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Gavin Newsom for president? Tallying up his assets and liabilities

Gov. Gavin Newsom leaves the stage after addressing attendees at his inauguration for a second term at the Plaza de California in Sacramento on Jan. 6, 2023.
Rahul Lal
Gov. Gavin Newsom leaves the stage after addressing attendees at his inauguration for a second term at the Plaza de California in Sacramento on Jan. 6, 2023.

In the nearly two weeks since President Joe Biden’s catastrophic performance in a televised debate, the Democratic freakout over whether he can continue as their presumptive presidential nominee has not abated.

Even as Biden insists that he is committed to finishing out the race, speculation continues among the party faithful and political observers over who might be best positioned to defeat Republican former President Donald Trump instead. Among those frequently cited is California’s own Gov. Gavin Newsom, a dedicated Biden surrogate who recently completed a tour on the president’s behalf through Michigan, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.

While Newsom says he’s standing firmly behind Biden’s re-election and has long publicly denied any presidential ambitions, this chaotic political moment is elevating the national profile that Newsom has spent years cultivating — including through a Fox News debate last fall against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and a heretofore unsuccessful bid for a constitutional amendment on gun control.


CalMatters spoke with political consultants and experts — veterans of California elections, swing state organizing and national campaigns — about Newsom’s prospects as a presidential contender. They largely agreed that he was extremely unlikely to become the Democratic nominee this year even if Biden ultimately withdraws, with Vice President Kamala Harris waiting in the wings, but that Newsom could be a strong candidate in the 2028 primary because of his progressive bona fides and extensive political network.

The biggest question mark: Can a California Democrat, the liberal caricature that has been a political punching bag for decades, win a presidential election? If the last eight years have taught us anything, it’s that the conventional wisdom may no longer apply.

Newsom assets

1. He’s a dynamic campaigner

Newsom’s classic good looks and charisma have always bolstered his political star power. (Never forget the infamous “New Kennedys” profile in Harper’s Bazaar in 2004, shortly after he became mayor of San Francisco.) But several observers said they were particularly impressed by how he has navigated a tough situation as a Biden surrogate over the past two weeks, defending the president on television immediately after the debate and then rallying Democratic crowds on the campaign trail.


“I don’t want to hurt him by saying this, but he’s a natural politician,” said Bob Shrum, director of the USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future and an adviser on numerous presidential campaigns, including Democratic nominees Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004.

Newsom’s defense of the Democratic position — even in direct confrontation with conservative opponents and sometimes out ahead of his own party — gives him the image of a fighter, which could appeal to liberal voters looking for a new leader.

“The reason Gavin gets talked about is how dynamic he is, how polished he is in terms of talking about politics and policy,” said Roger Salazar, a Democratic communications consultant who served as a spokesperson on Gore’s 2000 campaign and is a Newsom appointee to a California commission for off-road vehicle recreation. “He’s very strong on the stump and he doesn’t back down.”

It also carries potential benefits behind the scenes, ingratiating Newsom to the Democratic establishment that could clear a path for his future plans.

“Being the loyal lieutenant and not appearing too ambitious will serve him to maybe buy some goodwill and become a legitimate heir apparent,” said Jason Cabel Roe, a longtime GOP strategist in Michigan and former deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney’s presidential bid in 2007.

2. He has a growing national fundraising base

Newsom is a prolific fundraiser with experience building a war chest to boost himself and other Democrats nationally. It is one of his greatest strengths, rivaling any senator or governor who may be considering their own campaign for president, said Rose Kapolczynski, a longtime Democratic strategist working with Close the Gap California to elect more women legislators.

“He’s raised tens of millions of dollars for his own campaigns and ballot measures. He’s been an effective fundraising surrogate for Biden and others. And that’s given him the opportunity to build a national fundraising network,” Kapolczynski said. “He has a strong small donor network and he’s certainly well-known to major donors across the country.”

Newsom’s three federal committees, branded as the Campaign for Democracy, have raised $24 million for direct contributions to candidates, ad spending and more since launching in March last year, according to data from the Federal Elections Committee. Slightly more than half of that was transferred from his 2022 gubernatorial campaign.

