If I were a doctor reading lab results, I’d have to tell two patients they have life-threatening conditions that will kill them unless they dramatically change their lifestyles.
Instead, I’m a political analyst reading the latest Roanoke College poll, but my analysis is still the same: Both Democrats and Republicans have problems that, under normal circumstances, would cost them the election except that these aren’t normal circumstances — and they’re facing each other.
Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt gave you the big headline on Tuesday: Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s approval ratings remain stable, at 51%. He’s also the only politician that Virginians seem to feel good about. The poll finds Virginians in a sour mood about pretty much everything.
First, the bad news for Democrats: President Joe Biden is unpopular. Most Virginians — 57% — disapprove of how he’s doing his job. Most Virginians — 53% — also have an unfavorable opinion of the man himself. That figure matches the highest unfavorable rating that Donald Trump posted in the Roanoke College poll when he was in office. Keep in mind this is a state that voted for Biden for president. None of that looks good, particularly headed into a reelection.
But wait, there’s worse news for Democrats: 73% of Virginians surveyed think the nation is on the wrong track. True, Virginians always think the nation is on the wrong track. For more than a decade, the Roanoke College poll has never found a majority who think we’re on the right track. We are a perpetually unhappy people.
Trump had an opportunity to change that. In January 2017, when he took office, the percentage of Virginians who felt we were on the wrong track shrank to 52%. Then Trump started acting like Trump and that number kept going up and up until finally in August 2020 it topped out at 79%. That’s why Trump lost in Virginia — and elsewhere.
Biden had an opportunity to change that, too. In February 2021, less than a month after he’d taken office, the number who felt we were on the wrong track fell to 53%, about the same starting figure Trump had. But then inflation started going up and so did the wrong track numbers. The worst numbers in the Roanoke College poll came in May 2022, when 77% felt we were on the wrong track. They fell to 68% by the end of last year but now are edging up again, to 73%. Changing from Trump to Biden hasn’t really changed anything — about the same percentage of people think we’re on the wrong track, they just might be different people.
Even worse for Democrats, those wrong track numbers have been consistently higher under Biden than under Trump — they only crossed the 70% mark once during Trump’s presidency. They’ve now topped the 70% mark four times during Biden’s presidency. If these were blood pressure readings, the doctor would be prescribing medicine and ordering up a long list of lifestyle changes.
Democrats may complain that Biden isn’t getting the credit he deserves and they’d be right — he’s set in motion some transformative economic programs that aim to reshore manufacturing industries such as semiconductors and to accelerate the growth of the technology sector beyond a handful of superstar cites — but those are hard things to put on a bumper sticker. It may take years, maybe even decades, to measure the success of those initiatives. Meanwhile, voters have already formed their impressions of his presidency and they’re not favorable. The percentage of Virginians who disapprove of Biden’s handling of the job is now tied for an all-time high. He started off reasonably popular — he was on the plus side of things through September 2021 — but now Virginians consistently disapprove of the job he’s doing.
How can this man possibly get reelected? Here’s how: Trump.
As much as Virginians don’t like Biden, they like Trump even less.
The latest Roanoke College poll finds that 65% of Virginians have an unfavorable opinion of Trump. Put another way: Two-thirds of those surveyed just don’t like the man. That’s not exactly a winning formula.
More on the Roanoke College Poll
I’ll examine some other findings in the poll in this week’s edition of West of the Capital, our weekly political newsletter.
I’ll also look at how Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, this week managed to work into his newsletter references to both Oliver Anthony of “Rich Men North of Richmond” fame and the pop duo Zager and Evans and their 1969 one-hit wonder “In the Year 2525.”
More context: Trump’s unfavorable rating in Virginia has never been this high. During his presidency, it ranged from a low of 48% shortly after he took office (his favorability rating then was just 30% but a lot of people still had no opinion) to a high of 53% around the time of the election in 2020. Since leaving office, Virginians have steadily seen him more and more unfavorably until now those unfavorable ratings are at 65%. We often look back on politicians no longer in office and find that our criticism of them softens. Jimmy Carter was booted out of office but has become a beloved figure for his post-presidency. Even Richard Nixon, in his later days, came to be respected as a foreign policy genius. Not so with Trump; views of him have grown more negative and more intense.
Furthermore, most voters surveyed think Trump is a criminal: 54% think he did something illegal related to the classified documents found at his Florida home; 51% think he did something illegal in trying to overturn the 2020 election results. Virginians were more forgiving when it came to the allegations of covering up hush money payments to a former porn star who said she had an affair with Trump: Only 34% said they thought he did something illegal there; another 34% said they thought he did something unethical but not illegal. Those questions cover three of the four criminal cases against Trump; the racketeering charges in Georgia were filed after the survey was conducted.
At this point, you might like to know this little detail: This version of the Roanoke College poll is more weighted toward conservatives than liberals: 22% of those surveyed identified themselves as liberal, 34% as moderates, 34% as conservatives. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong; previous polls have generally found the Virginia electorate described itself in similar proportions.
That brings us to the conundrum that Republicans face: We have a Democratic president that even most voters in a Democratic-voting state think is doing a bad job, yet Republicans remain in love with a candidate who is even more unpopular and who might well be a convicted felon by this time next year. This is not a way for Republicans to win elections.
Even in his weakened state, Biden would win a majority of the vote in Virginia, according to the Roanoke College poll — at least in a matchup against Trump. That was the only matchup tested. The poll found Biden would take 51% of the vote to 42% for Trump. That’s closer than in previous polls but is in line with the 2020 results in Virginia, which gave Biden 54.1% and Trump 44.0%.
I’d love to see hypothetical matchups between Biden and other Republicans but they’re not in this poll, although an earlier poll by Virginia Commonwealth University showed that in Virginia Biden would defeat Trump, tie with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — and lose decisively to Youngkin.
Nothing in this Roanoke College poll suggests those VCU figures might be wrong. While Virginians don’t think much of Biden or Trump, they’re generally OK with Youngkin. Republicans, though, remain in thrall to Trump, for reasons that will mystify future historians.
When the poll asked Republicans who they backed for president, 47% said Trump. The next favorite choice was DeSantis, way back at 13%. Nobody else was in double digits (although Youngkin, who isn’t officially a candidate, placed third at 9%). Republicans seem dead set on nominating a candidate who is even more unpopular than when voters kicked him out, when they have plenty of reasonable alternatives available — alternatives who would probably defeat Biden pretty easily (to the extent that any presidential campaign is easy). Voters have given Republicans an opportunity, but Republicans don’t seem inclined to take it.