RPV Research: How Ralph Northam Tried to Rev Up the Liberal Base for Political Points, Only to Find Himself On Wrong Side of Virginia Voters

On August 17th, Lt. Governor Ralph Northam surprised many Virginia political observers when he went on Roanoke radio station WFIR and said he now believed Virginia’s Civil War statues, both those at the local level and those controlled by the state, should come down immediately.

He told the station: 

“I will do everything that I can, that I have authority to do, to to remove the statues at the state level and I also will be a vocal advocate for their removal elsewhere.”   (WFIR August 17, 2017)

This position from Northam stands in stark contrast to Ed Gillespie’s consistent position, which is that he believes decisions regarding city and county statues should be made by the localities, but he believes those statutes should stay up, with context. Local tax dollars should be used not for removing monuments, but for schools, roads, teacher and law enforcement salaries and the core functions of government.

And that when it comes to state statues, which a governor has significant authority over, they will stay up in a Gillespie Administration. Gillespie has also called for the erection of new monuments to other Virginians including former Governor Doug Wilder and Booker T. Washington. As Gillespie has said, “our history is our history.”

Longtime Virginia political columnist Jeff Schapiro at The Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote about the Lieutenant Governor’s dramatic move, noting:

“Northam declared – unbidden – that if it were up to him, he would take all of them down…Northam is playing to the Democratic base, further revving up the party’s most enthusiastic voters. But is he going too far with an issue that is more symbolic than substantive?” (Richmond Times-Dispatch, August 19, 2017)

It now turns out, after extensive public polling on the issue, that yes, the Lieutenant Governor did go “too far.” And the headline of Jeff Schapiro’s column looks eerily prescient: “Northam’s new stance on statues a monumental blunder?”

Here’s what public polling has revealed in the six weeks since the Lieutenant Governor introduced his promise to take down Virginia’s Civil War statues into the 2017 gubernatorial campaign:

Roanoke College – September 2017
20. As you know, there has been a great deal of discussion recently about Confederate statues and monuments. Some people see them as historical objects, while others see them as racist symbols. Which is closer to your view?

Historical objects 62% 

Racist symbols 28%
Both [VOL] 6%
Unsure 2%
Refused 3%

21. Do you think statues honoring leaders of the Confederacy such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson should remain as a historical symbol or be removed because they are offensive to some people?

Remain 66%
Remove 28%
Unsure 5%
Refused 2%

22. And should we remove the statues at many courthouses in Virginia that commemorate the soldiers who died in the Civil War or allow them to remain?

Remain 76% 

Remove 14%
Unsure 7%
Refused 3%

Christopher Newport – September 2017

Recently there has been a lot of debate and controversy surrounding Confederate statues and monuments in Virginia. Do you support or oppose removing confederate statues and monuments from public spaces around Virginia?


Oppose: 54
Support: 36%
Among independents:
Oppose: 47%
Support 36%

55% of voters oppose removing Richmond’s statues
35% support
Independents oppose removal 65%-25%
61% of voters support keeping up monuments and adding context (Ed Gillespie’s exact position)

And Democrats, DEMOCRATS, were split 46%-45% on keeping the statues up but adding context

And just yesterday, The Washington Post, in a poll that had a sample of Democratic + 10 (a partisan turnout that has never occurred in a modern Virginia election) found that, even with a heavily Democratic sample, support for keeping up Virginia’s statues is strong throughout the Commonwealth.

Washington Post – October 2017
 In Virginia, do you think monuments to leaders of the Confederacy in the Civil War should be (removed from) government property or (kept on) government property? Do you feel that way STRONGLY, or SOMEWHAT?

All Voters:
57%- Kept
31%- Removed

Likely Voters
53%- Kept (42% STRONGLY)
36%- Removed (ONLY 23% STRONGLY)

Northern Va Exurbs:
55%- Kept
35%- Removed

Richmond Area:
57%- Kept
29%- Removed

Hampton Roads
55%- Kept
33%- Removed

Even in the inner DC Suburbs
46%- Kept
41%- Removed

Statewide: Even 34% of Democrats want them kept up

58%- Kept
30%- Removed

In August many Democrats worried that Ralph Northam had gone too far in making such a radical promise. The Washington Post reported:

“At least some Democratic officials expressed concern that both Northam and McAuliffe were too quick to stake out hard-line positions in the wake of Charlottesville.”

The governor has since backed away from his position, as noted in the same article. Appearing on “Ask the Governor” on WRVA on August 31st he reverted back to his prior position of keeping statues up, but adding context:

“Listen, if I’m the mayor of Richmond or I’m on the City Council, I’m faced with a tough decision,” he said on WRVA radio’s “Ask the Governor” program. “Do I spend – I don’t know, $5 [million] or $10 million – taking something down when I got schools – I’ll tell you my first priority has got to be schools, because I got to get people employed.”

He also indicated he would be satisfied with adding “context” to statues, such as plaques, as Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney proposed in July for Confederate statues that line the city’s Monument Avenue.

“Let’s go ahead and put some context to these things and move forward,” McAuliffe said.

Leading The Washington Post’s Robert McCartney to note: “Northam’s staked out a tough position on this, in favor of removing them. Now McAuliffe’s sawing off the tree limb that he’s sitting on.” (WAMU, 9/1/17)

Wrapping it All Up

When Ralph Northam proclaimed his support in August for taking down all of Virginia’s Civil War statues, and vowed to do all he can as governor to make that happen, he made them an issue in the general election.  But public polling has made clear that the vast majority of Virginia voters agree with Ed Gillespie’s position on the issue.