With Control of Both Chambers on the Line, Virginia Voters Are Tuned Into Upcoming State Legislative Elections - The Wason Center - Christopher Newport University

April 9, 2019

With Control of Both Chambers on the Line, Virginia Voters Are Tuned Into Upcoming State Legislative Elections

"Disapproval rises of top Democrats Northam, Fairfax, and Herring, but Democrats still hold a slight edge with Assembly control at stake."

Summary of Key Findings

  1. In the wake of his "blackface" scandal, Governor Ralph Northam's popularity among registered voters has plummeted 19 points since December. At 40%, Northam's approval rating is lower than President Trump's 44%.
  2. Asked if Northam should resign, a slight majority says he should stay in office (52%-42%). In his own party, 29% of Democrats say he should resign.
  3. With control of both Virginia Senate and House of Delegates on the line this November, Democrats hold a slight edge on the generic ballot test, 43% to 39%. Both parties will turn to their base, with Democrats still energized over Trump and Republicans fired up over abortion.
  4. Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, and Attorney General Mark Herring have all been damaged by scandals, with their disapproval rates rising. But 23% of voters appear unaware of even the highly publicized Northam scandal, so the "Top Three" scandals' drag on Democratic candidates may be limited overall.
  5. Downstream effects for Democrats may also be limited due to advantages Democrats hold in public perceptions. Asked which party cares about the middle class, the working class, the poor, African Americans, women, men, and children, voters choose Democrats in every category but one. Voters say Republicans care about men.
  6. A question designed to carefully measure attitudes on abortion reveals both parties of out of the mainstream in their abortion positions, as a plurality of voters (32%) want neither fewer restrictions nor more restrictions on abortion.


Virginia’s 2019 state legislative elections promise to be fiercely fought, with razor-thin Republican majorities at risk in both houses of the General Assembly. Due to the combination of court-ordered redistricting in the House of Delegates and the enthusiasm advantage Democrats have enjoyed since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, which powered strong election performances for the party in 2017 and 2018, Democrats are within striking distance of picking up the seats they need to win majorities in both the House of Delegates and the Virginia Senate. Democrats enjoy a 4-point advantage on the generic ballot question among likely voters, which asks voters if they would vote for a Republican or Democrat if the election were held today. That is just outside the survey’s margin of error.

“While modest, any advantage here is significant because turnout in the pure state legislative cycle is always very low,” said Dr. Rachel Bitecofer, the Wason Center assistant director. Historically, Democrats are generally less interested in elections with no statewide or presidential candidate on the ballot, and low turnout signals a Republican advantage. “If Democrats increase their participation rate significantly over the 2015 cycle, it could have a tremendous impact, as we saw in both 2017 and 2018,” Bitecofer said.

Voters were also asked which party they would like to see in control of the General Assembly after the November election. Again, Democrats (46%) had a slight advantage over Republicans (42%), with only 5% saying they favor split control.

Voters were asked to say which party was best described by a series of statements, such as “Cares about the middle class.” They could choose Republicans, Democrats, “Both” or “Neither.” Democrats received the plurality on “Cares about the middle class” (44% to 38%), “Cares about the working class” (46% to 39%), and “Cares about children” (45% to 31%) and the majority on “Cares about the poor” (55% to 26%), “Cares about African Americans” (54% to 23%), and “Cares about women” (55% to 24%). Emphatically, voters felt one statement better described Republicans: “Cares about men” (53% to 13%). “Both” was chosen only rarely, averaging about 5% across all questions. There was greater variation on “Neither.” Notably, 19% of voters indicated that they felt neither party cares about children or men, and 15% said the same regarding African Americans.

Rather than assume voters were aware of Gov. Ralph Northam’s “blackface” scandal, the survey asks voters if they have “read, seen, or heard anything in the news recently about Governor Northam.” This measures the salience of the issue and the political engagement of the electorate, given the extensive coverage the story received in national, state, and local media. Although most registered voters are aware of the scandal, 23% reported not having recently seen any news related to the governor.

Voters who indicated they had seen news about the governor were assumed to have seen coverage of the scandal and were asked if they wanted the governor to resign or stay in office. A slight majority, 52%, indicated they prefer he stay in office, while 42% felt he should resign. Although there is some evidence of partisanship in the resign data, 29% of Democrats want Northam to resign, a concerning number in his own party. Independents polled 38% resign and 57% stay. African American voters polled 31% resign and 63% stay.

