A poll released earlier this week by Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Civic Leadership showed that voters are evenly split on which party they want to win control of the General Assembly.
That’s not the most interesting part. In fact, it’s probably not even the most important part. Voters statewide don’t really have a say in who controls the legislature. That’s because most districts are so lopsided in favor of one party or the other that the votes in those places don’t really matter. The Virginia Public Access Project estimates, based on electoral histories, that only four of 40 Senate districts and only seven of 100 House districts are truly competitive. Some may quibble with those numbers but the point is, not many districts are in dispute. What really matters, then, is not how voters feel statewide but how voters in a small number of swing districts — almost entirely in the urban crescent — feel.
For me, the most illuminating parts of the CNU poll are in the answers to other questions, which help understand why some voters will vote the way they do. Grab a shovel as we dig in and mine this data.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin is popular.
This finding always drives Democrats nuts, yet here it is again. CNU found that 55% of Virginians approve of how Youngkin is doing his job. That’s roughly in line with other polling, so we’re consistently seeing polls give Youngkin positive marks. I’ll also point out that this 55% figure is higher than the 50.6% of the vote that he won with two years ago. We won’t know yet how transferable this popularity is, but if you’re a Republican, it’s better to have a popular governor than an unpopular one. This isn’t simply a case of Republicans liking Youngkin and Democrats not; 61% of independents approve of the job Youngkin is doing. I wonder how much Democrats have internalized these figures; if they’re only talking to themselves, they may not really understand the depth of Youngkin’s popularity in the state.
President Joe Biden is not popular.
Here’s yet another poll that shows his disapproval rating (54%) higher than his approval rating (41%) — and this is in a state that voted for him. The best thing Biden has going for him in 2024 is the prospect that former President Donald Trump might be his opponent. Trump makes Biden look better by comparison. If Republicans came to their senses and nominated someone else, then Biden would likely be in deep trouble. The most worrisome part of this answer for Democrats is that independents are breaking against Biden — 59% disapprove of his handling of the job.
Now we move onto some findings that are more favorable for Democrats.
Democrats are paying more attention to the General Assembly elections than Republicans are.
The difference is relatively small but telling: 37% of Democrats say they’re paying “a lot” of attention, only 30% of Republicans are. Meanwhile, 38% of Republicans say they’re paying either “not much” attention or none at all, while only 29% of Democrats say that.
In an election cycle that typically produces the lowest turnout of any in Virginia, these small differences might matter. This likely explains why Youngkin is spending so much time and energy pushing early voting, something Republicans in the past haven’t been as enthusiastic about as Democrats: He needs to get more of them excited to get the results he wants.
Republicans care about inflation; Democrats care about abortion.
Our two main parties don’t just disagree ideologically, they disagree about what they care about most: 41% of Republicans said their top issue was the economy and inflation, while the biggest group of Democrats — 25% — said their top issue was abortion.
If Democrats win control of the legislature, it will likely be because their voters have been energized by the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision that reversed Roe v. Wade. If they don’t win the legislature, it may be because they’re not quite as energized by Dobbs as Republicans are almost singularly focused on the economy and inflation. For Republicans, their second biggest issue — at 20% — was immigration, which the state legislature has no control over. Nothing else ranked in double digits, not even education. Democrats, though, are more scattered: After abortion, 15% cited guns, while 12% apiece cited the economy/inflation and health care and 11% named education. Republicans have charged that Democrats have only one issue — abortion — but this poll shows that Democratic voters are more concerned about a wider range of issues than Republicans are.
The challenge for Democrats: 30% of independents cited the economy/inflation as their top issue. The challenge for Republicans: 16% of independents named abortion. However, we don’t know which side of the abortion issue they’re on, at least in this question (a later question below sheds some light on that). In any case, that’s why we hold elections instead of picking office-holders through polls.
Republicans are unhappy with schools, Democrats aren’t.
Democrats and Republicans have very different views about schools. Yes, I know this shocks you. Here are the numbers that confirm this: 50% of Democrats say they’re “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” with the quality of education that public school students receive; only 24% of Republicans say that. Instead, 72% of Republicans say they’re “somewhat dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” — with the bulk of that on the “very dissatisfied” (41% say that, 31% say “somewhat dissatisfied”). I’m fine with parties disagreeing — that’s human nature. I do worry, however, that if these partisan splits over schools continue, we may undermine one of the few institutions in our society that brings us all together.
