Northam’s 45 percent negative rating among voters is the highest since a 2019 poll after he admitted to appearing in blackface as a student.
But the low overall approval rating comes even as a larger 52 percent of voters approve of Northam’s handling of the economy and 54 percent approve of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, though his rating on the response to the coronavirus is down from 64 percent last fall. And the governor is more popular than President Biden, who easily beat President Donald Trump in Virginia last year but has seen a nationwide drop in popularity.
The decline in Northam’s overall popularity so close to the November election may mean trouble for former governor Terry McAuliffe (D), who in the same poll this month appeared to be locked in a tight race with Republican Glenn Youngkin to replace Northam, said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
“Normally, a party nominee would like to be running as the successor to a very successful gubernatorial administration — to be running, in effect, as continuity to existing popular policies,” Rozell said. “But McAuliffe doesn’t have that right now.”
The poll finds Northam’s approval rating among independent voters has declined from 59 percent in October to 45 percent, with disapproval rising from 36 percent to 47 percent. Republicans have also grown more united in criticizing Northam, with disapproval up from 73 percent to 85 percent.
The poll results also don’t bode well for Democrats seeking to hold on to their majority in the House of Delegates, particularly at a time when Biden’s national approval ratings have dropped in the wake of the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Rozell said.
The Post-Schar School poll finds 46 percent of Virginia registered voters approve of Biden’s overall job performance, while 51 percent disapprove. In that regard, Northam appears to be more popular in the state than the president, who won Virginia by 10 percentage points last year.
“Having the dual problem of unpopular Democratic administrations in Washington and Richmond is a potential serious drag on the Democratic ticket in Virginia,” Rozell said.
That concern has been borne out in recent Virginia elections.
In 2009, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) received a 38 percent disapproval rating from likely voters during his last year as governor, though his approval rating was still a healthy 58 percent.
That year, Democrats lost control of the governor’s mansion, when former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) easily beat state Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath).
Four years later, McDonnell’s disapproval rating climbed to 39 percent, part of the fallout over a scandal involving allegations that he and his wife Maureen accepted improper gifts and loans from a Virginia businessman.
McDonnell was convicted on federal corruption charges, which the U.S. Supreme Court later overturned.
By then, McAuliffe was in the governor’s seat after a close election against former attorney general Ken Cuccinelli (R).
McAuliffe left office with a 49 percent approval rating and a 25 percent disapproval rating.
Northam reached his height of popularity in October, when the pediatric neurologist by then was a regular news media presence while guiding Virginians through a pandemic that had already resulted in several thousand deaths and widespread layoffs.
But some poll respondents who liked that part of Northam’s job performance still gave him an overall negative rating.
Sarah Brookeman, a Democrat, said she was turned off of the governor by the blackface scandal that roiled the party in 2019, leading several of Northam’s allies to initially call for him to resign.
“The blackface incident definitely made me feel more negatively toward him,” said Brookeman, 53, who lives in the Charlottesville area.
But, she said that come November, “I’ll vote for whoever the Democrat is.”
Jewelie Pigg, who lives southeast of Lynchburg, said she holds a low opinion of Northam over his support for abortion rights.
“Abortion should not be an option,” she said.
Pigg, who plans to vote for Youngkin, also said Northam acted too quickly to allow schools to reopen during the pandemic and accused him of ruining Virginia’s economy.
“Before Ralph Northam came, we were in a good economy situation, and I feel like now we’re not,” she said.
Rozell said Northam’s lower ratings could mean that Youngkin’s message is resonating with voters. The former co-chief executive of the Carlyle Group has emphasized his business background while accusing both McAuliffe and Northam of leaving the state’s economy in ruin. Youngkin has also attacked Northam’s mandates requiring children to wear masks at school and for state workers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Virginia’s economy has been improving since thousands of jobs were lost amid last year’s pandemic shutdown restrictions, Rozell said, and the poll finds 66 percent of voters rate the economy as excellent or good in their part of the state. Moreover, Virginia has been better than most others states at keeping the coronavirus from spreading.
But the suggestion of trouble on both issues may be enough for Youngkin with some voters, Rozell said.
“I don’t know if that’s a messaging problem [for the Northam administration],” he said. “But the public perception is things aren’t going well for the Democratic administration right now.”
The poll was conducted Sept. 7 through Sept. 13 among a random sample of 987 Virginia adults, including 907 registered Virginia voters reached by professional interviewers on cell and landline phones; the margin of sampling error for the overall sample and results among registered voters is plus or minus four percentage points.
Laura Vozzella, Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.