A couple things: First, this is just one poll. And in fact, a study from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs released before Christmas showed Republicans' views of Russia hadn't really changed much. While they gave it a rating of 38 out of 100 this summer (with 100 being good and zero being bad) and a 33 in 2014, today the number is 35.
The question in this case is about Russia and not Putin specifically, but the poll was actually conducted after YouGov's survey, so it's worth asking whether this is a legitimate trend or just a blip. Do Republicans really suddenly like Putin more but still view his country as dimly as they did before? It's certainly possible.
But second — and most importantly — even if Republicans do like Putin better than Obama, that wouldn't really be all that surprising. That nature of partisan politics these days means the other party's politicians are almost always massively unpopular with their opponents, and even a contentious foreign figure who has very limited support in the United States, like Putin, can be judged more favorably.
In fact, you only need to go back a little more than three years to find a time in which none other than Putin had a slightly better image rating among Democrats than Republican former president George W. Bush.
In September 2013, Putin was viewed favorably by 21 percent of Democrats and unfavorably by 52 percent — about 2.5-to-1 negative, according to Gallup. Just a few months prior, Gallup numbers showed George W. Bush at 3-to-1 negative — 24 percent favorable and 72 percent unfavorable — among Democrats.
The caveat here is that this was before Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in early 2014, sending his numbers even lower in the United States. But even back then, he was clearly a very negative figure in the United States, already having stood accused of being involved in killing journalists and assassinating political opponents. And this was after Bush's own number improved five years into his post-presidency. Bush's approval rating was long in the single digits among Democrats.
As it was in 2008, which brings us to another example: Back then, at the basement of Bush's unpopularity as president, Gallup polling showed Democrats viewed him on about equal terms as Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. While Democrats split 7 percent favorable and 80 percent unfavorable on Castro, they split 6-91 on Bush.
Similarly, Gallup polling in 2007 showed 13 percent of Democrats had a favorable opinion of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, versus 50 percent unfavorable — better than Bush's numbers. A few months prior, he had called Bush “the devil” at the United Nations. Whether because of that or for other reasons, Democrats seemed to like Chavez better.
In these cases, of course, it's relatively close between the foreign leader and Bush. But it's worth emphasizing here that our country has become so polarized that such things are possible. When the other party's president has an approval rating in the single digits with one side, it doesn't take much to surpass them. In fact, a similar number of Democratic voters liked Putin (13 percent) as liked Trump (11 percent) back in YouGov's July-August survey.
At the time, Putin was already at 26 percent favorable with Trump voters, and that is a bigger and increasing gap than these other comparisons — no question. But if anything, that's notable not because Putin is more popular, but just how much he's in better shape. If 35 percent of Trump voters really do suddenly like Putin, that's pretty striking — given Putin was hugely unpopular with Republicans before Trump's campaign. Clearly, Republicans — including GOP lawmakers — have warmed to the Russian leader.
But the fact that more Republicans like an adversarial foreign leader than Obama, in context, really isn't all that shocking. And it's liable to happen again in the years to come.
Scott Clement contributed to this post.