Independents are more in line with Republicans on this question: 61% of independents come down somewhere on the dissatisfied side, only 34% on the satisfied side.
My take: Right now, Republicans are winning the education issue because people are unhappy; if Democrats are seen backing the status quo, that’s a losing argument. I’m not making a judgment on whether people should be satisfied or dissatisfied; I’m just reacting to the polling numbers. Earlier this week, Cardinal’s Lisa Rowan wrote about how school board races are becoming politicized in a way they haven’t been before.
Republicans are somewhat happier with the schools in their own community.
When the poll asked about how satisfied voters were with schools “in your local community,” opinions started to change. While only 24% of Republicans are satisfied with schools nationally, 51% are either “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” by their local schools. Democratic enthusiasm rises from 50% to 68%. Independents also feel better about their local schools — they go from 34% satisfied about the national situation to 56% satisfied with their local schools.
They say “all politics is local” but sometimes these days “all politics is national.” If Democrats want to win the education issue, they have to confront an issue that’s been nationalized.
Republicans are more distrustful of local school boards.
One poll question asked which level of government voters trusted to make decisions about local schools. Democrats, Republicans and independents gave almost identical answers about state government — about half of each group said they “somewhat” had confidence in the state government. I suspect Republicans are generally more distrustful of government, period, but their suspicions of state governments are likely allayed by the fact that there’s a Republican administration. But that’s just my speculation. In terms of hard numbers, 55% of Republicans say they trusted their local school boards, although 72% of Democrats felt that way. (Independents were at 60%.) I was more struck by those who said they didn’t trust local school boards at all: 17% of Republicans said that, while only 2% of Democrats and 9% of independents did. If you’re finding a local school board election is being politicized, it’s likely because conservatives are unhappy. (See the story Cardinal’s education reporter Lisa Rowan wrote about this.)
Democrats were also more trustful of local school administrators than Republicans were (84% of Democrats were trusting, only 53% of Republicans were) and more trustful of teachers (90% for Democrats, 71% for Republicans).
Republicans don’t like history classes teaching about racism, Democrats do.
How much do you think public schools should teach about the ways racism in America’s history affects the country today? The biggest group of Republicans — 34% — said “not much while 17% said “not at all.” Together, that means 51% of Republicans aren’t keen on this. Democrats, meanwhile, practically insist on it: 69% said schools should teach “a great deal” of this and 26% said schools should teach “a good amount.”
Independents lean more toward Democrats on this one: 65% of independents say either schools should teach “a great deal” or a “good amount.”
I wonder how much the wording matters here — a great deal, I suspect, to borrow a phrase. Republicans generally say schools should stick to teaching the facts — yet one of the facts of our history is that Virginia’s 1902 constitution was written specifically to be a racist document to disenfranchise Black voters. When I was growing up, we weren’t taught about any of this. On the other hand, when Cardinal published a story recently about Charlotte County putting up a sign talking about this history, I got an email from a reader in Halifax County who said he had no intention of reading that “silly sign.”
Republicans object to book bans but are less supportive of libraries having controversial books.
If just one parent complains about a book on the shelf of a public school library, should that book be removed? Some may be surprised to find that 72% of Republicans said no. On the other hand, 96% of Democrats said no. This might be a question of wording, though. When the question is asked about whether “It is important for public school libraries to have books that represent a variety of perspectives about controversial issues, even if it makes some people uncomfortable,” then Republicans get more squeamish. On this question, only 50% of Republicans agreed, while 94% of Democrats did. Meanwhile, 43% of Republicans disagreed, but only 5% of Democrats did.
Under what circumstances would Democrats support removing a book from a library? The poll didn’t ask that question, but it would be interesting to explore.
Democrats are divided on transgender athletes; Republicans aren’t.
Should transgender athletes be able to compete on sports teams that match their gender identity, as opposed to their biological sex? Republicans are firm in opposition: 89% say nope. Democrats are more divided: 51% agree with playing on a team based on gender identity but 40% disagree. That tells me there’s more opposition on the left than we might think. Independents are in line with Republicans on this: 70% object to transgender athletes playing in sports based on gender identity.
Democrats are more united about transgender students using restrooms based on gender identity.
