September 6, 2021 - 4:51pm

While California’s economy is the envy of the world, its politics are the mirror-image opposite. The movement to oust Governor Gavin Newsom — a skilled, experienced Democrat— before his term is up is the latest, clearest example. His troubles have a lot to do with the peculiarities of the state. But he also exemplifies all the ways in which Democrats around the country are making their own problems worse.

For too long, Democratic leaders have been trying to appease the progressive wing of the party at the cost of moderate and independent support. Earlier this year, my consulting firm ran Andrew Yang’s campaign for Mayor of New York City. When the race was about recovering from Covid, we were in great shape. But when it shifted to crime and violence, we were finished. That’s because moderates and progressives in the party deviate significantly on this issue; so when Yang suggested in a debate that it wasn’t just homeless citizens who had rights, he was excoriated for it by the far Left and pundits.

This is how Governor Newsom became vulnerable in a state in which his party is the dominant force. Although the homeless and quality of life crises in San Francisco and Los Angeles are not technically the Governor’s responsibility, voters expect their state’s top executive to act when a problem is so pervasive. On this issue, the hard Left is both way off the mainstream, but incredibly vocal about their position.

Unwilling to face a bad day or two on Twitter, Newsom played it safe, mainly offering standard liberal solutions like more money for housing. Not until he was at real risk of being recalled did he start talking about the situation from the perspective of residents rather than the homeless. When voters look at the recall ballot, how many of them are going to think about those tent cities in downtown Los Angeles? Or the problem of excrement smeared across the streets of San Francisco? How many are going to say to themselves, “Things are broken, this guy hasn’t fixed it, we need a change”? A lot more than Newsom ever expected. 

Newsom didn’t ignore the crises in San Francisco and Los Angeles due to his ideology. He did it because he and his team misread the political signs. They confused Twitter for real life. They confused TV news, punditry and advocacy groups for real voters. They over-indexed the metrics that matter to political insiders at the expense of metrics that matter to real people. This proved true in New York City too. While Yang didn’t win, Eric Adams — another moderate candidate who doesn’t reflexively oppose the police, love every conceivable tax increase and hate the private sector — did. He stuck to issues that had broad public support, even if they were unloved by the progressive base.

If Newsom wants to survive his recall, the lesson to him and other politicians should be very clear: don’t confuse the narrow reality that surrounds you with the actual world your voters live in. Your voters don’t care about retweets or praise from Rachel Maddow. They care about policies that make their lives easier and more manageable — not harder and more expensive.

Bradley Tusk is the CEO of Tusk Strategies, venture capitalist, political strategist, and writer.