The Washington Post

Virginia voters love Bob McDonnell right now. But does it matter?

In light of the new Washington Post poll showing Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell with a 64 percent approval rating, an obvious question is raised: why do voters seem unconcerned about reports that the governor failed to disclose a $15,000 gift from a campaign donor?

Two reasons: McDonnell recent legislative achievements coupled with the fact that voters don't appear focused on gifts he received from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., chief executive of the Virginia-based dietary supplement firm Star Scientific Inc.

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell speaks during an address to the 39th Conservative Political Action Committee February 10, 2012 in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images) Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell speaks during an address to the 39th Conservative Political Action Committee February 10, 2012 in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

The FBI is investigating the relationship between the governor, his wife and Williams. Separately, a former Virginia Executive Mansion chef facing embezzlement charges has alleged in court documents that he informed authorities about unspecified wrongdoing by the governor and his family a year ago.

"From the moment he took the oath of office, even when he was campaigning, he made an effort to project an image of himself to Virginia voters of being focused on practical things," said Christopher Newport University political science professor Quentin Kidd. "There's a lasting impression voters have on that. Voters are essentially rewarding him for his focus on jobs, the economy and those sorts of things."

McDonnell worked with the  General Assembly to reach an agreement on transportation that is slated to raise $1.4 billion a year for road projects over five years, and to lay the groundwork for expanding Medicaid in Virginia.

Those achievements speak to what Virginians identify as their top priorities: when asked about the most important issue facing Virginia, 45 percent of people in the Post poll said jobs and the economy, compared to just 3 percent cited ethics and corruption in government. Fifty-nine percent said McDonnell has “high personal moral and ethical standards” compared to 16 percent who said he didn’t. Twenty-five percent said they are unsure.

At the same time, most Virginians do not appear to be focused on the allegations now facing McDonnell. Just 9 percent of those polled by the Post said they are following the story closely, and that group is much more divided-- 49 to 42 percent --on whether McDonnell has high personal moral and ethical standards. Even in the close-in suburbs, just 12 percent are paying close attention to the story.

Kidd, who directs the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at CNU, said allegations of wrongdoing by a politician are "the kind of thing that plays out over time" and the key is likely to be whether federal investigators find the governor broke any laws or state rules. No wrongdoing has been found to date.

The simple truth: While stories like the McDonnell catering one are huge events in the Washington (and Richmond) political media crowd, it takes far longer (and likely some genuine law-breaking) for those sorts of things to penetrate into the broader electorate.

Of course, McDonnell is (or should be) less worried about the Virginia voter than potential GOP primary voters in places like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina in 2016. And, for those folks -- as well as a presidential nominee looking for a running mate -- even the whiff of scandal is problematic.

Capital Insight survey research analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.

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