Glenn Youngkin. Courtesy of Appalachian School of Law.

House Democrats elected a new leader last week – Don Scott of Portsmouth – and he quickly put out a statement blasting Gov. Glenn Youngkin:

“I’m not afraid to stand up and say it: Youngkin and his party don’t care one bit about effective governance or how their decisions impact everyday Virginians. They are happy to sit back and stoke the flames of the culture war while our constituents struggle to make ends meet.”

Unfortunately for Democrats, Virginians don’t seem to agree with that assessment of the state’s political landscape. The latest Roanoke College poll, which came out Friday, shows that Virginians seem reasonably happy with the job Youngkin is doing.

The poll found that 53% of those surveyed approve of the job Youngkin is doing, up from 50% in February.

For context: In 12 Roanoke College polls when Ralph Northam was governor, only twice did Northam top Youngkin’s current figure: He hit 54% approval in August 2018 and 59% in May 2020 (not long after the pandemic hit, so likely an early response to his handling of the coronavirus). In between, he once sank as low as 35%. Northam’s average approval rating over a dozen surveys was 46.1%. Youngkin’s average is north of that.

Sometimes polls tell politicians things they don’t like to hear. This poll seems to be one of those, at least as far as Democrats are concerned. Democrats may find that their party activists don’t much like Youngkin. But Virginians overall seem reasonably content with their new governor, which is surely a complication for Democrats. Next year, they will try to take back the House of Delegates and defend their narrow (21-19) margin in the state Senate. One obvious line of attack is that voters should elect Democrats so that Republicans don’t have complete control of state government, which would let Youngkin push through whatever legislation he wants. That argument will be harder for Democrats to make if voters still seem OK with what Youngkin is doing.

Here are two more interesting numbers: Democrats feel better about Youngkin now than they did a few months ago. In February, only 30% of Democrats approved of the way Youngkin was doing his job. Now it’s up to 41%. That figure seems high to me for one party assessing a governor of the other party. The new House Democratic leader may be blasting Youngkin, but Democratic voters seem to be warming up to the guy. Interestingly, Republican approval of Youngkin has dipped slightly – from 84% in February to 75% now. I’m not sure what Youngkin might have done to depress Republican enthusiasm (which is obviously still at high levels) other than not immediately deliver on every single campaign promise, which is always unrealistic.

As is always the case with polls, some caveats apply. The first is universal: Polls are a snapshot in time. People’s opinions change. Just because voters approve of Youngkin now doesn’t mean they will a year from now. Then again, they might approve even more. You just never know.

The second is more specific: Republicans might want to consider the possibility that Youngkin gets a good approval rating now precisely because his legislative options are constrained by a Democratic Senate. If Republicans had unfettered control of state government, they might find voters aren’t quite so approving. Keep that in mind when we get to some of the poll’s other findings.

For now, the poll seems to have more good news for Republicans than it does for Democrats. Virginians generally approve of what Youngkin is doing, but they definitely do not approve of what President Joe Biden is doing. His approval rating is down to 37% – with 57% disapproving. Biden started out at 47% approval, rose to 50% by September 2021, and has been falling since (as inflation has been rising).

So, yes, Youngkin is more popular in Virginia than Biden is. In fact, Biden’s approval rating, at its highest, was lower than Youngkin’s approval rating in Virginia is now. This strikes me as something of a warning sign for Democrats as they head into both this fall’s congressional midterms and next year’s General Assembly elections.

More caveats: Our politics are so polarized along geographical lines that Youngkin’s popularity may not help Republicans as much as they hope and Biden’s unpopularity may not hurt Democrats as much as they fear. Democrats give Biden higher approval ratings (78%) than Republicans give Youngkin (75%), so in a strongly Democratic district, Biden’s low approval ratings may not matter. The question, though, is how that translates to the handful of swing districts we have. Perhaps the key stats are among independents, where Youngkin’s approval rating is a respectable 49% but Biden’s falls to a red-flag 30%. If I were a Democratic congressional candidate in Virginia this fall, I’d be worried.

Of course, Biden and Youngkin aren’t running against each other – at least not yet! But in theory Biden and former President Donald Trump might be in 2024. In that case, God help us all. We must now switch from approval ratings to favorability ratings. Those are two related, but slightly different, things. In theory, a voter might approve of the job a politician is doing but still not like him (or her). Or conversely, they might like him (or her) but disapprove of the job being done. The poll doesn’t have an approval rating for Trump because there’s nothing to approve or disapprove – he’s not in office. But it does have favorable/unfavorable ratings.

The poll finds that Virginians generally feel favorably about Youngkin – 46% favorable, 37% unfavorable. His favorable ratings have held steady since he took office. Voters generally like him. By contrast, they don’t like Biden. He comes in at 38% favorable, 56% unfavorable. That’s a big change from when he first took office, when Virginians put him at 47% favorable and 29% unfavorable. My take: Virginians liked the idea of Joe Biden – particularly since he wasn’t Donald Trump – but once he started doing things, they liked the reality of him a lot less. This seems a problem for Democrats.

The one consolation for Democrats: Virginians like Trump even less. He comes in at 34% favorable (four points behind Biden) and 59% unfavorable (three points higher than Biden).

Opinions on Trump seem baked in: In the November 2020 poll, just before the election, he was at virtually the same favorable ratings as he is now. Since then, though, his unfavorables have gone up. That seems a problem for all those people who have “Trump 2024” signs up. The problem for Democrats is that opinions on Biden might get baked in, too.

