1.20.2015
By Dr. Harry Wilson

RC Poll: Issues for Va. General Assembly 2015

Virginians strongly support ethics reforms for legislators, but remain divided on Medicaid expansion, according to The Roanoke College Poll. Residents of the Commonwealth also favor requiring higher education institutions to report all sexual assault cases, reform of the judicial selection process, and some gun control measures, but are split regarding how legislative districts should be drawn. The Roanoke College Poll interviewed 602 residents in Virginia between January 12 and January 16 and has a margin of error of +4 percent.

Issues in the 2015 General Assembly

There remains a consensus among Virginians that gifts to elected officials and their families should be regulated more strictly, with opinion having changed very little since the January 2014 Roanoke College Poll. Sixty percent of the respondents agree that gifts to elected officials should be limited to $250 in value, while another 22 percent think that limit is too high. A majority (53%) think that legislators should be barred from accepting positions as judges or state officials for two years after leaving office, and a plurality (48%) agrees that legislators' family members should be prevented from taking such positions while the legislator is in office. Nearly three-fourths (72%) think that gifts to families should also be limited, and 81 percent agree that those gifts should be reported. Support for limitations on family gifts has increased significantly in the past year.[1]

After 50 years of the War on Poverty and with Medicaid expansion still a divisive issue in Virginia, respondents were asked what percentage of the poor are in poverty through no fault of their own. The average was 43 percent, and the midpoint (median) was 45 percent (in 2014, the mean was 42%, and the median was 40%). With regard to Medicaid expansion, opinion is mostly unchanged in a year. Thirty-nine percent say the program should be expanded in Virginia only when it is reformed to be more efficient, while slightly fewer (33%) think it should be expanded now. One in five (22%) say it should not be expanded at all.

With regard to other issues before the General Assembly, opinion is split on granting in-state tuition to undocumented students who are residents of Virginia (42% favor the idea, and 43% oppose it). Residents strongly favor (81%) requiring colleges and universities to report all sexual assault investigations to local police. A majority (58%) support a bill that would require high school students to pass the civics test taken by those who wish to become U.S. citizens. Residents are divided with regard to drawing legislative districts, with 43 percent favoring an independent commission and 42 percent preferring that the General Assembly draw the districts. At the same time, respondents would like a change in the judicial appointment process. Only 17 percent favor the current appointment by the General Assembly, while 32 percent would like to see a bipartisan commission make recommendations to the governor or the legislature. A plurality (44%) think it would be better for citizens to elect judges.

Regulating firearms

Support for gun control has remained steady over the course of the past year, according to several measures. In a generic question, Virginians think it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns (50%) than to control gun ownership (42%). A national survey conducted by the Pew Center in December found similar sentiments (52% want to protect gun ownership; 46% want to control ownership). Regarding one-handgun-per-month, respondents were evenly split with 47 percent favoring reinstating that restriction and 47 percent opposing it.

Strong majorities of Virginians support requiring background checks for all firearms purchases at gun shows (88%) and universal background checks for firearms purchases, including private transactions (75%), both very similar to 2014 results. In addition, a majority (59%) favor banning "assault rifles," and 57 percent favor a ban on all magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds. Both of those figures are higher than a year ago. Those who have a gun in the household are more likely to protect gun ownership (67%) and are less supportive of handgun purchase restrictions (39%), but majorities support background checks at gun shows (87%) and universal background checks (70%). Support for background checks increased somewhat from 2014 among those who live in households with guns.

Elected officials' approval ratings, favorable/unfavorable views and direction of state and country

President Barack Obama's favorable rating is 42 percent (45% unfavorable), which is slightly lower than a year ago. Terry McAuliffe finishes his first year as Governor with a 44 percent favorable rating (18% unfavorable), which is up slightly from 2014. Senator Mark Warner has a favorable rating of 54 percent, and Senator Tim Kaine sits at 41 percent.

Obama's job approval rating is currently at 38 percent (46% disapprove), nearly identical to a year ago. McAuliffe begins his second year at 47 percent (up 10 points from 2014), while Congressional approval is 14 percent, exactly where it was a year ago.

Virginians remain more optimistic regarding the state of the Commonwealth than that of the country. Almost half (53%) think the state is going in the right direction (up 6% from 2014), while more than half (52%) think the country has gotten off on the wrong track, a significant improvement in outlook from a year ago, when 66% chose wrong track.

Analysis

"Virginians remain supportive of various ethics reforms for elected officials," said Dr. Harry Wilson, director of the Institute for Policy and Opinion Research. "They are somewhat divided regarding Medicaid reform, perhaps due in part to their views regarding why some people are poor. The public is also split on redistricting, and a plurality prefers electing judges over keeping that power with the General Assembly or creating a bipartisan commission."

"Opinion favors expanded background checks for gun purchases, although Commonwealth residents want to generally protect gun ownership rights. They are evenly divided over one-handgun-per-month, but they support banning assault rifles and magazines over 10 rounds. Not surprisingly, there are large differences in the views of those who have a gun in the household and those who do not, except on checks at gun shows."

Methodology

Interviewing for The Roanoke College Poll was conducted by The Institute for Policy and Opinion Research at Roanoke College in Salem, Va. between January 12 and January 16, 2015. A total of 602 Virginia residents were interviewed. The sample included both landlines and cellphones and was created so that all cellphone and residential telephone numbers, including unlisted numbers, had a known chance of inclusion. Cellphones constituted 39 percent of the completed interviews.

Questions answered by the entire sample of 602 residents are subject to a sampling error of plus or minus approximately 4 percent at the 95 percent level of confidence. This means that in 95 out of 100 samples like the one used here, the results obtained should be no more than 4 percentage points above or below the figure that would be obtained by interviewing all Virginians who have a home telephone or a cellphone. Where the results of subgroups are reported, the sampling error is higher.

Quotas were used to ensure that different regions of the Commonwealth were proportionately represented. The data were statistically weighted for gender, race and age.

A copy of the topline and all frequencies may be found here.

[1] Some of the questions dealing with ethics reform and Medicaid expansion were virtually identical to those asked in 2014, although the political arguments have shifted in a year. Asking the same question facilitates comparison of the results over time.

For more about the Institute for Public Opinion Research, click here

CONTACT: Dr. Harry L. Wilson, Director
(540) 375-2415 (Office)
wilson@roanoke.edu