But they’re not unanimous. Here, 82% of Republicans agree that restrooms should be based on biological sex; 66% of Democrats disagree. Independents are with Republicans, but not overwhelmingly: 55% agree that restrooms should be based on biological sex, 38% disagree.
Democrats are almost evenly split on pronouns.
Should schools notify parents if their child wants to use a different pronoun than whatever sex is listed on their birth certificate? Republicans are overwhelmingly in favor of schools telling parents: 89% agree. Democrats split: 46% say students should be allowed to pick their own pronouns, 45% say parents should be notified. Independents are generally in line with Republicans: 70% say schools should notify parents.
If you wonder why Republicans talk a lot about transgender issues, this is why: They’re united on this and Democrats aren’t, and they have independents with them.
Independents are with Democrats on abortion.
If you wonder why Democrats talk so much about abortion, first see the question above — this is what they’re most concerned about. It’s also an issue where independents are generally on their side. Neither party is as united as you might think. Among Democrats, 52% want abortion laws to stay the way they are, 44% want them to be less restrictive. But they definitely don’t want to see abortion laws become more restrictive. By contrast, 53% of Republicans want abortion laws to become more restrictive, while 37% want them to remain as is, and 19% want them to become less restrictive. Whoever those Republicans are, they’re certainly not running for office, but these are voters Republicans need to worry about — might those voters be so concerned about possible restrictions that they either don’t vote or vote Democratic? Meanwhile, 56% of independents want abortion laws to stay as they are.
When it comes to Youngkin’s proposal to ban abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, you won’t be surprised to learn that most Republicans like this and most Democrats don’t. Independents side with Democrats: 54% are opposed to the ban after 15 weeks.
While transgender issues might be a winning one for Republicans, abortion seems a winning issue for Democrats.
Nearly two-thirds of Virginians know someone who has had an abortion.
The poll asked: Do you happen to personally know someone (such as a close friend, family member or yourself) who has had an abortion? On this, 65% said yes. The CNU release didn’t include the cross-tabs on this so I asked for them and poll director Rebecca Bromley-Trujillo graciously provided them: 68% of Democrats know someone who has had an abortion, 63% of Republicans and independents do. While the Democratic number is somewhat higher, the partisan differences aren’t that big, yet the two parties have clearly come to different conclusions. Not surprisingly, more women (72%) than men (58%) know someone who has had an abortion. Those 18-44 are somewhat more likely than those over 45 to know someone (70% to 63%). Big picture: Knowing someone who has had an abortion is a pretty universal experience.
Here’s why it’s so hard to create a legal retail market for cannabis.
Virginia exists in a gray area of the law. We’ve legalized possession of small amounts of cannabis, what we used to call marijuana, but we haven’t set up a legal market to buy it and sell it. This is akin to saying you can drink alcohol, but it’s illegal for anyone to sell it to you. That would mean no legal distilleries, only moonshiners. Unless you grow your own, Virginia’s law only benefits black market pot dealers. Democrats are overwhelmingly (76%) in favor of a legal retail market. A surprising number of Republicans (38%) are, too, but most Republicans (61%) are against it. Independents are lighting up with Democrats — 59% are in favor of a legal retail market.
Weed is a winner for Democrats, at least in the polling. In a state government where Republicans will control the governorship no matter what happens next month, that’s a different matter. (In Thursday’s column, I wrote about how a Roanoke County store gave me a “gift” of free marijuana that a lab test showed was full of unhealthy impurities.)
The bottom line
This CNU poll offers a useful look into what Virginians are thinking as they go to the polls that really matter. You’ll notice there are lots of internal conflicts: The same poll that shows Youngkin is popular shows that most voters are against some of his key priorities, such as an abortion ban after 15 weeks. You’ll also see the sizeable minorities within both parties disagree with where their party generally stands on some issues. That’s what makes elections so fascinating: It’s one thing for voters to hold complex, even contradictory, views but at the polls those have to be reduced to a binary choice. Who will win? Voters will tell us that Nov. 7.
The latest on early voting trends
Every Friday afternoon I send out West of the Capital, our free weekly political newsletter. This week, I’ll update the latest early voting trends, as well as an uintended consequence of the House of Representative’s inability to choose a speaker. You can also sign up for any of our other free newsletters — our daily newsletter, our weekly entertainment newsletter and our weekly weather newsletter.