Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a news briefing on May 7, 2020. (Gov. Ralph Northam’s office)
A new poll from the Center for Public Policy at VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs found that approval ratings for Gov. Ralph Northam’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic have dropped 15 percentage points since a similar survey in April.
Even with the decline, 61 percent of Virginians somewhat or strongly approve of how Northam is responding to the crisis. But political analysts say the significant drop — which comes as governors across the country face growing skepticism from their constituents — speaks to the expanding case numbers across Virginia and a public that’s increasingly weary of continued uncertainty.
“Whether fair or not, political leadership takes a hit when things are going badly,” said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. “People had expected that by now, we would be over the curve. Schools would be opening, universities would be in-person, the economy would be roaring back. So, the fact that people are dealing with very significant complications in their lives due to the COVID spread is not to the benefit of political leaders.”
The poll of 838 Virginians, all over the age of 18, found that 24 percent of respondents now strongly disapprove of Northam’s handling of the crisis, up 12 percentage points since April. Northam is far from alone — a recently released survey by researchers at Harvard, Northeastern, Northwestern and Rutgers found that governors in 44 states are now facing lower approval ratings than they did in the spring.
Some of the most successful governors lead states that have largely controlled the spread of the virus, including Vermont and Massachusetts, where the seven-day case average has declined through much of July. Ray Scheppach, a professor of public policy at the University of Virginia and former executive director of the National Governors Association, attributed Northam’s dip in approval to Virginia’s current upward trajectory — especially in the Hampton Roads region — but also to a more nationwide dissatisfaction as cases climb, unemployment rises and the economy again shows signs of stalling.
“I think it’s a lot to do with the fatigue, in terms of his decline,” Scheppach said. “Most economists believe that we’re not just going to have a pause — we’re going to go back down. So, I think it’s right that people are increasingly concerned.”
But Rozell pointed out that some governors still maintained high approval ratings despite increasing case numbers or significant missteps in the early days of the pandemic. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican in a majority Democratic state, currently enjoys a 76 approval rating even with increasing hospitalizations and continued fallback from a massive backlog in the state’s unemployment system. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has a 71 percent approval rating even after controversially mandating that nursing homes accept COVID-positive patients.
“In part, there is the stylistic side, the imbuing people with confidence that the governor has things under control,” Rozell said. Northam has led the nation in some decisions, including an early call to close schools for the remainder of the year and first-of-their-kind workplace safety rules specifically geared toward COVID-19. In other areas, Northam has “fumbled,” Rozell added.
Former Gov. Douglas Wilder, a professor of public policy at his eponymous school, pointed specifically to the administration’s decision to allow local school districts to make the call on whether to reopen in-person — one that’s largely led to patchwork policies and intense debate across Virginia.
“I would not have done it that way,” he said. “There need to be comprehensive, almost uniform requirements across the state. The plan cannot be helter-skelter.”
Rozell also described the governor’s mask order, which initially carried no real enforcement, as “terribly unpopular” with the business owners largely tasked with ensuring compliance. Since then, the governor has ordered the Virginia Department of Health and other agencies to conduct unannounced inspections, which led to a total of eight business closures as of Tuesday.
“I think the biggest question is,has there been broad enough, direct enough communication with the people about what is being done right now to deal with this crisis?” Wilder added. He cited the governor’s recent promise of $50 million in federal funding to help Virginians struggling with rent and mortgage payments after the state’s eviction moratorium expired (Northam has since asked the Virginia Supreme Court to reinstate the ban, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported Thursday). Advocates widely agreed that the funding would be insufficient to address mass evictions and there’s been little publicly available information on how many Virginians the program has assisted so far.
“Why? Why?” Wilder asked. “Either something happened with it or it didn’t. Either it has been a success or it has not been a success.”
Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, said Thursday that while “the governor appreciates that a majority of Virginians approve of his response, this is not — and has never been — about polls.”
“The governor is focused on protecting public health and saving lives, period,” she added.
The survey found that Northam’s approval rating for his handling of the crisis in Virginia still remains significantly higher than President Donald Trump’s, who faced another seven percent drop in July. Fifty-five percent of Virginians now somewhat or strongly disapprove with his management of the pandemic.
The poll was conducted from July 11 to July 19 and has an estimated margin of error of plus or minus 5.19 percentage points for all adults sampled.
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