The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Post-Schar School poll: Majority of Virginia voters approve of Northam’s job performance

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) bumps elbows with a voter as Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) observes outside an early-voting location in Fairfax County on Monday. A Post-Schar School poll found 56 percent of Virginia’s registered voters approve of Northam’s job performance. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

RICHMOND — More than half of Virginia's registered voters approve of the overall job performance of Gov. Ralph Northam, and an even larger majority support his handling of the novel coronavirus pandemic, according to a new Washington Post-Schar School poll.

Northam’s job approval rating of 56 percent is up from 49 percent about a year ago and from 43 percent in the wake of his blackface scandal in early 2019.

His disapproval is also up, at 38 percent from 31 percent last year, with far fewer voters now expressing no opinion. But his ratings remain net positive by 18 percentage points.

Northam (D), a physician, gets 2-to-1 approval for his handling of the coronavirus outbreak, with 64 percent of registered voters approving and 32 percent disapproving.

“He seems to have really righted things,” said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, who added that Northam overcame what seemed like early struggles to articulate his pandemic response messages.

Northam also benefits from comparisons with President Trump, whose overall job performance is rated negatively by a majority of Virginians in the poll.

“The notable contrast in leadership styles and approach between the Democratic governor of Virginia and the Republican administration in the White House worked hugely to the governor’s advantage here in public perceptions,” Rozell said.

Trump can’t stop tweeting about ever-bluer Virginia and its governor. But his campaign is quiet on TV.

Priscilla Carr, 79, an African American and lifelong Democrat who lives in conservative Lynchburg, gives Northam high marks for his job performance generally and his handling of the pandemic in particular.

“So far Virginia’s doing pretty good, as far as the predicament that we’re in,” she said. She praised Northam’s decision to mandate masks in stores and other indoor public spaces as “very good.”

She thinks Trump, by contrast, has badly mishandled the crisis.

“Oh, Trump doesn’t have an approach. He doesn’t have one,” she said. “He didn’t come out [of] the gate and recognize it for what it was. If he had done that, probably we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

Virginians remain deeply concerned about the coronavirus. Sixty-five percent of Virginia registered voters are “very” or “somewhat” worried about themselves or a family member contracting the disease, while 30 percent are less worried, and 5 percent say they or someone in their immediate family have already caught it.

Those concerns are similar to the country overall in a recent Post-ABC poll, which found 65 percent of voters were very or somewhat worried.

The issue is partisan, but only by degree. Democrats and independents are more likely than Republicans to say they are worried about contracting the coronavirus — 82 percent of Democrats, 65 percent of independents. But a slim majority of Republicans — 51 percent — are also worried they or someone in their household might get infected.

Among registered voters, more women say they are worried about the disease than men, at 72 percent to 58 percent. And concern is highest in the most populous areas of the state, though even the region expressing relatively low concern — the Northern Virginia exurbs — is at 58 percent.

While Virginia Republicans have made a case for reopening public schools for in-person classes around the state, the poll shows that most registered voters are not ready for that. Nearly 6 in 10 Virginia voters oppose requiring public schools to reopen for in-person classes five days a week, while 35 percent support mandating schools to reopen.

Views are sharply partisan, with 85 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of independents opposing in-person school reopenings. By contrast, a 65 percent majority of Republicans support requiring all schools to reopen.

Opposition to reopening schools is highest in the more densely populated areas of the state, but a majority is against reopening in every region save one: In Southwestern Virginia, registered voters are roughly split, with 48 percent against and 44 percent in support of reopening schools.

Overall, 63 percent of female registered voters and 55 percent of male voters oppose reopening schools.

Just over half of Virginia voters (53 percent) say the state’s current coronavirus restrictions are “about right,” given the situation. A quarter feel the current restrictions are “not strict enough” and 21 percent find them “too strict.”

Most Democrats and independents say current restrictions are “about right,” but 47 percent of Republicans say the restrictions are “too strict.” And while 38 percent of Republicans say the restrictions are “about right,” 35 percent of Democrats say they are “not strict enough.”

Those feelings vary across the state’s regions in a way that tracks with overall concern about the coronavirus, with support for restrictions strongest in urban areas.

Statewide, 36 percent of Virginia voters say people in their community are not taking social distancing and mask-wearing seriously enough, while just 8 percent say they are taking it too seriously and a 55 percent majority say they are “striking the right balance.”

The governor has sought to chart a middle-of-the-road course that at times has been looser than what Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has implemented in neighboring Maryland. Northam was quicker to allow doctors to resume elective surgeries, for instance; Hogan initially closed nonessential retailers, while Northam let them remain open as long as they could observe social distancing.

Gary McCoy is a Republican and Trump supporter who praised Northam’s approach to containing the virus.

“He was strict, yet not too strict. He was tough but didn’t go to extremes,” said McCoy, 65, a former dump truck driver who lives in Luray, just a mile down the road from the Shenandoah Valley’s famous caverns. “Social distancing and wearing a mask, too — I definitely believe in that. Northam — I think he’s done a good job.”

While McCoy’s a big fan of the president — “Donald Trump, I just love him,” he said — he thinks Trump did not realize the gravity of the threat at first. And he takes issue with Trump’s dismissive attitude toward face masks.

“That’s one thing where I disagree with Trump. I believe the mask is very important,” McCoy said. “As contagious as this stuff is, every time I get out of my car or go in a store, I put my mask on.”

