President Trump has evolved in his time in politics to be quite positive toward Russia and its president, and he expressed hope of a personal friendship with Vladimir Putin on the eve of his summit this week. “He’s not my enemy. And hopefully, someday, maybe he’ll be a friend. It could happen,” the president told reporters in Brussels.
But according to most surveys, the American public isn’t as positive toward Russia, and their views overall haven’t thawed much since Trump began his presidential run. Trump’s fellow Republicans though, have shifted to be more favorable toward Russia and its leader in the time before Trump’s presidential run.
In 2014, before Trump announced his candidacy, a Gallup poll found 26 percent of Americans and 22 percent of Republicans saying that Russia was either an “ally” or “friendly, but not an ally.” When they last asked earlier this month, the share of Americans overall who said the same increased by five points to 31 percent. But among Republicans it increased by a much larger 18 points to 40 percent who said that Russia was an ally or friendly. Still, nearly 6 in 10 Republicans call Russia “unfriendly” (38 percent) or “an enemy” (20 percent).
CBS News polls have tracked a more dramatic improvement in Republicans’ rating of Russia. In February 2015, their poll asked the same question found 38 percent of adults saying that Russia was an “ally” or “friendly, but not an ally,” along with 32 percent of Americans. CBS asked again earlier this week and found a five-point rise among adults overall and a far larger 27 point increase among Republicans to 59 percent saying Russia was either an ally or friendly.
Looking specifically at Putin, there’s evidence of positive movement on public opinion among Republicans from the Pew Research Center, which asked Americans how they felt about the Russian leader. In February 2015, before Trump announced his candidacy, 12 percent of Americans overall and 11 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents had favorable views of the Russian president. By January 2018, opinion of Putin ticked up four points to 16 percent favorable. But among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, Putin’s favorable rating grew 14 points to 25 percent favorable. Still, a 62 percent majority of Republican-leaning adults were unfavorable of Putin this year, as were 76 percent of those who lean toward the Democratic Party.
Two other polls have not shown as much of a shift in public opinion on Russia and Putin. Surveys by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs show an overall decrease in positive views of Russia, with no rise in positive views among Republicans. In 2014, Americans rated Russia with an average score of 36 on a 0-to-100 “feeling thermometer” scale. That ticked up to 40 in 2016 but fell to 31 by last summer, the lowest level in their polls since 1998. Among Republicans, ratings of Russia were quite similar in both 2014 (33) and 2017 (34). Looking beyond the last few years, the Chicago Council finds views of Russia are far down from levels seen in the 2000s and early 1990s, and similar to latter parts of the Cold War.
In December 2014, CNN polling found 10 percent of Americans and 11 percent of Republicans had favorable opinions of Putin. In January 2017, a CNN poll found 23 percent of Republicans favorable of Putin, suggesting at least a temporary increase in favorability, but it was back down to 14 percent in May 2018 and 14 percent in June. By last month, that inched up one point among the population overall to 11 percent and three points among Republicans to 14 percent. Both are quite low ratings, with 72 percent of the public overall with an unfavorable opinion along with 67 percent of Republicans.
The bipartisan skepticism toward Russia hasn’t led to bipartisan rejection of Trump’s handling of the summit with Putin this week. The CBS News poll from this week finds just under a third of Americans approved of how Trump handed the summit with Putin earlier this week while more than two-thirds of Republicans approved. The same poll found 46 percent of Americans who think Trump is too friendly to Russia — up from 35 percent who said this in Trump’s first months in office — though a much smaller 15 percent of Republicans hold this view. A majority of Republicans think Trump is “about right” toward Russia.
The CBS poll also found 15 points lower approval for Trump’s handling of the summit among Republicans (68 percent) than Democratic disapproval of him overall (83 percent), pointing to less agreement among Republicans than Democrats. This may be related to longstanding skepticism among Republicans about being friendly toward Russia.
In general though, the public’s broad skepticism toward Putin and Russia make Trump’s friendliness toward the country and Putin a risky move. And Americans’ opinions seem to react to that. But at the same time, Trump is also shifting the way Republicans feel about the country. Republicans’ positive shifts on Russia and Putin echo Trump’s increasingly warm feelings for the country and its leader and show that his party is keeping in step with the president.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.