Vladimir Putin’s Popularity Is it Real?

With Western politicians and media vilifying Vladimir Putin and just about everything that he does and with Mr. Putin preparing to run in the October 2016 Russian election, a quick look at a paper by Timothy Frye et al entitled “Is Putin’s Popularity Real” answers the question that many Westerners have about Putin’s real popularity among Russians.

First, let’s look at long-term data from the Levada Analytical Center showing how Mr. Putin’s approval rating has changed since he first took office in 1999:

Here is a table showing how Mr. Putin’s approval rating has changed over the last six months:

Just to get a sense of the bigger political picture in Russia, here is a graphic showing the approval rating for the Russian government as a whole:

To compare, here is the approval rating of the presidents that served during Vladimir Putin’s terms as either President or Prime Minister of Russia starting with the full history of George W. Bush’s approval rating:

Here is the full history of Barack Obama’s approval rating:

Lastly, here is the full history of Donald Trump’s approval rating:

As you can see, Vladimir Putin’s approval rating is far higher than those of the three most recent U.S. presidents except for a very short period in late 2001 and early 2002 when Americans wholeheartedly backed George W. Bush and the launching of the War on Terror.  

Many Western experts (and non-experts alike) feel that Mr. Putin’s extremely high levels of popularity are not reflective of reality for the following reasons:

1.) the high ratings are made up by Russian polling agencies that are pressured by the Kremlin to convey a certain image of Mr. Putin.

2.) public opinion about Mr. Putin is manipulated by the Kremlin with state-controlled media outlets restricting the ability of Russians to hear alternative viewpoints.

3.) survey respondents do not provide their true opinions about Mr. Putin when answering survey questionnaires out of fear or because they want to conform to the social norm of supporting Putin.

Now, let’s look at the analysis by Timothy Frye et al which looks at the validity of Vladimir Putin’s overwhelming popularity among Russians, particularly given that Western society still harbours a sense that Russia and Russians are not truly free to express a negative opinion about their government and its leadership because they live in a repressive regime.  To determine the extent to which survey respondents revealed their true feelings about President Putin, the authors of the paper connected two surveys in Russia in early 2015 as follows:

1.) use of direct questioning

2.) use of an item-count technique also known as a “list experiment” which allows respondents the opportunity to give their real opinion on a sensitive subject without taking a position that they feel may offend the survey taker.

The surveys were taken in both January 2015 and March 2015 and involved approximately 1600 respondents with the surveys taking place in the homes of the respondents.

To gauge direct support of Mr. Putin, the following question was asked:

In general, do you support or not support the activities of Vladimir Putin?

To eliminate the concern that respondents might misrepresent their support for Mr. Putin when asked directly, the authors then used a list experiment which gave the respondents the opportunity to represent their support for Mr. Putin without directly taking a position.  Each respondent was supplied with a list of items and was asked how many of them they supported.  Since, in this case, the authors were trying to determine how many Russians did not support Vladimir Putin, the respondents were offered one of two lists; one contained the names of the three historical Soviet/Russian leaders and the other contained the same list plus the name of Vladimir Putin which was termed the Historical Experiment.  Here is how the question was worded:

Take a look at this list of politicians and tell me for how many you generally support their activities:

1.) Joseph Stalin

2.) Leonid Brezhnev

3.) Boris Yeltsin

(4.) Vladimir Putin)

In another version termed the Contemporary Experiment, Vladimir Putin’s name was either placed or omitted from a list of present day Russian political figures in the same fashion as the preceding question:

Take a look at this list of politicians and tell me for how many you generally support their activities:

1.) Vladimir Zhirinovsky

2.) Gennady Zyuganov

3.) Sergei Mironov

(4.) Vladimir Putin)

Here is a summary of the results from the polls in January 2015 and March 2015:

January 2015

Direct Question – 86 percent support

Historical Experiment – 79 percent support

Contemporary Experiment – 81 percent support

March 2015

Direct Question – 88 percent support

Historical Experiment – 79 percent support

Contemporary Experiment – 80 percent support

The authors estimate that approximately 6 percent to 9 percent of respondents hid their opposition to President Putin when asked directly whether they supported his activities.  

In all cases and looking back at Mr. Putin’s approval ratings of between 85 and 86 percent in early 2015 as presented by Levada, we can see that his popularity among Russians is, contrary to what we are being led to believe, real and that his popularity among Russian voters is the envy of Western political figures.

Let’s close with this quote from the authors of the research:

Nonetheless, a primary implication of our findings is that previous research that explores these—and other—determinants of approval for President Putin using conventional survey questions is not plagued by substantial bias in measures of support for the ruler.  More broadly, our results suggest that the main obstacle at present to the emergence of a widespread opposition movement to Putin is not that Russians are afraid to voice their disapproval of Putin, but that Putin is in fact quite popular.” (my bold)

It certainly appears that U.S.-led sanctions imposed on Russia after the situation in Ukraine devolved into near chaos in 2014 have accomplished one thing – they have driven Russians to admire their leader even more than they did before the West attempted to punish Russia for its “interference” in another nation’s affairs, something one could never, ever accuse the United States of doing.

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