If the 2024 presidential campaign pits two politicians – one sitting president, one former president – who are so widely unpopular against each other, can democracy really survive? I don’t ask that question lightly. Surely at least one of our two parties can find someone who voters might, you know, actually like? Or who at least would not be so widely disliked? Ultimately, democracy rests on our willingness to tolerate the other side winning from time to time. The events of Jan. 6, 2021, suggest that some Americans are starting to lose that tolerance for the occasional defeat. This is dangerous. Both parties – but Republicans, in particular – ought to be doing more to address this.

Beneath the surface, the Roanoke College poll finds some trends that explain some of these results.

Overwhelmingly, Virginians think the country is on the wrong track (this is the famous, and often telling, right track/wrong track question). Now, they disagree about what track the country should be on, but 77% think we’re on the wrong one. Some context: Virginians have historically said the country is on the wrong track. Over more than a decade, the Roanoke College poll has never found a majority of Virginians thinking we’re headed in the right direction. Doesn’t matter who the president is or which party controls Congress, we’re perpetually sour about the direction of the country. The only difference is a matter of degree. The current 77% wrong track is high – the figure’s usually in the 50s or 60s – but not the highest. In August 2020, only 16% said right direction while 79% said wrong track. Back in 2011, 81% said we were on the wrong track. Notice that these figures seem to have little impact on how people in Virginia vote for president. In 2011, when Virginians notched that 81% wrong track response, Barack Obama was president. He still carried the state the next year. Nevertheless, this question does shed some light on things. The highest right direction and lowest wrong track numbers over the past five years came in May 2021 – 42% right direction, 53% wrong track. This was after Biden had been in office just a few months. This seems to support my theory that people were initially relieved that Trump was gone – but once Biden started to govern, they became unhappy again. We may just have to reconcile ourselves to voters always being unhappy for one reason or another.

There is, though, one worrisome number: 52% of those surveyed think the nation’s best days are behind it. That’s the first time in the history of the Roanoke College poll that a majority have felt that way. This is also a big switch from November 2020, when 62% thought our best days were ahead, and only 29% thought they were behind us. For now, this pessimism is driven largely by Republicans. A majority of Democrats (54%) are in the best days ahead category, but only 33% of Republicans are. Is this simply a function of the party being out of power at the federal level, or something deeper about our culture?

By contrast, while Virginians think the country is going to hell, they generally think the state’s doing OK. Only once in the past five years has the poll found more Virginians thinking the state is on the wrong track than the right one. That was in August 2020 – the first year of the pandemic, with a presidential election going on – when 45% said right direction and 49% said wrong direction. Virginia flirted with that again in February of this year, just after Youngkin took office, when the poll found Virginians tied at 47% apiece. But now we’re back up to 50% right direction, 44% wrong track. Again, this is the inverse of the national mood. Virginians also thought the state was going in the right direction last fall – 52% to 43% – but still switched parties in the governor’s office. Still, if Virginians were really unhappy with Youngkin, you’d think that unhappiness would show up here. It doesn’t. Democrats either need to do a better job of making the case why Youngkin is wrong, or reconcile themselves to the fact that Virginia has a reasonably popular Republican governor.

There is potentially one thing that could upend some of these numbers: if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide. The Roanoke College poll found that 57% of those surveyed disagreed with the court’s draft opinion.

The poll also found that only 11% of those surveyed felt abortion should be illegal in all circumstances; 53% felt it should be legal in some circumstances and 35% felt it should be legal in all circumstances. Of course, different people may define “some circumstances” in different ways. Some might define it narrowly (to save the life of the mother), others might define it far more broadly. If the Supreme Court does, indeed, overturn Roe and allow states to set their own rules, that’s likely where the debate will be, and there’s a lot of room for debate (and obfuscation) there.

Some of the interesting numbers come in the crosstabs for abortion. Most Democrats – 54% – think abortion should be legal in all circumstances. But the poll found that even most Republican think abortion should be legal in at least some circumstances (again, no definition of what those circumstances would be). The poll found that 61% of Republicans favor abortion being legal in some circumstances and 16% believe abortion should be legal in all circumstances, while 23% believe it should be illegal in all circumstances. That suggests if Roe is overturned, and Republicans win full control of the General Assembly in 2023, Virginia will get an interesting debate over just what the state’s abortion laws should be. How far would Virginia go toward banning abortion altogether?Keep in mind that just because this poll finds these numbers, that doesn’t mean that Republicans in the General Assembly would break along these same lines. Given how many districts are essentially one-party districts, many Republican legislators may feel pulled toward the right because that’s what’s necessary to win a Republican nomination. We already see Dels. Wren Williams, R-Patrick County, and Marie March, R-Floyd County, who have been paired together in a single district, trying to outdo each other on who is the most anti-abortion. I wrote earlier that the political implications of Roe being overturned may be more limited than people think. I still believe that. Because of all those one-party districts, the number of districts “in play” is quite small. It’s highly unlikely we’ll see a post-Roe world where a lot of one-party seats are suddenly contestable. But we may see lots of political turmoil within those one-party districts – with Republicans playing to their most conservative activists, and Democrats playing to their most liberal ones, which will only push the two parties further apart. Where abortion might make a difference is at the statewide level. Voters seem pretty happy with Youngkin now. How will they feel if he has to weigh in on what kind of abortion restrictions Virginia should pass? And how might that factor into the next governor’s race? We’ll have to wait for the Roanoke College poll in 2025 to tell us that.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.