“The more that Republicans say California is a liberal hellhole, that helps him. He wants that.”
Mike Madrid, Republican political consultant

Most of the cash comes from donors in California, the wealthiest state in the nation and the beating heart of its lucrative tech and entertainment industries, a CalMatters analysis found. But Newsom — who regularly travels the country to elevate Democrats in red states — has also expanded his reach from coast to coast.

For example, the Campaign for Democracy PAC, Newsom’s political action committee contributing to Democratic parties and candidates, raised more than $10 million by March, about $6 million of which came from his gubernatorial account. An analysis of itemized contributions from donors who gave $200 or more suggests that more than 40% of the remaining funds came from outside California, across 46 other states.

Establishing the network now also shrewdly lays the groundwork for a potential future presidential campaign, giving Newsom a financial reserve to run ads and curry favor with other Democrats, said Bud Jackson, a longtime Democratic strategist in Washington, D.C., who spearheaded TV advertising efforts to recruit Wesley Clark and Barack Obama for president.

“It sounds like they’ve got their shit together,” Jackson said.

3. He’s appealing to Democratic base voters

If Biden sticks around, the next Democratic presidential nominee will be chosen through the 2028 primaries. Those are decided by a more liberal subset of the electorate that may be drawn to a candidate like Newsom with a history of bold progressive governance — from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples as mayor of San Francisco in 2004 to declaring a moratorium on executions in California not long after he entered the governor’s office in 2019.

Rather than the pocketbook appeal to the working class that propelled Bill Clinton, Democratic voters in the Trump era are searching for a leader with the proper worldview, said Mike Madrid, a Republican political consultant who worked on the anti-Trump Lincoln Project during the 2020 presidential campaign. Madrid believes Newsom is the frontrunner for the 2028 nomination because he has shown Democrats how to win with the cultural issues, such as abortion rights, that are most important to the party’s core supporters.

“He understands the Democratic base better than almost any Democrat of his generation, and that they are driven almost exclusively by cultural issues,” said Madrid, who worked on the campaign for one of Newsom’s gubernatorial rivals in 2018. “I think he’s a generational talent.”

And while candidates generally try to broaden their message during the general election, Madrid said the calculus for how to win has changed. In an increasingly divided electorate, where miniscule margins will decide the presidential race, energizing the base is just as important as winning over the ever-narrower slice of swing voters.

The constant attacks against Newsom and his “California values” by Trump, DeSantis and other Republicans actually benefit Newsom with the people who hate what those conservative politicians stand for, Madrid said.

“The average Democratic voter across the country is not that different from the average California Democratic voter,” he said. “The more that Republicans say California is a liberal hellhole, that helps him. He wants that.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom answers a question concerning three gun control measures he signed during a news conference in Sacramento, Calif., Sept. 26, 2023. An alternative mental health court program designed to fast-track people with untreated schizophrenia into housing and medical care starts in San Francisco and six other California counties.
Rich Pedroncelli
California Gov. Gavin Newsom answers a question concerning three gun control measures he signed during a news conference in Sacramento, Calif., Sept. 26, 2023.

Newsom liabilities

1. He’s not particularly popular

The challenge for Newsom is to reach beyond that Democratic base. While only a snapshot in time, recent trends in California are not encouraging.

After surging during the pandemic and then holding a steady majority, Newsom’s approval rating among California voters has cratered over the past year. The Public Policy Institute of California found in a June survey that just 47% of likely voters in the state approved of the job the governor is doing, down from 59% a year prior.

Pollsters did not track why Newsom is underwater. He’s spent most of the year dealing with a historic budget deficit and the threat of massive cuts to important public programs.

But survey director Mark Baldassare noted that the governor’s approval has shrunk notably with independents, less a third of whom approve of him. Among independent likely voters, his approval is down to 35% from 50% a year ago. During that time, Newsom has leaned into his role as a prominent national surrogate for Democrats and come under increasing criticism from Republicans.

In a breakout of survey respondents from the most competitive California congressional districts, only 42% of likely voters approved of the job Newsom is doing. That’s lower than California voters overall — a potentially bad sign for his appeal in swing states.

“Gavin Newsom has become a more politically polarized candidate in a more politically polarized time,” Baldassare said. “That’s one thing that a governor experiences when they put themselves in the national spotlight.”

