The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans view Putin more favorably than they do leading Democrats

President Biden meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva on June 16, 2021. (Denis Balibouse/AFP/Getty Images)
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Russian President Vladimir Putin operates within a well-established political framework. He is an autocrat with near-unilateral control over his country. Russia has elections, but no one is under the impression that the results will be allowed to pose a threat to Putin’s power. Personal freedoms are constrained significantly; opponents of Putin’s regime have a habit of succumbing to sudden illness and accidents.

Yet American Republicans view him slightly more positively than they do leading Democratic officials. Between Putin and President Biden, it’s a toss-up that leans in Putin’s favor.

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Polling from YouGov conducted for the Economist in January provides an apples-to-apples comparison between Putin and various American leaders. Overall, Putin is much less positively viewed than Biden, Vice President Harris or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D- Calif.), for example. Those officials and the parties are all viewed with some favorability by about a third of the public, as is former president Donald Trump. Only Barack Obama stands out from the crowd here, with a third of Americans viewing him very favorably.

I added a dashed line there to indicate where Putin’s approval stands with the group.

That’s a more useful indicator when we look at the views held by Republicans. With Republicans, Putin is viewed far less positively than is Trump — but more positively than sitting Democratic leaders. Interestingly, only Obama matches Putin’s favorability among Republicans, certainly in part a function of his being out of office.

When we see poll results like this, the appropriate question is whether the difference between Biden and Putin is significant. In other words, the difference between the two presidents might simply be an artifact of the margins of uncertainty built into the poll. But it’s very clear that Republicans aren’t significantly more likely to approve of Biden. It’s just a question of whether they’re significantly more likely to approve of Putin.

One area in which there’s no statistical question: Republicans are far less likely to say they view Putin very unfavorably than they are to say the same of Biden or other leading Democrats.

Among Democrats, incidentally, approval of Putin, Trump and the Republican Party are essentially indistinguishable. About two-thirds of Democrats view Putin very unfavorably, about the same as they view the Republican Party. Four in five view Trump very unfavorably.

In the same poll, YouGov asked respondents whether they thought that Putin and Biden were strong leaders. Overall, Americans were twice as likely to say that Putin was a very or somewhat strong leader as they were to say the same of Biden. Among Democrats, both Putin and Biden were seen equivalently. Republicans were 10 times as likely to describe Putin as strong as they were Biden.

This appreciation of Putin’s strong-arm leadership certainly helps moderate Republican views of him. Trump’s own description of Putin as “savvy” and as purportedly being emboldened by Biden’s weakness is rooted in his long-demonstrated appreciation of Putin’s perceived strength.

It’s the sort of strength that probably seems more appealing from afar.