2022 midterms

California’s Law and Order Narrative Didn’t Survive Late Returns

Los Angeles mayoral candidate Rick Caruso and his excited supporters prematurely celebrate on the evening of June 7, 2022. Photo: Apu Gomes/Getty Images

Anyone who is engaged in politics in a state with heavy voting by mail knows that making pronouncements based on early returns is perilous. The danger of rushes to judgment is especially dire in California, which allows mail ballots postmarked by Election Day but received in the next week to count, permits Election Day registration, and goes the extra mile to help voters cure minor errors on their mail ballot. As CalMatters put it in 2020, “the state opts to make it very easy for Californians to vote” and prioritizes voter convenience over the speed or efficiency of vote-counting. There have been many recent elections in the Golden State where the winners on Election Night have turned into losers before very long.

This was all well known prior to the 2022 California top-two primary on June 7. Yet early returns fed a narrative of a conservative law-and-order revolt against the Golden State’s dominant progressives. Newsweek’s take was typical:

Democratic voters in California took their frustrations to the ballot box on Tuesday, boosting a former Republican in Los Angeles’ mayoral race and removing one of the nation’s most progressive district attorneys from office in an urban revolt …


What’s happening in the L.A. mayor’s race and in the San Fransisco district attorney race is “consistent with the trend we are seeing nationally: that voters feel that the Democratic Party has moved too far left and want elected officials to shift back towards the center,” Democratic pollster Carly Cooperman told Newsweek.

Rick Caruso’s early lead in the L.A. mayoral race and what appeared initially to be a three-to-two victory for the effort to recall San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin were wildly overinterpreted, as I pointed out at the time:

The idea that the primary showed a state convulsed with reactionary tough-on-crime sentiment is an overreaction to what actually happened on June 7. Boudin was happily tossed over the side by much of San Francisco’s Democratic political establishment — who regarded him as an embarrassing and not terribly competent outlier, not a national symbol of criminal-justice reform (as some have treated him). And while Caruso’s emergence as a freshly minted Democrat running a viable race for mayor of L.A. was startling, it took a ten-to-one spending advantage over Karen Bass to make the general election. His best shot at winning may have passed in this low-turnout primary; Bass should be favored to win in November.

Now, late-arriving results in the primary have made the law-and-order takes not just premature but possibly wrong, as the Los Angeles Timesexplained:

 [I]n the two weeks since California’s primary, some key races across the state have reshuffled or tightened — turning upside-down some of the early punditry about the message Golden State voters are sending this cycle …


In L.A.’s mayoral race, Caruso, a billionaire developer who ran on a platform of expanding the city’s police force and clearing homeless encampments, celebrated with confetti on election night as he held a five-percentage-point lead over U.S. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), whom he will face in the November runoff.


But two weeks later, he finds himself trailing Bass by seven points.

I’d say Caruso is a distinct underdog for November.

Chesa Boudin was indeed recalled, but the margin of yea-over-nay votes has dropped from 20 percent to 10 percent, and may drop further. And meanwhile, other contests already contradicted the swing-to-the-right narrative on Election Night, as I noted:

Appointed incumbent attorney general Rob Bonta should have been a prime target for tough-on-crime agitation. As The Appeal noted: “Bonta’s record on criminal justice reform, and his ties to groups doing the frontline work to transform prisons and policing, are stronger than either [Xavier] Becerra or [Kamala] Harris,” his two predecessors. (The former is Joe Biden’s Health and Human Services secretary; the latter is his vice-president.) As a novice statewide candidate, Bonta could have been especially vulnerable, but in a primary against four opponents, he has received almost 55 percent of counted votes — a higher percentage than U.S. senator Alex Padilla and a bit below that of Governor Gavin Newsom.

Bonta’s lead is exactly where it was on the evening of June 7.

The moral of the story is to resist the temptation to make broad generalizations about California election results until enough of them are in to justify such conclusions. Let’s hope the lesson sinks in by November.

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