The new Roanoke College logo.
The new Roanoke College logo.

Republicans may be sleepwalking into a trap of their own making. 

That’s according to the new Roanoke College poll that came out earlier this week.

OK, technically the official analysis that accompanied the poll didn’t say that but the data within it sure paints that picture for me. 

I’ll lay out those numbers shortly but first let’s set the stage.

The headline out of the poll was that Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s approval rating has dropped, from 57% in February to 51% when this survey was taken. That’s a pretty noticeable drop. Curiously, it’s driven not by people’s opinions having changed, but people’s party identification having changed. (This was all discussed in the story that Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt wrote about the poll.) Generally speaking, Republicans like Youngkin just as much as they once did and Democrats are just as disapproving. Even the view of independents hasn’t changed that much — more on them shortly. What’s changed is that this poll found that 34% of those surveyed identified themselves as Democrats, while 21% identified themselves as Republicans. The February poll found a more closely divided electorate: 30% Democratic, 25% Republican. With this poll there’s a Democratic advantage of 13%, with the previous poll a Democratic advantage of 5%. More Democrats, fewer Republicans — so naturally the approval for a Republican governor comes down, even if the views held by Democrats, Republicans and independents don’t budge.

So does this mean the poll is wrong? Not necessarily. Party identification does shift. Previous versions of the poll found Democrats up by 8% in December 2022, up by 7% in August 2022, up by 3% in May 2022, up by 4% in March 2022, up by 5% in December 2021, up by 3% in October 2021, up by 10% in September 2021, up by 9% in August 2021. Meanwhile, the May 2021 poll found Republicans up by 1% while the February 2021 poll had Democrats up by 9%.

The easy thing would be to dismiss these findings and say that’s simply a polling fluke — just as it’s easy to dismiss a single high blood pressure reading we don’t like. The more cautionary way to read this is to notice that since October 2021 (a month before Youngkin won the governorship), the Virginia electorate seems to have generally trended Democratic. Maybe this reading is wrong, but Republicans would be unwise to ignore it, in case it turns out to be right. A 13% advantage for Democrats is the biggest the Roanoke College poll has recorded since, well, I’m not sure. I went back through five years of poll records and the closest I could find was a Democratic advantage of 11% in May 2020, so a gap of 13 percentage points now isn’t that far out of line — but still higher than we’ve seen in at least the past five years. Again, maybe it’s a blip that will come back down, but maybe it suggests something is going on. If pollsters were doctors and Virginia was a patient, the doctor would want to keep checking this.

If this partisan split is replicated in future polling, this could portend ill omens for Republicans in the November elections when the entire General Assembly is on the ballot — depending on where people live. That’s a big caveat. We don’t elect the legislature statewide, we do it through 140 different districts, 100 in the House, 40 in the Senate. If the voters becoming more Democratic are in districts that are already Democratic, this really means nothing. If the voters becoming more Democratic — and less Republican — are in swing districts, then it means quite a bit.

Now, here’s some happier news for the governor: I mentioned earlier that the way independents view Youngkin hasn’t changed. Statistically speaking, that’s true. This poll found that 52% of independents approved of the way he’s handling the job, down from 54% in March — well within any margin of error. Still, this shows that most independents approve — and the trendlines are in the governor’s favor. The first Roanoke College poll taken after Youngkin became governor, in March 2022, found that 45% of independents approved, so over time, he’s generally trended upwards. We have six Roanoke College polls during Youngkin’s time as governor; the first three found less than half of independents approved, the last three found that more than half approved. Youngkin is winning independents; he just needs more of them. 

The overall numbers — more Democrats, Youngkin’s approval rating dropping — suggest that Youngkin might not be as helpful an asset this fall as Republicans would like. These numbers on independents suggest just the opposite: that Youngkin could potentially be persuasive with a key subset of voters. This is why we have real elections and don’t depend on polls to pick our leaders.

Let’s assume for a moment that this poll is correct, that more Virginians are now identifying as Democrats. Why might that be? We can theorize lots of reasons, but here’s one: President Joe Biden is now seen more favorably than he once was (and this starts to tie back to my original statement that Republicans are walking themselves into a trap).

Make no mistake: Biden is still underwater, politically speaking, even in a state that voted for him. The poll found that 42% approve of his handling of the job, 55% disapprove. There’s no way to characterize that as good or helpful for a president headed into a reelection campaign, especially in a poll that has shown a Democratic lean in other ways. However, here’s what I notice when I dig into the numbers: Over time, independents have been moving Biden’s way. In May 2022, just 28% of independents in Virginia approved of Biden’s handling of the job. Now it’s up to 38%. He could still do a lot better, but he is improving his standing. That’s potentially important as we head into a presidential year. 

Do voters want Biden to stay on another four years as president? The poll didn’t ask that question but looking at these numbers, I’d suspect the answer is “probably not.” Even in a state that voted solidly for him, Biden’s numbers have never been that great. In seven of the 11 Roanoke College polls conducted during his presidency, he’s had higher disapproval numbers than approval numbers here in Virginia. Only once, in September 2021, did he hit the 50% mark. In the others, even when he was on the plus side his approval rating was under 50%. 

However, we don’t vote on presidents in a vacuum. It’s not a yes-or-no question, it’s an either-or question. Either we’ll have Biden or we’ll have whoever Republicans nominate — for now, that sure looks like Donald Trump again.

This is the trap that Republicans appear to be walking into.

In Virginia, Republican support for Trump is about as high as ever. A year ago, Virginia Republicans thought as highly of Trump as they did when he was still in office; the Roanoke College poll found 78% of Virginia Republicans had a favorable opinion. That fell to a low of 70% — which is still pretty darned high — in March 2023. Since then Trump has been indicted on criminal charges stemming from allegations that he paid hush money to cover up an affair with a pornographic film actress. And how did the party of law-and-order, the party of family values, respond? Approval of Trump has gone up. This poll found that Trump’s favorability among Republicans is back up to 76%. Getting indicted seems to have been a political plus for Trump — among Republicans.

But look at what’s happened among independents: They never thought much of Trump and now they think even less. Since Trump left office, his highest favorability rating about independents in Virginia was 34% in the March 2022 Roanoke College poll. By March 2023, that had fallen to 28%. Now, since his indictment, that figure is down to 23%, the lowest ever of his post-presidency.

Republicans may be gung-ho to nominate Trump again but they’d be going into an election where independents have little interest in Trump and are giving Biden much higher approval. Independents may not want Biden again but if the choice is between Biden and Trump, it seems clear from these numbers that they’ll reluctantly go for Biden. Biden’s approval ratings are bad but Trump’s are even worse. The Roanoke College poll finds Trump with a 63% unfavorable rating (Biden’s is 52%, about the same as the disapproval ratings on his handling of the job). The Roanoke College poll has found that Trump’s unfavorable ratings have, with just one month’s exception, been consistently higher since he left office than when he was in office. In common terms, absence is not making the heart grow fonder. It’s doing just the opposite. Trump entered office with a 48% disapproval rating, left office with a 53% disapproval rating and it’s only grown since then.

Republicans should not delude themselves into thinking that Biden is easily beatable. Politically, he’s weak, to be sure — but he’s getting stronger. A different Republican might well beat Biden easily. But Trump? Republicans who insist on Trump 2024 might need to prepare themselves to see Biden in office until January 2029. Is that a risk they’re willing to take?

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