By David Leonhardt/NYT

In the run-up to Tuesday’s recall election in California, both Gov. Gavin Newsom and his critics framed it as a judgment on his handling of the pandemic. Newsom embraced his enactment of aggressive mask and vaccine mandates. His leading Republican opponent, Larry Elder, promised to cancel those mandates before drinking his first cup of tea on his first day in office.

Republican Larry Elder

The recall, as my colleague Jennifer Medina wrote, became a “referendum on pandemic management.”

Now Newsom has won that referendum in a landslide. According to the latest results, California voters rejected removing him from office by a margin of 64 percent to 36 percent. The final margin may change as the vote count continues, but it was clearly a political victory for vaccination.

I don’t mean to suggest that the politics of COVID-19 are simple. They are not. Lockdown fatigue may have contributed to the surprisingly strong showing by Donald Trump and other Republican candidates in the 2020 elections. And Democratic politicians in some places have favored measures — like outdoor mask mandates and months long school closures — that are both scientifically and politically dubious.

Newsom himself infamously ate a meal with friends at one of the state’s finest restaurants while his administration was urging Californians not to gather with people outside their households. It played into the most unlikable parts of his image. Only a few weeks ago, polls suggested he was in jeopardy of losing the recall.

But Newsom’s overall approach to the pandemic helped save him.

It aligned very closely with what public-health experts were urging, including the mandates for indoor masks and vaccinations, notes Soumya Karlamangla, a Times reporter based in Los Angeles. Initially, those measures hurt Newsom’s popularity, because they were cumbersome and did not seem to be making much difference. In the spring, California’s case numbers were not so different from those in Florida or Texas.

“It feels a little like he’s the perfect example of the conundrum public health officials often face,” Soumya says. “How do you get people to do something before they can see the risk is there?”

More recently, the connection has become clearer. Vaccination rates have risen high enough in much of California — and the Delta variant is contagious enough among the unvaccinated — that the state now looks very different from much of the Southeast and Mountain West, where hundreds of people are dying each day and hospitals are running out of room.

In California, COVIDcaseloads and hospitalizations, which were already well below the national average, have been falling for about two weeks. “Panic levels feel much lower than they did even a month ago,” Soumya says.