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Could Gavin Newsom actually mount a successful presidential campaign?

This story appeared on Calmatters

Gov. Gavin Newsom, with his family by his side, is sworn in for a second term as governor by Chief Justice Patricia Guerrero at the Plaza de California in Sacramento on Jan. 6, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters

In summary

California Gov. Gavin Newsom is making a bid for national political standing, but could he actually mount a successful campaign for the White House?

It wasn’t the most important political story in California this year, but Gov. Gavin Newsom’s headlong plunge into national – and international – politics was the most interesting.

Newsom insists he has “sub-zero interest” in running for president and couches his naked effort to create a national image as an effort to jolt his Democratic Party into a more aggressive attitude and help Joe Biden win a second lease on the White House next year.

However, his highly orchestrated squabbles with the governors of Texas and Florida, his obvious efforts to peddle himself to national media and his much-ballyhooed trip to China are exactly what he would be doing if, indeed, he has presidential ambitions – either next year if Biden drops out over poor approval ratings, or in 2028.

Newsom’s campaign-like efforts, which will probably shift to an even higher gear in 2024, make it difficult to take his declared lack of interest in the presidency seriously. It seems highly unlikely that Newsom would simply call it quits and go back to peddling wine after having spent half of his 56 years climbing the political ladder.

Just for fun, therefore, let’s assume that Newsom does have Potomac fever and speculate on whether he could emulate Ronald Reagan and run successfully for president after finishing his time in Sacramento.

First, he would have to win the Democratic nomination by running the gauntlet of primary elections, which means raising tens of millions of dollars, building a national political campaign apparatus and spending every waking hour hopping from state to state trying to connect with very different voter bases.

It’s a process that has humbled countless politicians of both parties, including Vice President Kamala Harris, who flamed out rather quickly in 2020, only to have her career extended by Biden. Harris is just one of the likely Democratic hopefuls that Newsom would have to overcome in 2028.

Assuming Newsom bucks the odds and wins the nomination, what then?

His chances of emerging triumphant would depend on many factors large and small, but the two most important would be the identity of his Republican rival and how well he could market himself to voters in about a half-dozen swing states.

Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016 because he captured the electoral votes in some states that Democrats had taken for granted in previous elections. He lost to Joe Biden in 2020 because those states largely rejoined the Democratic column, but the combined margin of Biden’s victory in those states was around 150,000 votes.

Newsom occupies a place on the ideological scale to the left of Biden and to the right of Bernie Sanders. For the past year he has quietly moved drifted rightward in governing California, annoying the progressives who had hoped he would embrace their ambitious agenda to remake California.

Opposition researchers would have a field day with Newsom. GOP campaign operatives would use images of a dystopian California – such as homeless encampments and smash-and-grab robberies – to suggest that a President Newsom would infect the rest of the country.

It’s already begun, with Republicans gleefully citing new data about increasing homelessness in the state Newsom governs and pointing out that 2024 is the 20th anniversary of Newsom’s pledge, as mayor of San Francisco, to end homelessness in that city in 10 years.

Could Newsom overcome all of those hurdles and claim the White House? Perhaps. Trump proved that nothing is impossible. But the odds certainly are against it.

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