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Gov. Ralph Northam answered questions about a racist medical school yearbook photo during an Executive Mansion press conference on Feb. 2.

By Stephen J. Farnsworth and Jeremy R. Engel

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam certainly is fortunate that President Donald Trump continues to dominate the news cycle with his many controversies in Washington — thereby distracting state residents from the scandals in Richmond.

Last winter, an old yearbook photo surfaced from Northam’s medical school days, allegedly depicting the future governor in either blackface or KKK robes. His name was abruptly thrust into the national limelight, but for all the wrong reasons.

After the governor fumbled a news conference designed to salvage his shattered reputation, some prominent Virginians publicly and privately urged him to resign, and his name became a punch line for the late-night comics. Polls taken at that time showed voters split roughly 50-50 on whether Northam should leave office.

Now, eight months after what some Virginia politicos delicately refer to as “the events of February” (a winter of Democratic misery that also included a separate blackface photo scandal involving the attorney general and sexual assault allegations against the lieutenant governor), Northam’s political fortunes have recovered markedly.

A new statewide poll conducted in September by Research America Inc. for the University of Mary Washington (UMW) revealed that 47% of Virginians approved of the governor’s performance in office and 35% disapproved, with the rest unsure.

This net job approval rating of 12 percentage points is still well below the net approval rating of 31 percentage points the governor received in the September 2018 UMW poll, conducted months before the scandal. However, the 2019 rating is a significant improvement from a University of Virginia/Ipsos poll taken in the weeks after the offensive yearbook photo first made headlines. That February poll found that only 17% of Virginians approved of the governor, while 34% disapproved of him.

The governor’s current net approval rating is almost exactly where Terry McAuliffe, his predecessor, stood roughly two years into his term (a net rating of 10 percentage points in a November 2015 UMW poll).

Fortunately for Northam, media and public attention quickly returned to Washington’s controversies. Trump’s on-again off-again battles over trade with China, disputes over weapons development programs involving Iran and North Korea, the revolving door of top administration officials, the Mueller report and in recent days a formal impeachment inquiry involving the president have consumed public discourse for months.

One’s political fortunes can hinge on how much attention is afforded to high-profile missteps. Not surprisingly, Northam’s current rating remains well above public assessments of Trump. Fifty-four percent of Virginians polled disapprove of the president’s job performance, with 39% approving. It is also worth noting that this survey preceded recent revelations of a controversial phone call between Trump and the president of Ukraine.

In the wake of his scandal, Northam engaged in aggressive outreach efforts to the African American community, promising to fight for racial equity and to improve public understanding of black history. In addition, the governor’s allies continue to tout the 2018 passage of the Medicaid expansion bill and Northam’s support for gun control in an effort to shore up his support.

Those focused rehabilitation efforts seem to be paying off. Among African Americans, 61% approve of the governor and 18% disapprove. All is not forgiven, though, particularly among younger African Americans. While two-thirds of African Americans 55 years or older approve of the governor, support drops to 54% support among African Americans under the age of 25.

Even so, Northam remains more popular among African Americans overall than he is among whites (43% approve, 40% disapprove) or Latinos (42% approve, 34% disapprove).

Northam breaks roughly even among independent voters, with 38% approving and 41% disapproving. Focusing on the governor would appear a poor strategy for Republicans, many of whom once dreamed that Northam’s old photos would help the party retain its narrow legislative majorities in Richmond.

Now with Washington likely to spend the next several months talking about presidential impeachment, Northam’s political troubles might very well continue to remain in the background, just the way most Virginia Democrats would like it.

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Stephen J. Farnsworth is a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington, where he directs the Center for Leadership and Media Studies. Contact him at sfarnswo@umw.edu.

Jeremy R. Engel is a senior political science major at UMW and a research associate at the center. Contact him at jengel@mail.umw.edu

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