The Post-Schar School poll found that while a 56 percent majority of Republicans disapprove of Northam’s handling of the outbreak, 38 percent approve of his efforts, which is much higher than the share who approve of his overall job as governor (21 percent).

Virginia voting guide: What you need to know about early voting, mail-in ballots

In his overall job performance, Northam enjoys his highest support in the heavily Democratic D.C. suburbs, where 7 in 10 registered voters approve of the governor. Smaller majorities approve of Northam in the Tidewater region (62 percent), Richmond area (62 percent) and in the Northern Virginia exurbs (54 percent).

Northam is least popular in rural Southwest Virginia, where 43 percent approve and 52 percent disapprove.

Joann Cannoy, 77, who lives in Wytheville, is no fan of Northam, who she says hasn’t done enough to bring jobs to the area.

“He’s not too popular around here,” said Cannoy, a retired nursing assistant who also worked in a now-shuttered hosiery mill. “He needs to get these jobs going. The people who live in this area are working people. They don’t like handouts. They want to earn their own living.”

Cannoy, who has a pacemaker, said she is very wary of coronavirus and takes precautions whenever she goes out. She plans to vote for Trump, although he’s rarely worn a mask and holds large campaign rallies with no social distancing — missteps that she attributes to his newness to politics and the newness of the virus.

“Honey, that coronavirus — I don’t think anybody can do better than anyone has done,” she said. “The virus is not his fault. … I think the scientists are really trying hard to get a vaccine and I think they’re doing more than they’ve ever done with any other disease. But it’s just taken a while. It’s not something you snap your fingers and do.”

With six grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren, Cannoy also disagrees with Trump’s push to reopen schools.

“I do not want them in school, not even with masks on,” she said. “If we lose one child, that’s one too many.”

The governor is particularly strong among Black registered voters, with 79 percent approving of his performance, compared with 49 percent of White registered voters. Black Virginians continued to support Northam after a racist photo came to light from his 1984 medical school yearbook page early last year. It depicted one person in blackface and another in Klan robes, and while Northam initially apologized for the image, he later disavowed it and pledged to devote the rest of his term to fighting racial inequity.

Most Democratic leaders at the time called for his resignation, but a Post-Schar poll in February 2019 found 57 percent of Virginia Democrats and 58 percent of African Americans said he should not step down, with most saying they accepted his apology. Today, a large majority of Democrats, 85 percent, approve of Northam’s performance as governor.

Jamil Malone, a Black Democrat from Newport News, said he doesn’t hold the yearbook episode against Northam, who he thinks is doing better job of managing the pandemic than other governors and the president.

“You know, is it something I’m happy about? No,” said Malone, a 29-year-old computer coder. “I do know when people are younger, they make a lot of mistakes.”

Independents are less happy with Northam than Democrats, with 59 percent approving of his performance. There is also a large educational divide among White voters, with 62 percent of those with four-year college degrees approving of Northam, compared with 39 percent of those with some college or less who approve of the governor.

Map of early voting, drop-box locations in D.C., Maryland and Virginia

Partisan issues play out in complicated ways on the question of whether Virginia should amend its constitution to establish a bipartisan redistricting commission composed of citizens and members of the General Assembly.

Just about half of likely voters — 51 percent — say they would support the amendment, which must win a majority of votes to pass. Nearly a third (32 percent) say they would vote no and 17 percent have no opinion.

But while Democrats in the General Assembly have been sharply divided on the issue, Democratic voters are much more supportive, with nearly 6 in 10 favoring the amendment (59 percent). Independents show roughly the same level of support (58 percent).

Among Republicans, the issue cuts the other way: Most GOP lawmakers supported it, but Republican voters are split, with 38 percent saying yes, 42 percent saying no and 20 percent offering no opinion.

The Post-Schar School poll was conducted Oct. 13 to 19 among a random sample of 1,001 registered voters in Virginia, including 908 likely voters. The error margin among registered voters is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, and among likely voters it is four points. Overall, 71 percent of respondents were reached on cellphones and 29 percent on landlines.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

Voting in D.C., Maryland and Virginia

Map: Where to vote early in D.C., Maryland and Virginia

Voting guides: D.C. | Maryland | VirginiaHow to vote: D.C. | Maryland | Virginia

D.C.: In a crowded D.C. Council field, stark choices about the direction of a liberal city | Confused by the crowded at-large D.C. Council race? Here’s where the candidates stand on key issues. | Meet 15 candidates running for the D.C. State Board of Education | D.C.’s poorest wards won’t have voting ‘supercenters,’ despite long lines in primary | How does D.C. verify a signature on a ballot? Here’s how it works.

Maryland: Md. elections officials say video’s allegation of ballot fraud is untrue. But it’s already gone viral. | Congressional races: Meet the incumbents and their challengers | Montgomery school board candidates weigh in on schools opening, online learning | Half of Maryland voters plan to choose mail-in ballots, poll finds

Virginia: Biden leads Trump 52 percent to 41 percent among likely voters | Democrats surge ahead in fundraising in state’s most competitive districts | Trump can’t stop tweeting about ever-bluer Virginia and its governor. But his campaign is quiet on TV. | No TV ads, no presidential visits: Virginia’s era as a swing state appears to be over

Are you running into voting problems? Let us know here.

Mail-in voting: Absentee ballots vs. mail-in ballots | Google allows misleading ads on mail-in voting to remain | How to prevent your mail ballot from being rejected | Why the USPS wanted to remove hundreds of mail-sorting machines | Can FedEx and UPS deliver ballots?