Virginians Split On Gov. Northam Resignation, Poll Says

Feb 10, 2019
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to start the program again in Virginia, where Governor Ralph Northam continues to reject calls to resign after racist photos were discovered on his medical school yearbook page. This morning, in an interview that aired on CBS's "Face The Nation," he said he isn't going anywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")

RALPH NORTHAM: Right now, Virginia needs someone that can heal. There's no better person to do that than a doctor. Virginia also needs someone who is strong, who has empathy, who has courage and who has a moral compass. And that's why I'm not going anywhere. I have learned from this. I have a lot more to learn.

MARTIN: As you probably know by now, the Democratic leadership of his state is in crisis over admissions that Governor Northam and Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring had worn blackface in the past. Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax is also being pressured to resign over allegations by two different women that he sexually assaulted them. He denies that. Many state and national political leaders have been pressing Northam to step aside.

But now, there's new information about what Virginia voters think from a new poll conducted by The Washington Post and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. It finds that Virginians are split, but in ways that might be surprising. I'm joined now by Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School. He's with us now.

Dean, thanks so much for joining us.

MARK ROZELL: Thank you.

MARTIN: Now, you found that voters are essentially deadlocked, with 47 percent wanting Governor Northam to step aside and 47 percent wanting him to stay. But the breakdowns are very interesting. So who wants him to stay and who wants him to go?

ROZELL: The breakdowns indeed are very interesting because we are seeing that Republicans want the Democratic governor to step down not by a huge majority - 56 to 42 percent. But Democrats want him to stay. And independents are split, just like the general public overall. But I think a more important breakdown is on race. African-Americans by a fairly sizable majority say that the governor should not step down - 57 percent saying that.

MARTIN: Well, what do you make of that?

ROZELL: It's complicated. But I think a lot of people may believe that this was, as the polls suggested, an isolated incident in Ralph Northam's past over 30 years ago. So one of the questions on the poll was whether people believe what he did was an isolated incident or an indication of a broader racial prejudice on his part. And a majority of people said it's an isolated incident.

Another interesting finding that I think is very important is whether people are willing to accept the governor's apology. But again, what's really interesting is the racial divide. Blacks are much more willing than whites in Virginia to say that they accept the governor's apology.

MARTIN: Well, to your point, I mean, shortly after the photo became public, national figures quickly put out statements saying things like Governor Northam has lost all moral authority and should resign immediately. That was from the former vice president, Joe Biden. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who is running for president, of course, said the photo eroded all confidence in Governor Northam's ability to lead. But what you're telling us is that Virginia voters, particularly African-American voters and Democratic voters in Virginia, don't accept that.

ROZELL: That's exactly right. And I think one of the most interesting if not the most interesting finding in this poll is that there is a huge chasm between the Democratic Party elites and their rank-and-file party identifiers in the public. And we cannot know for sure, of course, in every case whether this was a sincere conviction or if it was based on some judgment that it was politically necessary to jump on this bandwagon and demand that the governor step down. But whatever the case, that is not the sentiment among Democratic Party voters.

MARTIN: I do want to ask you about Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax. As we know, he has been accused of sexual assault by two different women. Was there data on what people - what did people say about that - whether he should stay or he should go?

ROZELL: So here, the difficulty is that the poll was being completed right before the second accusation came out. So we did have the polling data that reflected the first accusation against Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax. And most people in the survey said at that point, they were willing to withhold judgment on the particular issue, on the accusation. So it was not a very strong endorsement for him. But again, that's sort of the midway point of these two accusations. The public largely was saying they wanted to take a wait and see attitude and - you know, before they made any particular judgment one way or the other.

MARTIN: So finally, though, digging back into kind of the history here, you also ask people if they had worn blackface or knew someone who had.

ROZELL: Yeah.

MARTIN: Tell us what you found. And what do you make of the answer?

ROZELL: Right. Eleven percent of Virginians said that either they themselves had done so or they knew someone who has done so in the past. Now, in my network, that's surprising. I don't know anybody who's done that. But I've heard other people say maybe 11 percent is even too less. You know, that - they think that many more people at least know somebody else. But this is always a problem with surveys, and we all know this, right? That when you have an uncomfortable question like that - have you ever worn blackface or know somebody who has done so? - I am sure that there are a good many people who are just not willing to admit to that to a pollster. And we can all understand why.

MARTIN: That's Mark Rozell. He's dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

Dean Rozell, thank you so much for talking to us.

ROZELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.