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Poll: Virginians want their governor to stay despite blackface controversy

A slight majority of voters did not think he should resign, although his approval rates took a big hit.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam addresses racist yearbook photo on February 2, 2019.
Alex Edelman/Getty Images

It’s been about two months since a cascade of scandals involving blackface and allegations of sexual assault rocked Virginia’s government — and a new poll has found a majority of Virginians think Gov. Ralph Northam should stay in office.

The survey, conducted by Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center of 1,067 registered voters in early April, follows a string of controversies that plagued Virginia’s state politics earlier this year. It began with a picture in Northam’s 1984 yearbook featuring a man wearing blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe. Then two women accused Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who would succeed Northam were he to step down, of sexual assault. Then Attorney General Mark Herring, who would have been third in line, admitted to wearing blackface in college.

Fairfax has denied the allegations of sexual assault. Northam said he is not the individual with blackface in the yearbook picture.

Despite the internal turmoil, Northam has refused to resign, and he apparently rode out the scandal narrowly: The poll found that 52 percent of voters (including 65 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of black voters) said the governor should stay in office; 64 percent of voters also said Herring should not resign.

Voters, however, were not as generous toward accusations of sexual assault, as only 45 percent of voters thought that Fairfax should remain in office. More notably, Fairfax’s disapproval rate with women increased by 14 percent.

Part of the reason behind the dwindling criticism against Northam may be that some people simply haven’t tuned in to the controversy. Twenty-three percent of voters said they were unaware of the scandal, though it was highly publicized in both local and national news outlets. Northam may have also benefited from the public image of his party, as voters chose Democrats as more likely to care about the middle and working class, low-income people, African Americans, women, and children.

But this doesn’t mean that voters are completely happy with their elected officials. Northam’s approval rate especially took a hit, falling from 59 percent to 40 — which is 4 percent lower than President Trump’s approval rating, according to the poll.

Still, the poll holds good news for Democrats: They are more popular with voters than Republicans in the upcoming November elections, even if their advantage is slight, just outside their margin of error of 3 percent: Democrats are only 4 points ahead.

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