Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks in Bristol at the Cardinal News Speaker Series. Photo Credit: Earl Neikirk/Neikirk Image.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks in Bristol at the Cardinal News Speaker Series. Photo Credit: Earl Neikirk/Neikirk Image.

Virginians think Gov. Glenn Youngkin is doing a pretty good job – apparently so good they want him to stay on the job and not seek another one.

That’s my take on the latest Roanoke College poll, which came out Wednesday.

Youngkin’s job approval came in at 52%, down slightly from 55% in August, about the same as the 53% he had in May and a little above the 50% he recorded in February, when he had barely taken office. With a margin of error of 4.48%, all those numbers are essentially the same.

Those numbers are comparable to what Gov. Ralph Northam scored in his last months in office. His approval rating was 52% in August 2021, the last time the Roanoke College Poll asked the question during his tenure. Northam obviously had a tumultuous term in office thanks to the yearbook scandal; his approval rating sank to 32% in February 2019 and then, post-scandal, rose as high as 59% in May 2020. My sense, both from the polls and a lifetime of living in Virginia, is that we Virginians want to like our governor, no matter who it is. Given how polarized our society is, we’ll never like one too much, but Youngkin’s ratings seem like something he and Republicans should be thrilled with. Here’s a Republican governor in a state that leans Democratic and he’s popular – and nothing he’s done in office has really done much to change people’s impression of him.

If you’re a Democrat, that seems a problem: Ronald Reagan was called a Teflon president because he seemed immune to criticism. If you’re a Republican, Youngkin’s popularity would seem to be a major asset heading into the 2023 elections, when the entire General Assembly will be on the ballot and Republicans would love, just love, to hold the House of Delegates and win back the state Senate. One curiosity: 31% of Democrats approve of the job Youngkin is doing. That seems pretty high for members of the opposite party. We naturally expect Republicans to approve of what a Republican governor is doing, and they do – 85%. Perhaps more significantly, independents approve of Youngkin’s performance – 51%. Big picture: He’s kept Republicans happy, he’s picked up most independents and he’s even won over nearly one-third of Democrats. To me, all that speaks to Youngkin’s political skill. Critics, of course, might say that people just aren’t paying attention, and there’s always that.

Speaking of Youngkin’s political skills, that brings us to the next part of the poll: what else Youngkin might be doing in 2023. Will he run for president? I have no idea. Should he run? Virginians have some opinions on that. Modern presidential campaigns take a long time – Donald Trump has already declared and others are clearly running, whether they have officially declared or not. If Youngkin is serious about running, he’ll have to do something in 2023. Virginians, though, aren’t particularly keen on that. Most Virginians don’t think Youngkin should run – 52% said no in August, 54% say no now.

That number is somewhat misleading, though. Democrats certainly don’t think he should run. The real question is what Republicans think – those are the people who matter in terms of a Republican nomination. These answers are both fascinating – and contradictory.

The poll finds that 52% of the Republicans surveyed felt Youngkin should run for president – but the poll also found that most Virginia Republicans would not vote for him. That makes no sense to me. Why would someone think Youngkin should run if they weren’t going to vote for him? Yet there are the numbers: The poll found that in a Republican primary, Republicans would vote 52% for Trump, 39% for Youngkin, 4% for someone else. (That was the only option offered, so we have no polling on, say, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or former Vice President Mike Pence.)

Those numbers would not seem so encouraging. Not many candidates run if they can’t even win their home state in a primary. On the other hand, these numbers do reflect a potentially significant shift. In Roanoke College’s August poll, 62% of Republicans said they’d vote for Trump, 28% for Youngkin.

Trump clearly retains a hold on the Republican Party but it seems to be loosening. I have to wonder how many Republicans are starting to take stock of the damage Trump has done to the party. In Virginia, anti-Trump sentiment helped power the Democratic takeover of the House of Delegates in 2019 – first with big gains in 2017 and then an actual majority in 2019. Once Trump was out of office, the Republican vote in Northern Virginia, in particular, returned to pre-Trumpian levels and look what happened: Republicans won back the House of Delegates and scored a statewide sweep, as well. In effect, Trump is indirectly responsible for everything a Democratic majority in the General Assembly passed under Northam. Don’t like the gun laws Democrats passed? You can blame Democrats but you should also blame Trump for creating the political conditions that elected those Democrats.