2. He’s got a tough record to defend

Nearly all the experts CalMatters spoke to agreed that California’s rising crime rates, homelessness crisis and massive budget shortfall provide potent ammunition for conservatives — and even fellow Democrats — to target Newsom during a presidential campaign.

“There’s just so many things that are going wrong in the state, and he owns all of them. He is identified with all of them,” said Roe, the GOP strategist from Michigan.

Voters in California are increasingly frustrated with the state’s rising violent and property crime rates in recent years, although they remain lower than in the 1980s and 1990s, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

The sentiment fueled support for a ballot measure this November to partially undo Proposition 47 — a decade-old state law approved by voters — by toughening penalties for retail thefts and drug offenses. Newsom and Democratic legislative leaders balked at the measure but eventually backed down amid broken negotiations and failed attempts to put a rival proposal on the ballot.

Similarly, Newsom would have to reckon with overseeing a whiplash-inducing decline from record budget surplus to multibillion dollar deficit, and with the state’s homelessness crisis, which has in many ways defined his governorship. The number of homeless Californians has been on the rise in recent years, accounting for almost half of the nation’s unhoused population.

“His entire career, he just kind of walks into each office. So he’s got a glass jaw.”
Jason Cabel Roe, deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney's 2007 presidential bid

To change the narrative, Jackson said Newsom must “sidestep” these weaknesses while pointing to other accomplishments.

“He can say, ‘The economy has been in a rough spot, inflation is very high, these are things that I can’t completely control,’” Jackson said.

In part to dampen public concerns about homelessness, Newsom championed Proposition 1 — a mental health bond measure he said would help tackle homelessness — which passed by razor-thin margins in the March primary. And in a friend-of-the-court brief, he also asked the Supreme Court to grant cities more authority to clear encampments. The court’s conservative majority last month obliged, to the outrage of the court’s liberal justices.

When it comes to crime and homelessness, Salazar said, Newsom could point to “major cities in red states” with “the exact same issues.”

3. His appeal to swing state voters is unknown

California Democrats brag about being on the political cutting edge, but their proudly progressive values also make them an object of ridicule. When Rep. Nancy Pelosi was Speaker of the House, Republicans used her San Francisco hometown as a cudgel in ads against members of her caucus. Former Gov. Jerry Brown earned the nickname “Governor Moonbeam” on the way to one of three unsuccessful presidential bids.

California’s luster appears to be dimming even further as Newsom’s star rises. A Los Angeles Times poll in February found that half of American adults believe California is in decline, and nearly half of Republicans said California was not American.

“For better or worse, that’s not something that’s going to play all too well in other parts of the country,” said Dan Schnur, who served as the national communications director for John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign and now teaches politics courses at UC Berkeley, Pepperdine University and the University of Southern California.

“If he were the smart, personable, aggressive and mediagenic governor of Wisconsin, he’d be unstoppable.”

Jonathan Kinloch, a Michigan Democratic Party official in Detroit and a Biden delegate, said many voters outside of California perceive the state as the “socialist center” of America and Newsom would have to answer their concerns about its tax and environmental policies.

“When you talk about left, California is far left and … is willing to tax itself out of existence,” Kinloch said.

Newsom would also need to figure out a stronger message with non-white working-class voters who could carry him over the top in swing states, said Madrid, the GOP consultant. These voters care more about economic issues and have consequently been drifting away from the Democratic Party in recent elections.

“The pathway to the middle class in California is among the least attainable,” Madrid argued. “The record in California is not great. Is it fixable? It is. But he’s going to need time to get there.”

Schnur said running in a presidential primary — when Newsom can lean on liberal issues that play to his strengths, such as abortion rights and climate change — would give voters more time to get to know him and become comfortable with him.

“In a general election, the landscape is going to be much less hospitable,” Schnur said. “But in a primary, it’s easier for him to change the subject.”

But being from a blue state, Newsom lacks experience in competitive races. That could put him at a disadvantage compared to other politicians — such as Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro and Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear — who have also been floated as future presidential contenders.

“His entire career, he just kind of walks into each office,” Roe, the Michigan Republican consultant, said. “So he’s got a glass jaw.”