These significant proportions indicate that, while not decried by a majority, Northam may be a political liability for Democrats in the fall among some black and Independent voters. Northam’s approval ratings have declined sharply since our polling before the scandal, dropping from 59% in December t0 40% in March. This leaves the governor 4 points below President Trump, who recorded 44%, one of his highest approval ratings in Virginia since taking office – up 4 points since December.

Voters were asked similar questions for Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring. Fairfax has been accused by two women of sexual assault, one at the 2004 Democratic national convention in Boston and the other from 2000 when he was an undergraduate at Duke University. Fairfax vehemently denies both allegations. Herring admitted to wearing blackface to portray a favorite rapper at a party in 1980 when he was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. Coming at the same time as the Northam scandal, the Fairfax and Herring scandals received extensive national, state and local media coverage, so we expected an increase in their very low name recognition from our December survey. That is evident in this survey, and in both cases, the increase in name recognition translated to an increase in disapproval. However, a third of registered voters (34%) still say they do not know enough about either Fairfax or Herring to express an opinion on their job approval.

“Probably because of the nature of the sexual assault allegations against him, Justin Fairfax appears more damaged than Mark Herring,” said Dr. Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center. Of the 665 voters who had heard about Fairfax’s scandal, 45% said he should stay in office, while 42% said he should resign. Of Herring, 64% say he should stay in office, while 28% think he should resign. Fairfax’s job disapproval went from 13% in December to 39% in this survey; Herring’s disapproval went from 17% to 28%. Fairfax was especially hurt among African American voters (9% disapproval in December, 18% in this survey) and women (15% disapproval in December, 29% in this survey).

Due to the salience of the abortion issue in the recently concluded General Assembly session, and the expectation that abortion will be heavily emphasized by both parties this fall, we included a question that reflects the growing legal nuances of the abortion debate. Our survey asked voters to weigh 5 statements before choosing the one that best described their own position on abortion. The options ranged from “abortion should be unrestricted and legal in all cases” to “abortion should be illegal in all cases with no exceptions for rape, incest, or health of the mother.” Just 12% of Virginia voters agree with the first statement and just 9% agree with the last. In between, 20% of voters agree with the statement that “abortion should be legal in all cases, but with some limitations on it in late stages of pregnancy;” 32% agree with “abortion should be legal in the 1st trimester, but only legal in the 2nd and 3rd trimesters due to rape, incest, or the health of the mother;” and 24% agree with “abortion should be illegal at any stage of pregnancy except in cases of rape, incest, or the health of the mother.” The classic bell curve in these data reveals that both Democrats’ push for fewer abortion restrictions and Republicans’ push for more abortion restrictions are out of step with the median voter’s preference on this contentious policy issue.



The results of this poll are based on 1,067 interviews of registered voters, including 342 on landline and 725 on cell phone, conducted March 11-March 31, 2019. Percentages may not equal 100 due to rounding. The margin of error for the whole survey is +/-3% at the 95% level of confidence. This means that if 50% of respondents indicate a topline view on an issue, we can be 95% confident that the population's view on that issue is somewhere between 47% and 53%.* All error margins have been adjusted to account for the survey's design effect, which is 1.1 in this survey. The design effect is a factor representing the survey's deviation from a simple random sample and takes into account decreases in precision due to sample design and weighting procedures. Sub-samples have a higher margin of error. In addition to sampling error, the other potential sources of error include non-response, question wording, and interviewer error. The response rate (AAPOR RRI Standard Definition) for the survey was 17%. Five callbacks were employed in the fielding process. Live calling was conducted by trained interviewers at the Wason Center for Public Policy Survey Research Lab at Christopher Newport University. The data reported here are weighted using an iterative weighting process on sex, age, race, and region to reflect as closely as possible the population of likely voters in Virginia's 2019 state legislative elections.

*For two questions, CONTROL and GENERIC, a "Likely Voter" model is deployed to account for historically low turnout in state legislative election, resulting in an N size of 854 and a margin of error of +/-3.46%.

For further information contact:

Dr. Quentin Kidd, Director
Office: (757) 594-8499
Mobile: (757) 775-6932

Dr. Rebecca Bromley-Trujillo, Research Lab Director
Office: (757) 594-9140

quick edit report a problem