Virginians aren’t happy with their governor, Ralph Northam, but according to a new poll from Quinnipiac University, they don’t want him to resign, either. The poll, released on Wednesday morning, is the clearest evidence yet that Northam may survive the controversy over the racist photo of a man in blackface and a man in a Ku Klux Klan robe in his medical school yearbook page, and his own admission that he wore blackface to a costume party in 1984. But 48 percent of Virginia voters say he should not resign, and 65 percent say he should not be impeached. Northam fares even better with black voters; 56 percent say he should not resign, and 69 percent say he should not be impeached.
For Northam, who has steadfastly ignored bipartisan calls for his resignation, Wednesday’s poll is good news, even if his overall approval rating remains low, at 39 percent. The state’s attorney general, Mark Herring, polled better, though he recently admitted to wearing blackface at a college party; 54 percent said he should he not resign. The state’s lieutenant governor, meanwhile, is in real trouble. Once the obvious choice to replace a disgraced Northam, Justin Fairfax now faces two credible accusations of sexual assault. Voters are divided on whether he should resign — 36 percent say no, 36 percent say yes, and 28 percent don’t know — but only 12 percent of voters say they believe his denials.
Of course, surveys like this don’t address the moral questions raised by these controversies. Numbers can’t tell us whether Northam should give up his job — only that voters aren’t prepared to call for his resignation en masse. Beyond polling, Northam’s faltering apology tour does not inspire much confidence in his purported evolution into a racially progressive individual, let alone his capacity to govern the state of Virginia. The truth is that Virginians have few options, caught as they are between a state Democratic party bogged down by internal conflicts and its own contributions to the state’s racist history, and the state Republican party, which is responsible for the unabashedly nativist campaigns of Ed Gillespie and Corey Stewart. If voters seem reluctant to see Northam go, it may not be due to loyalty but rather a clear-eyed understanding of the stakes.
Even so, the same Quinnipiac poll that showed some meager public mandate for Northam’s continued tenure should provide the party some relief. As dubious as voters may be about Northam, they remain far more skeptical of Donald Trump. Fifty-nine percent say they disapprove of the president’s job performance. Consider that alongside the outcomes of the Gillespie and Stewart campaigns, and it seems clear that most Virginians have no appetite for the race-baiting favored by Trump and the Republicans who run on his message. Virginia Democrats gained another reason for optimism on Tuesday. Democrat Ibraheem Samirah won a special election to replace Jennifer Boysko in the House of Delegates, even though the same right-wing website that broke the news of Northam’s yearbook page reported that Samirah had authored Facebook posts that were ferociously critical of the Israeli government.
But the Democratic Party can’t just rely on voter pragmatism if it’s going to survive. Virginia isn’t a securely Democratic state, and the prospect of three scandal-plagued Democrats in statewide office stains the party’s record and potentially undermines its future in the state. Democrats like Northam — white, male, relatively conservative — have long dominated the state party. If the Democratic Party has a future in Virginia, it’s in spite of this history, not because of it. The party has to figure out how to revive flagging voter enthusiasm — and it seems increasingly unlikely that another version of Northam will do the job.