Nationally, Republicans should have won big in this year’s midterms – history and the political environment (inflation, crime, etc.) would in normal times have dictated that. Instead, Republicans barely eked out a majority in the House and actually lost ground in the Senate. It sure wasn’t widespread enthusiasm for Joe Biden that drove that; it seemed a direct response to Trump (and perhaps the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade). We saw this most clearly in this week’s Senate runoff in Georgia. Even with all his baggage, Herschel Walker almost won. A better Republican candidate would almost certainly have won – perhaps even won outright in the November election. Trump insisted on Walker, though, and got Walker – and as a result Democrats now have 51 seats in the Senate. Will there be some larger Republican reckoning with Trump and this math? We’ll see. This poll suggests some of that reckoning is starting to happen – but 52% for Trump is still a majority. Trump may not even need a majority to win the nomination. With multiple candidates, he’ll only need a plurality; that’s how he won last time.

These numbers bear watching in the months ahead: Will Trump continue to slip? For now, there doesn’t seem to be a clarion call among Virginia Republicans for Youngkin to run for president. By contrast, a November poll released by the anti-Trump conservative group Club for Growth showed that in a head-to-head matchup, DeSantis would beat Trump in Florida (49% to 42%) and three other key states (Iowa, 48% to 37%; New Hampshire, 52% to 37%; Georgia, 55% to 35%). I am generally disinclined to put much stock in polls by partisan groups such as the Club for Growth for the obvious reasons, so we should factor that in. Still, it’s noteworthy that the nonpartisan Roanoke College Poll shows Trump would still beat Youngkin on the latter’s home turf.

Here’s the conundrum for Youngkin: One reason he scores good job approval ratings is that most Virginians think he’s a likable fellow. To secure the Republican nomination, though, he’s going to have to land some blows – some serious, knock-out blows – against a fellow Republican. And not just any fellow Republican, either. Maybe Youngkin thinks others will do that for him and he can avoid doing the dirty work. I’m not sure it will work that way. Anybody who wants to beat Trump is going to have to, well, beat him.

Meanwhile, here’s the bad news for Democrats. Virginians voted for Biden in 2020 but aren’t particularly happy with him now. Only 41% approve of the way he’s doing the job, while 55% disapprove. So, yes, here’s a somewhat Democratic state where voters like the Republican governor better than they do the Democratic president. In August, 39% approved of Biden, 57% disapproved – so that might be a modest improvement, but it’s still within the margin of error so may not mean anything at all. The worst news for Biden is that he’s losing independents – only 32% approve of the job he’s doing.

Now, all things are relative: When asked about a favorable/unfavorable impression of Biden, voters are slightly less negative about Biden the man than Biden the president. He gets only a 51% unfavorable rating when the question is asked that way. On the other hand, Trump gets a 60% unfavorable rating. It seems clear that in another Biden-Trump matchup, Biden would probably carry Virginia again. What I’d love to see – but which this poll doesn’t ask – is how Virginia would vote in a Biden vs. Youngkin race. I have no idea but I’m absolutely convinced that, nationally, if Youngkin were to somehow win the Republican nomination, he’d run much stronger than Trump. Given how close the race was last time, I’d be willing to go down to the Bristol Casino and wager that Youngkin would beat Biden nationally. The challenge for Youngkin is getting that nomination.

There’s one set of numbers I haven’t mentioned, though. Those head-to-head Youngkin vs. Trump primary numbers are for Republicans only. Virginia, though, doesn’t have party registration. Anyone can vote in a Republican primary. Republicans don’t much like that, but that’s the way it is. Anyone can vote in a Democratic primary, too, but Democrats don’t get as freaked out about that sort of thing as Republicans do. I personally think it’s bad form to vote in a party primary if you don’t identify with that party – as a journalist, I don’t vote in any primaries – but here’s the thing: Democrats in 2022 probably won’t have a presidential primary; no need to if Biden is unopposed. We’ll see whether he is. The new party rules that set a different order for states give priority to some states where Biden is likely to have a big advantage over any potential challenger, such as South Carolina. That was his first win in 2020, and so-called “progressive” candidates have often had trouble in states with lots of Black voters, so these new rules would seem to make it more difficult for an intra-party challenge against Biden. 

My point: To truly gauge Youngkin’s potential support in a Republican presidential primary in Virginia, we need to look beyond just Republicans because that primary will be open to all voters (unless Republicans win full control of the General Assembly in November 2023 and then pass emergency legislation to change the rules). If that primary is open to all, then suddenly we get different results. A Republican-only primary favored Trump. But the Roanoke College Poll finds that in an open primary, Youngkin would get 44%, Trump 25%.

So, yes, while most Virginians don’t think Youngkin should run for president, and most Republicans would vote for Trump, it’s possible that Youngkin could, indeed, beat Trump in a Virginia primary – and not just beat him but whip him. So, yes, what seemed a clear result from this poll is, in fact, quite complicated. If you’re advising Youngkin, which set of numbers do you emphasize? 

Dwayne Yancey

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