Democrats lead the American public in condemning blackface, a new, national HuffPost/YouGov poll finds, putting the Democratic politicians who have admitted to wearing it perilously out of step with their party’s evolving attitude toward racist behavior.
Americans as a whole say, 56 percent to 23 percent, that it’s unacceptable for a white person to wear blackface makeup in order to appear as a black person for a costume. Democrats say it’s unacceptable by a wider 78 percent to 12 percent. Republicans, by contrast, are close to evenly divided, with 36 percent calling blackface acceptable, 38 percent calling it unacceptable, and the rest unsure.
Opinions are also divided starkly along racial lines. Black Americans say, 80 percent to 6 percent, that blackface is unacceptable, with 13 percent unsure; white Americans call blackface unacceptable by a smaller 50 percent to 27 percent margin, with 22 percent uncertain. Southern Democrats ― many of whom are black ― say by a 74-point margin that white people wearing blackface is unacceptable, while Democrats in the rest of the country say it’s unacceptable by a 62-point margin.
And there’s an even sharper divide along the lines of the last presidential election. Hillary Clinton voters say by a 72-point margin that blackface is unacceptable. Donald Trump voters say, by a 10-point margin, that it’s OK.
The poll was taken following the publication of a page from the medical school yearbook of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) that shows a person in blackface next to a person dressed as a member of the KKK. Northam initially apologized, indicating that he was pictured in the photo, then reversed course and denied he was in the picture. He later admitted he had worn blackface on a different occasion. Northam has so far ignored calls to resign. On Wednesday, after the survey was completed, the state’s Democratic attorney general, Mark Herring, also admitted that he had worn blackface in college.
A majority of those polled say they’ve heard at least something about the controversy surrounding Northam.
Democrats are substantially likelier than Republicans to say the blackface photo should disqualify Northam from serving as governor. A 42 percent plurality of Democrats nationally call the photo disqualifying, with 27 percent saying it was relevant but not disqualifying, and 14 percent that it isn’t relevant to his position as governor. By contrast, just 19 percent of Republicans called the photo disqualifying, with 26 percent saying it was relevant but not disqualifying, and 41 percent that it was irrelevant.
Notably, however, the survey question did not identify which party Northam belongs to, a factor which may have both dampened his support among Democrats and boosted it among Republicans. Just 7 percent of Democrats thought that Northam had the support of most or all Democratic politicians, with 56 percent saying he had at most some party support and 37 percent unsure. Republicans were modestly more likely to think Northam had Democratic backing, but many were also unsure.
Polling shows a significant, recent shift in attitudes in the Democratic Party about race and racist behavior. Between the years 2015 and 2018, the share of Democrats who said it was acceptable for whites to use the N-word dropped about 15 points. In the past decade, members of the party have also become increasingly likely to agree that “black people have gotten less than they deserve,” and to cite racial discrimination as “the main reason why many black people can’t get ahead these days.”
It seems entirely possible that views on blackface have undergone a similar change, although there’s not much data available to corroborate the idea. A 2015 YouGov poll found relatively higher tolerance for blackface across partisan lines, but the question asked specifically about Halloween costumes.
Whether these shifts will lead to tangible political consequences in Virginia still remains to be seen. Initial Morning Consult tracking numbers found Northam’s approval numbers in the state dropping significantly in the immediate aftermath of the scandal, but still gave him net positive ratings among Democratic voters.
The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted Feb. 4-5 among U.S. adults, using a sample selected from YouGov’s opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population.
Most surveys report a margin of error that represents some but not all potential survey errors. YouGov’s reports include a model-based margin of error, which rests on a specific set of statistical assumptions about the selected sample rather than the standard methodology for random probability sampling. If these assumptions are wrong, the model-based margin of error may also be inaccurate. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the model-based margin of error.