The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Poll shows Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s approval rating improves nine months after blackface scandal

In a new poll, fewer than half of Virginians say three Virginia Democrats that faced scandals earlier this year — Gov. Ralph Northam, left, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, center, and Attorney General Mark R. Herring, right — should run for elected office again. (Bob Brown/AP)

RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam’s approval rating has inched up and disapproval has dipped sharply since February, when fellow Democrats in Virginia and across the country demanded his ouster over a blackface scandal, according to a new Washington Post-Schar School poll.

But less than half of Virginia voters say Northam (D) and two scandal-marred Democrats hoping to succeed him — Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark R. Herring — should seek office again in Virginia. Only Herring has more supporters than opponents.

Read full poll results and how the poll was conducted

Just under half of Virginians like the job Northam is doing as governor, with 47 percent approving and 29 percent disapproving. Those are better marks than the 43 percent-44 percent approval-disapproval split he received in February, after a racist photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook surfaced.

“Northam seems to have solidified his support since the scandal broke in February. He has not seen a decline — he’s actually seen a little bit of movement up,” said Mark J. Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, which conducted the survey in partnership with The Post. “It seems like people are looking well past those scandals with regard to the governor, though I think he is still bruised from it.”

Fairfax and Herring also receive positive approval marks, albeit far from majorities, for how they’ve handled their jobs. Asked about Fairfax, 39 percent approve while 25 percent disapprove; the rest have no opinion. Herring stands at 42 percent job approval, while 19 percent disapprove and about 39 percent have no opinion.

Northam’s scandal was the first to rip through Virginia’s executive branch within the span of a week early this year. Herring, who initially called on Northam to step down, admitted a few days later to his own youthful blackface incident as a college freshman in 1980. And two women accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting them in separate incidents in the early 2000s, allegations he has denied.

Northam initially apologized for the yearbook picture, but disavowed it the next day, although he admitted that he’d put shoe polish on his cheeks to imitate Michael Jackson in a dance contest that same year.

The about-face only intensified calls for his resignation, but Northam vowed to stay put and devote the rest of his term to rectifying racial inequities. Eight months later, 55 percent of Virginians remain bothered by the photo or Northam’s response to it, with 33 percent saying they are “very bothered.”

How Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and aides made his blackface scandal even worse

The Post-Schar School poll finds the same share of whites and African Americans (55 percent) say they are bothered. But 65 percent of college-educated whites say they’re bothered, compared with 49 percent of whites without college degrees.

Strikingly, there is little partisan divide on this question, with 59 percent of Democrats saying they are bothered, along with 51 percent of Republicans and 57 percent of independents. Women are more likely than men to say they are bothered, 60 percent to 50 percent, but they are about equally likely to say they’re “very bothered.”

Age is a bigger factor in response to Northam’s scandal. Virginians under 40 are the most likely to be bothered, followed by those between 40 and 64 years old while those 65 and older are the least likely to be disturbed.

Despite those lingering concerns, 7 in 10 Democrats approve of the job Northam is doing, suggestingthe scandal might not depress Democratic turnout in critical November elections. All 140 seats in the state House and Senate are on the ballot, with Republicans defending razor-thin majorities in both chambers.

Northam’s image is far weaker outside his own party. About 4 in 10 independents and 3 in 10 Republicans approve of the governor. A slim majority (55 percent) of African Americans approve, compared with 44 percent of white Virginians.

For a sizable chunk of the electorate, the governor who drew international headlines last winter has reverted by fall to the low-key Eastern Shore physician who attracted scant attention when he was a state senator and lieutenant governor. Almost a quarter have no opinion at all on Northam’s performance.

Fewer than 3 in 10 registered voters say their view of Northam is “very important” in deciding their vote for the legislature. Of those voters, 52 percent currently support Republicans and 38 percent back Democrats.

Kim VanHuss of Richmond said she was bothered by the picture on Northam’s medical school yearbook page, which showed one person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood, apparently taken at a costume party. As a white child growing up in Georgia, VanHuss said the Klan burned a cross on her front yard because her father had befriended a fellow pharmacist who was black. She was especially put off by a picture that made light of the Klan, as well as by Northam’s unsteady response to the scandal.

“I remain bothered about the fact that he can’t remember exactly what happened,” said VanHuss, an accountant and political independent who is not sure how she will vote in November. Even so, VanHuss said her feelings about the episode will not affect her choice for delegate and state senator.

Al Enoch, on the other hand, will head to the polls with Democratic scandals in mind. The building maintenance worker from Norfolk fumes that Democrats “crucified” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh over a decades-old sexual assault allegation, but are letting Northam, Fairfax and Herring off the hook.

When Democrats “get caught with their pants down, it’s ‘Oh, well, he didn’t mean it,’ ” said Enoch, 67. He said he is “absolutely voting Republican in the fall because of that.”

Virginia’s three leaders engulfed in turmoil, with Herring disclosure from college days

Northam cannot seek reelection in 2021 because the state constitution prohibits governors from serving back-to-back terms, but he could run again after a break. Fairfax and Herring both intended to run for governor before the scandals erupted, and they haven’t ruled out doing so in the aftermath.

None of the three muster majority support from voters, who were asked if any of them should seek elected office again. For Northam, 39 percent say he should run again and 43 percent say he should not, while the rest have no opinion. For Fairfax, 36 percent favored another run while 33 percent opposed one. And for Herring, 40 percent said he should run again and 26 percent said he should not, while one-third offered no opinion on his future candidacy.

“Those numbers are not terribly encouraging,” said Rozell, who noted the somewhat stronger support for the attorney general.

All three have more support than Robert F. McDonnell, the last statewide officeholder engulfed in scandal. McDonnell, a Republican who served as governor from 2010 to 2014, was convicted of corruption related to luxury gifts and loans he accepted from a Richmond businessman. The U.S. Supreme Court threw out his conviction in 2016, but a Post poll after the ruling found two-thirds opposed his running for public office again.

The Washington Post-Schar School poll was conducted Sept. 25-30 among a random sample of 876 Virginia adults, 55 percent reached on cellphones and 45 percent on landlines. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus five percentage points for the overall sample as well as for the sample of 814 registered voters.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly said about 2 in 10 voters had no opinion of Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring's job performance. The poll found 39 percent had no opinion. The story has been updated.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

Local newsletters: Local headlines (8 a.m.) | Afternoon Buzz (4 p.m.)

Like PostLocal on Facebook | Follow @postlocal on Twitter | Latest local news