsom threw out.”

Moreover, as I pointed out in my previous Epoch Times column, based on my interview with former state Sen. John Moorlach, the key is what’s on the state’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report.

The essential number there is the unrestricted net deficit. Numbers for the year ending June 30, 2003, reflect a deficit of $43.9 billion. (Adjusted for inflation in 2021 dollars: $64.3 billion.)

For the year ending June 30, 2019, (last year available; Controller Betty Yee is late again), the deficit was $208.4 billion.

So the unrestricted net deficit really is 3.2 times as much as under Davis. Although the “pension spiking” Davis had signed, especially, the disastrous SB 400 in 1999, it was just beginning to slam the state budget—and local budgets, too.

Major Crises

Davis had mismanaged the 2000–01 California Electricity Crisis in 2003. The dot-com bust destroyed Silicon Valley evaluations, slamming revenues to the state. Davis met the budget crisis with a unilateral increase in the car tax that many said was unconstitutional.

With the economy doing well, the major threats this year are wildfires and electricity blackouts. If on Sept. 14 large parts of the state are on fire and voters are choking on smoke while mailing their ballots in the dark, Newsom could be in trouble. COVID mostly has redounded to Newsom’s benefit. But if it returns with a vengeance, he could have problems.

Number of Candidates

There were 154 candidates in 2003. About 60 candidates have filed a statement of intention to run during the 2021 election, according to the latest tally by the Secretary of State. The deadline to file is July.

End Result of Recall

In 2003, Schwarzenegger’s star power fueled both the recall and his own election against the lackluster Davis. In his first two years of decent governance, Arnold fulfilled campaign promises to cut taxes and “blow up the boxes” of government waste.

Then, after losing a Reform Agenda of four initiatives in November 2005, he flipped. He went on binges that spiked general fund spending from $79.8 billion in fiscal 2004–05 to $101.4 billion in 2006–07. That was a whopping 27.1 percent increase in just two years.

When the recession hit in 2007, the excessive spending created deficits of more than $20 billion. In 2009, he signed a record tax increase of $13 billion. He left office in 2011 with the high hopes and reform promises of his 2003 election “terminated.”

2021: To be determined.

John Seiler is a veteran California opinion writer. He has written editorials for The Orange County Register for almost 30 years. He is a U.S. Army veteran and former press secretary to California State Sen. John Moorlach. He blogs at

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

John Seiler
John Seiler
John Seiler is a veteran California opinion writer. He has written editorials for The Orange County Register for almost 30 years. He is a U.S. Army veteran and former press secretary to California State Sen. John Moorlach. He blogs at