In a 2014 Quinnipiac survey, when given the choice between who is a stronger leader, 42 percent of those polled picked Obama and 42 percent picked Putin. And when asked individually whether each man had "strong leadership qualities," more agreed with that statement about Putin (57 percent) than Obama (49 percent).
These responses, as you might imagine, were split along partisan lines. (h/t Philip Bump for the chart)
A 2015 Fox News poll about Syria spoke to this as well. Asked whether Putin or Obama had the upper hand in Syria, 53 percent chose Putin and 22 percent chose Obama.
The same poll showed just 32 percent of Americans said Obama was a "strong and decisive leader" on foreign policy, while 52 percent said he was "weak and indecisive." By contrast, 46 percent thought Russia's actions in Syria showed strength, while 29 percent thought they showed weakness.
The point here is that there is a big difference between agreeing with someone and thinking they are strong. Trump and his campaign haven't done a great job of parsing that point, but it's a key distinction — and it's one that the vast majority of Americans, by the way, have already drawn for themselves.
The best example of this might be a March 2014 YouGov/Economist survey. Here's Real Clear Politics's summation:
While Vladimir Putin is wildly unpopular in the United States, most Americans see him as a stronger leader than President Obama, according to a YouGov/Economist survey.Only 12 percent of poll respondents have a very favorable or somewhat favorable opinion of Putin, and nearly 70 percent see him somewhat unfavorably or very unfavorably. Yet, 78 percent consider him as either somewhat strong or very strong.
Trump's comments are curious both because Putin is so unpopular and because they so obviously give many members of Trump's own party heartburn. They are simply the latest in a long line of examples of Trump saying things that are surprisingly nice about a country and a leader who Americans really don't like. And Republicans worry — for good reason — that they legitimize Putin as a world leader.
But for a guy who says so many controversial and divisive things that likely cost him votes, saying Putin is a strong leader is hardly his worst political fumble.