Poll shows Virginians’ concern for commonwealth’s political culture

WASHINGTON — In the wake of former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s corruption conviction, nearly two-thirds of Virginians in a recent poll say the state’s political culture is only somewhat ethical or not very honest.

The Christopher Newport University poll, which examined the long-praised “Virginia Way,” also revealed a potential puff of hope for supporters of medical marijuana or pot decriminalization.

Northern Virginians are more likely than those from other parts of the commonwealth to rate the current political culture as mostly or exceptionally honest, but they join a large majority across the commonwealth that supports a $250 cap on gifts to public officials and their families.

“I think it speaks to a larger problem than just the McDonnell corruption trial; I think the public sees a larger problem in Virginia’s political culture,” CNU political science professor Quentin Kidd says.

Six in 10 Virginians and two-thirds of Northern Virginians believe McDonnell’s two-year prison sentence for corruption is fair.

An appeals court ruled Monday that McDonnell could remain out of prison during his appeal. He had been scheduled to report to prison on Feb. 9. Sentencing for his wife, Maureen, is scheduled for Feb. 20.


Are we headed in the right direction?

Like a Roanoke College poll released last week, this poll finds more Virginians believe the commonwealth is headed in the right direction than the wrong direction.  Among Northern Virginians, 58 percent say the state is headed the right way, while 27 percent say it’s headed the wrong way.

But the results are nearly reversed when the same question is asked about the nation as a whole.

Fifty-four percent of polled Virginians said the U.S. is headed the wrong way, as opposed to 34 percent who say it’s headed in the wrong direction. Black Virginians are more likely than whites to believe things are heading the right way.

Black Virginian respondents were nearly twice as likely to approve of President Barack Obama’s performance in office. Overall, the poll finds Obama’s approval rating at 44 percent in Virginia, and disapproval at 50 percent.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe fares better, with a 52 percent approval rating and a 25 percent disapproval rating.


Marijuana a sleeper?

About seven in 10 Virginians support legalizing marijuana for medical use and, in answer to a separate question, decriminalizing possession of small amounts of pot by changing the penalty to a civil fine.

“This may be a sleeper issue in Virginia. We may wake up in a year or two and discover that this has actually become law in Virginia,” Kidd says.

Northern Virginians (81 percent) are much more likely than those in Richmond (68 percent), Hampton Roads (68 percent) or the southwestern part of the state (65 percent) to support decriminalizing pot. About 80 percent of people who identify as liberal or moderate support the change, as opposed to about 54 percent of conservatives.

Republican Del. Harvey Morgan proposed allowing medical marijuana in 2010. He is a pharmacist who served in the House of Delegates until 2012.

“Support for this crosses party lines, so I’m not ready to say this is not likely to happen in Virginia; I think this might be a surprise,” Kidd says.

New bills that would mirror new laws in D.C. and Maryland were introduced again this year, but are unlikely to become law.


Choose roads for budget cuts?

Despite regular complaints about massive traffic jams or terrible transit delays, a plurality of Virginians in the poll say transportation funding would be their first choice for budget cuts if more are needed.

If cuts need to be made, the poll asked whether they should be in transportation (34 percent), social services (17 percent), health care (10 percent), public safety (5 percent) or education (4 percent). Seventeen percent said they don’t support any cuts, while 7 percent said all areas should be cut equally.

The poll finds nearly an even split among people who would support a general tax increase to avoid budget cuts in those areas. A slight majority oppose raising the gas tax “to ensure adequate transportation funding for maintenance and new construction.”

“They see work done, but people are always complaining that it’s too little too late, so I think bottom-line voters see this transportation budget as almost like a piggy bank.” Kidd says.

“I think the perception is the pain won’t be immediate like it would be say if we cut K through 12 funding. Immediately class sizes would get larger, teachers would be laid off, things like that.”

More than 80 percent of Virginians say K-12 education funding shouldn’t be cut at all.

“I’ve been polling in Virginia for 15 years, and for a long time whenever I’ve asked that question, ‘where would you cut first…’ transportation always comes out No. 1, and so voters put public officials in a tough spot: They want to fix their transportation problems, but they’re willing to cut transportation if it needs to be.”



Amid lawsuits and calls for change in Virginia’s redistricting process, only around half of Virginians polled say they’re familiar with the redistricting process that draws boundaries of General Assembly and U.S. House seats.

Those familiar with the process are split over whether the current system is fair.

“The voting public doesn’t understand it well enough to be able to weigh in in any meaningful way with a debate. So we get general support for the idea of creating a redistricting commission; we get general support  for reforming the way we redistrict, but that general support is not built upon any real substantial familiarity with the process,” Kidd says.


Term limits

Virginia governors have never been allowed to run for consecutive terms, but Virginians continue to support a change to allow two terms.

Kidd says years of polling show there’s consistent support to change the practice, which is unique to Virginia.

But the poll finds support for new term limits for members of the General Assembly.

“I think it’s a matter of extremes,” Kidd says. “We’ve got legislators in the General Assembly who’ve been there 20, 30, 35 years, and we have a governor who, if he happens to be doing a good job, can’t run for re-election…. I think voters are thinking of this as common [sense] reform,” he adds.


Minimum wage

Nearly three-fourths of those polled, including 97 percent of blacks and 77 percent of Northern Virginians, support raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour by 2017.

It’s a proposal with little chance of passing in the Republican-led General Assembly.

Kidd sees it as a national conversation that Virginia voters are just one part of. Maryland and the District have raised their minimum wages, and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties go above Maryland’s state level.

The results of the poll are based on phone interviews with more than 1,000 registered Virginia voters. The poll, conducted Jan. 11-23, 2015, has a margin of error of 3 percent.

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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