Ralph’s rebound: As election nears, Northam’s approval rating climbs

During a press conference at the Governor's Mansion on Saturday, Gov. Ralph Northam denied appearing in a KKK yearbook photo but admitted to moonwalking in blackface. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Gov. Ralph Northam began the year as a massive liability for Democrats, nearly all of whom called for his resignation following the discovery of a racist photo in his medical school yearbook.

With a pivotal General Assembly election just over a month away, he’s looking less and less like a problem for the party.

The most recent public opinion poll of Virginia residents, conducted by the University of Mary Washington, put his approval rating at 47 percent – not too far from the 55 percent the survey found when they asked voters the same question pre-scandal back in Sept. 2018.

“He’s most of the way back to where he was,” says Stephen J. Farnsworth, a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington and director of its Center for Leadership and Media Studies.

In the immediate aftermath of the scandal, polls put Northam’s approval rating at anywhere from 17 to 32 percent. In June and August, separate polls by Virginia Commonwealth University and Roanoke College both measured his approval rating at 37 percent.

Farnsworth suspects Northam has benefited from a steady stream of scandals out of President Donald Trump’s administration.

“They say that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” he said. “And parties with a scandal-riddled president can’t really gain a lot by talking about Gov. Northam’s scandals.”

Many Republicans seem to have acknowledged that. Anonymous strategists told The Washington Post earlier this month that “Gov. Blackface” attacks “will not be a theme in any campaign I’m associated with.”

And Republican candidates have so far not featured Northam in their attack ads and mailers, with one notable exception: Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Chesterfield, photoshopped a picture of Northam handing his Democratic opponent, Ghazala Hashmi, a framed copy of the black-face/KKK picture found on Northam’s yearbook page.

Virginia Public Media reports experts viewed the attack as a sign of desperation:

Heather Evans, a professor of political science at University of Virginia at Wise who has studied negative ads, said her research and others have shown a rise in that genre of political influencing.

“If you feel like you’re going to lose, if you feel like you’re in a heavily competitive race, you’re going to put these out,” Evans said.