By a margin of more than 15-to-one, Virginians who have heard about the scandal involving Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and a wealthy donor believe that the governor, not the taxpayers, should pay for his legal defense, according to a new survey sponsored by the University of Mary Washington’s Center for Leadership and Media Studies.
Two-thirds of the 1,001 state residents surveyed Sept. 25-29 said they had heard or read about the scandal, and of that group 85 percent said the governor should be picking up the tab, not the taxpayers. Five percent believed the taxpayers should pay, with the rest undecided. Results from the same poll released by the Center on Friday also showed that 42 percent of likely voters in the upcoming Virginia election favor Democrat Terry McAuliffe for governor, with 35 percent in favor of Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.
Two outside law firms hired by the attorney general’s office to defend McDonnell and other state employees over issues involving Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams Sr. and a former Executive Mansion chef already have billed the state more than $240,000. Prosecutors have not yet said whether they will charge the governor over his financial dealings with Williams.
The overwhelming citizen preference that the governor pays for his lawyers crossed party lines. Eighty percent of Republicans said that the governor should be paying the legal bills, compared to 84 percent of independents and 89 percent of the Democrats.
By a margin of more than two to one, people who had heard about the scandal and had an opinion thought the governor was involved in wrongdoing (38 percent versus 15 percent). Nearly half of those who had heard about the scandal (46 percent) said they were not sure.
A greater partisan gap was apparent on this question. Only 23 percent of Republicans thought the governor was involved in wrongdoing, compared to 35 percent of independents and 51 percent of Democrats.
Overall, 42 percent of Virginians approved of the governor’s job performance, down from 52 percent in the March 2013 UMW survey. A total of 37 percent disapproved, compared to 26 percent in the March survey who were unhappy with McDonnell’s performance. The March survey was conducted shortly before the scandal first broke.
Roughly one out of every four state residents (24 percent) thought the governor should resign over the matter, while 60 percent said he should remain in office. McDonnell, whose term expires in January, was not eligible to run for re-election this year because of term limits.
Only 15 percent of Republicans said the governor should resign, compared to 20 percent of independents and 36 percent of the Democrats.
“The good news for the governor is that, despite the scandal, a significant number of state residents continue to think positively of him and many other Virginians have not made up their minds about what he has done,” said Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science at UMW and director of the university’s Center for Leadership and Media Studies. “The bad news for McDonnell is that the taxpayers really, really don’t like being stuck with the bill for the governor’s lawyers.”
Farnsworth said that the results of the survey, conducted on the center’s behalf by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, provide further evidence that Virginia views its political leaders more favorably than residents of many other states.
“Despite the scandal, McDonnell enjoys more positive assessments than do many other state governors,” Farnsworth said.
Further details on the survey’s findings, including key breakdowns by factors including age and region of residence, are found below.
The Fall 2013 Virginia Survey, sponsored by University of Mary Washington (UMW), obtained telephone interviews with a representative sample of 1,001 adults living in Virginia. Telephone interviews were conducted by landline (500) and cell phone (501, including 214 without a landline phone). The survey was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International (PSRAI). Interviews were done in English by Princeton Data Source from September 25 to 29, 2013. Statistical results are weighted to correct known demographic discrepancies. The margin of sampling error for the complete set of weighted data is ± 3.5 percentage points.
Support for the governor paying for the legal bills relating to scandal was widespread across all key groups of state residents. Among women, 88 percent thought he should pay, compared to 82 percent of the men.
Regional differences also were modest. In Northern Virginia, 77 percent said the governor should pay the bill, compared to 90 percent in both the Tidewater and the state’s northwest region. In the south-central part of the state, which includes Richmond, 84 percent said he should pay, compared to 88 percent in the state’s western counties.
Residents 65 or older were the least willing to insist that McDonnell foot the bill, but, even among that group, 78 percent thought he should pay. Residents between the ages of 30 and 44 were most insistent, with 90 percent expecting the governor to pick up the tab.
Among African-Americans, 87 percent said he should pay, compared to 85 percent of whites and 83 percent of Latinos.
Was there Wrong-Doing?
One-third (33 percent) of Tidewater-region residents, a part of the state the governor once represented in the legislature, thought the governor was guilty of wrongdoing, compared to 34 percent in the western part of the state, 36 percent in Northern Virginia, 42 percent in south-central Virginia, and 47 percent in the state’s northwest.
Older voters were most critical, with 45 percent of those aged 65 years or older believing that the governor was involved in wrongdoing, compared to 40 percent in the 45- to 64-year age group. The two youngest groups were the least critical, with only 24 percent of the residents under 30 years of age saying that McDonnell engaged in wrongdoing. The 30- to 44-age group also was less critical than older Virginians, with 36 percent saying that the governor engaged in wrongdoing.
No gender gap existed on this question. Among both men and women, 38 percent said they believed there was wrongdoing by the governor, while 16 percent of the women and 15 percent of the men thought there was no wrongdoing. The rest were unsure.