New Virginia poll: Northam approval weak, but Virginians not demanding his resignation

Fairfax in worst shape of three embattled state Democrats; Virginians split on how to fill potential vacancies in top offices; Trump approval low


A new University of Virginia Center for Politics/Ipsos poll of Virginia adults shows Gov. Ralph Northam (D) with weak approval numbers, but Virginians surveyed are not demanding his resignation and do not favor the state legislature removing him through impeachment. Meanwhile, a plurality of respondents say Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) should resign, but another quarter say he should not and a third are not sure what he should do, and the public is ambivalent on impeachment. Attorney General Mark Herring (D) seems the best-positioned of all three to remain in office, with less than one in five respondents believing he should resign or be impeached.

The state’s three elected statewide Democratic executive officials have all been embroiled in different scandals. A few weeks ago, Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook surfaced and showed a picture of two people on the governor’s page, one wearing blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan costume. Northam initially apologized for the picture but then denied that he was in it, in the process admitting to wearing blackface the same year as part of a Michael Jackson costume. A few days later, Herring admitted to wearing blackface as part of a costume to imitate a rapper when he was 19. Fairfax, meanwhile, has been accused by two different women of sexual assault from separate incidents in the early 2000s; he says the encounters were consensual.

Only 17% of Virginia adults surveyed said they approved of Northam’s job performance, while 34% disapproved and 44% neither approved nor disapproved. It seems clear that perceptions of Northam’s job performance have taken a substantial beating because of his blackface admission and subsequent calls for his resignation from several political allies, like former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and Sens. Mark Warner (D) and Tim Kaine (D). As recently as early December, Northam’s approval rating was excellent, according to a poll from Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center: 59% approve, 24% disapprove. Similarly, Morning Consult’s polling from the fourth quarter of 2018 found Northam’s approval split at a positive 47%/25%, although the pollster noted that his numbers took a sharply negative turn in the midst of the controversy over his yearbook and subsequent admission of wearing blackface. Northam won 54% of the vote in winning the governorship in 2017; he is barred by Virginia law from seeking reelection.

Still, just 31% of respondents said that Northam should resign, while 43% said he should not. That was a better finding for Northam than a Washington Post/Schar School poll released earlier this month, which found an even 47%-47% split on whether Northam should resign.

In the Ipsos/UVA Center for Politics survey, Republicans were split on resignation, with 43% saying he should go and 41% saying he should stay. Democrats opposed resignation 46%-20%. Whites split 46%-34% against resignation; so did blacks, by a 38%-24% margin, with more blacks declining to state a firm opinion one way or the other.

Just 21% of all respondents believed that Northam should be impeached.

Respondents favored Fairfax’s resignation 35%-25%, but with another 34% of respondents saying they weren’t sure one way or the other. There were sharp racial differences on this question, though.

White respondents expressed an opinion about Fairfax’s resignation that was fairly similar to the overall sample, with 39% in favor of Fairfax resigning and 26% responding that he shouldn’t. Meanwhile, only 8% of black respondents said Fairfax should resign, with 29% saying he shouldn’t and the rest saying they didn’t know or declining to respond.

Respondents were split on impeaching Fairfax, 28% in favor and 33% against, with another 33% unsure.

Only 19% believed Herring should resign and 14% favored impeachment, giving him better numbers on these two questions than Northam and Fairfax.

Respondents were split on how to fill potential vacancies in the governor’s office and lieutenant governor’s office. Narrow pluralities favored a special election to fill a vacancy in each office (42% for governor, 43% for lieutenant governor), while a slightly smaller percentage of respondents said the new officeholder should be able to serve the remainder of the unexpired terms (36% for governor, 37% for lieutenant governor). In actuality, a lieutenant governor who ascended to the governorship in the event of a vacancy would be able to serve as governor until 2021, while in the case of the lieutenant governor post, the governor would appoint a temporary replacement but there likely would be a special election as early as this November.

Just 25% of Virginia adults surveyed approved of President Donald Trump’s job performance, while 56% disapproved. Democrats held wide leads in a generic ballot test for Virginia’s state legislative elections (34%-21%) this fall and 45%-25% and 43%-26% leads, respectively, for generic ballot tests of the 2020 presidential and Senate elections pitting unnamed Democratic and Republican candidates against each other in the state. However, there are a few caveats worth mentioning before jumping to conclusions about bright Democratic prospects in the state despite scandal. The first is that this is a poll of Virginia adults, not registered or likely voters, and thus it is not intended to forecast an actual electorate for 2020 or especially 2019, when turnout is historically much lower than a presidential or even a midterm election. Also, Republican self-identifiers were much likelier to express uncertainty about their vote choices in these upcoming elections, meaning that the relatively weak levels of support for Republicans in this poll might have more room to grow in actuality. And for as bad as Trump’s approval is in this poll (25%), Northam’s is even worse (17%), albeit with many more respondents declining to express a view of the governor than the president. Sen. Mark Warner’s (D-VA) job approval split was markedly better than both, with 39% approving, 19% disapproving, and 37% neither approving nor disapproving. Warner is up for reelection next year.

The study was conducted online with Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel® Omnibus. The KnowledgePanel is the largest probability-based panel designed to be representative of the US general population, including non-internet households by providing them with web-enabled devices. The study consisted of 636 interviews with a representative sample of Virginia residents, aged 18+, conducted between Feb. 15-19, 2019. The margin of sampling error at the 95% confidence level is +/-4 percentage points.

This study is different from previous polls Ipsos has conducted in conjunction with the UVA Center for Politics in that the survey was conducted using a probability-based online panel as opposed to a non-probability panel. The UVA Center for Politics and Ipsos released several state-level surveys last year in the leadup to the 2018 midterm election and partnered on the UVA Center for Politics/Ipsos Political Atlas.

The full results are available at: