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How a surge in Putin’s approval rating among GOP voters explains political polarization

Sputnik/Michael Klimentyev/Kremlin
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a 37 percent approval rating among Republicans.

Of the many post-election polls that show a change and division in the American voter, one of strangest findings was in a Economist-YouGov poll taken in mid-December that shows a surge of Republican approval of Vladimir Putin and WikiLeaks.

In the survey of 1,465 voters, Putin is still viewed negatively by most Republicans. But he also holds a 37 percent approval rating — a sharp increase from a similar poll taken two years ago. And Putin is viewed more favorably than any Democratic leader included in the survey.

The poll also shows that Republicans have shifted their views on WikiLeaks after the posting of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign. They give the organization of net favorability rating of 27 percent, a 20-point upswing since 2013 when WikiLeaks began leaking classified NSA documents.

What’s going on here, I asked Carleton College political science expert Steven Schier, who emailed me the survey with a one-word heading: “wow.“ 

“I think it shows how severe the polarization is in our country,” he said. “People are now willing to change their opinions based on ideology and turn on dime. And it makes you wonder how closely tethered to the facts people are now.” 

Information, particularly about politics, has always reflected a tinge, even a bias. But are voters more gullible now to manipulation of truth?

“People are their own editors now and when you are your own editor you can put yourself in a bubble and keep that bubble very secure,” Schier says. “And there’s very little the political system can do when people can seal themselves off from inconvenient facts.”

But how is it that GOP voters are swaying toward Vladimir Putin, the incarnation of enemy number one to Republicans of yore?  

“This is the Trump effect,” Schier replied, referring to Trump’s frequent praise of Putin during the campaign. “Essentially, as Republicans coalesce around Trump, they take their cues from him. And since the Trump strategy is to pour gasoline on any fire he encounters, it helps lead to an ‘us versus them.’” 

A couple of years ago, it was WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange in the “us versus them” battle.  Why do Republicans, who once decried the information pirate as a threat the American security, think that now he qualifies as an OK guy? 

“The factual nature of the WikiLeaks disclosures has not been widely disputed,” he said. “A lot of this is true. And it hurt the bad guys. It’s kind of a ruthless pragmatism on the part of Republicans.”

Democrats, Schier maintains, would shift shapes similarly if their candidate had won the election. “Democrats who were incensed at Trump saying he would not accept the results are now not accepting the results of the election. There’s hypocrisy on both sides.”

So, black’s white today and day’s night today, just like in the Cole Porter song?

“I think we’re in a particularly contentious moment because of the nature of the Trump victory,” Schier said. “At moments like this, it brings out the worst in many citizens as this poll illustrates. But there’s no reason to assume that this is the way for the next four years.”

That’s because, inherently, government and governing is very boring, right? 

“Well, I don’t think a Trump government will be boring,” Schier said.  “I just can’t see it becoming more contentious.”

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/21/2016 - 11:02 am.

    Limited view

    “Well, I don’t think a Trump government will be boring,” Schier said. “I just can’t see it becoming more contentious.”

    I do agree that a Trump government seems unlikely to be boring. That said, and while there’s no way to tell in advance, of course, it’s pretty easy to see a Trump presidency becoming a LOT more contentious, depending upon whether aides are able to keep Mr. Trump away from Twitter, whether his conflicts of interest become so blatant that they can’t be ignored, whether his children continue to fairly brazenly sell access to the emperor… excuse me… the President, whether the people he’s appointed to his cabinet carry out the destruction of much of the federal government implied by their selection, and so on and so forth. There’s plenty of potential in the next 4 years for greatly increased contentiousness. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

  2. Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 12/21/2016 - 11:12 am.

    Reagan is spinning…

    So strange to me. Does this mean that the Democrats are the party of Reagan now?

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 12/23/2016 - 10:27 am.


      Have had similar thoughts: Meaning that the country has swung so far right wing that the Democrats are now where Regan was and that still isn’t far enough right wing! Yes, I believe we are now firmly planted in Fascist land.

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 12/21/2016 - 11:56 am.

    Let’s not permit Schier to create a false meme about the Clinton camp not accepting the results of the election. Hillary Clinton has not said or done anything to challenge the loss.

    But–and its very different!–lots of us have been pointing out that Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote.

    Pointing that out is important, because it’s the second time in the 21st century that a Democrat has won the popular ballot yet been denied the presidency because of the Electoral College system that privileges rural America. That’s problematic, and should not be permitted to happen again.

    Why? Because most Americans are not Trumpites, or anything remotely like the destroyers and big-money white elitists (or inepts, like Carson) who Trump is picking for his administration.

    We’re all going to live four years under the Confucian curse: “May you live in interesting times.”

  4. Submitted by Bill Willy on 12/21/2016 - 12:19 pm.

    “Bring it back! Bring it back!”

    While somewhere around 100% of that 37% (of the 49% who bought into the Scam of the Century So Far) are probably steamed as can be at the people staging “Hamilton” on Broadway (because they dared voice their concerns to VP-elect Pence when he went to see the play), its popularity among them will most likely skyrocket once someone (from Breitbart News?) reminds them of this legislative gem:

    “On this day [July, 14th] in 1798, one of the most egregious breaches of the U.S. Constitution in history becomes federal law when Congress passes the Sedition Act, endangering liberty in the fragile new nation. While the United States engaged in naval hostilities with Revolutionary France, known as the Quasi-War, Alexander Hamilton and congressional Federalists took advantage of the public’s wartime fears and drafted and passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, without first consulting President John Adams.

    “The first three acts took aim at the rights of immigrants. The period of residency required before immigrants could apply for citizenship was extended from five to 14 years, and the president gained the power to detain and deport those he deemed enemies. President Adams never took advantage of his newfound ability to deny rights to immigrants. However, the fourth act, the Sedition Act, was put into practice and became a black mark on the nation’s reputation. In direct violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech, the Sedition Act permitted the prosecution of individuals who voiced or printed what the government deemed to be malicious remarks about the president or government of the United States. Fourteen Republicans, mainly journalists, were prosecuted, and some imprisoned, under the act …”

  5. Submitted by David Markle on 12/21/2016 - 03:21 pm.


    If it’s true that “People are now willing to change their opinions based on ideology and turn on dime,” what and whose ideology?

    Putin is now the leading nationist neo-fascist leader on today’s world state. Will that soon be Trump?


  6. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 12/21/2016 - 03:27 pm.

    I can solve this problem…

    Beware all you Obama hatin, Putin lovin right wingers out there: You better hope President Trump does not look to his friend Vlad for advice on gun control because he makes Hillary Clinton look like Ted Nugent:

    “Only Russian citizens who are over eighteen years of age can own civilian firearms. Guns may be acquired for self-defense, hunting or sports activities only. Russian citizens can buy smooth-bore long-barreled firearms and pneumatic weapons with a muzzle energy of up to 25 joules. Rifles allowed after five years of ownership of a shotgun. Handguns generally are not allowed. Short barrel rifles and shotguns (less than 800 mm) are prohibited as well as suppressors. An individual cannot possess more than ten guns (up to five shotguns and up to five rifles) unless part of a registered gun collection, guns that shoot in bursts and have more than a ten-cartridge capacity are prohibited.
    Carrying permits are issued for hunting firearms licensed for hunting purposes. People who acquire firearms for the first time are required to attend six and a half hours of classes on handling guns safely and must pass federal tests on safety rules and a background check.[67] Gun licenses are for five years and can be renewed.”

    Of course, these regulations must be okie dokie with the Russian population because you sure do not hear a lot of protesting. Oh, I forgot, the laws preventing that protest make their gun control laws look like the old west.

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 12/21/2016 - 08:01 pm.

      Good point

      And then there’s this . . . It was on the Brietbart News web site (of all places) last July. While the “religious freedom” folks probably love the way he treats LGBT people, those among that 37% who approve of Putin must have missed it.

      “Putin Signs Measure Revoking Religious Freedom: ‘Most Restrictive in Post-Soviet History’

      “Russian President Vladimir Putin signed legislation this week that severely restricts freedom of religion by prohibiting any religious speech or evangelization outside of places of worship.

      “As a result of the legislation, faith sharing in homes, in the media, online, or any place other than a government recognized church is prohibited.

      ” ‘Today is indeed a black day on the calendar,’ lawyer Vladimir Ryakhovsky of the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice posted on his Facebook page. ‘Hope was that Vladimir Putin would not in the end sign this law. A law which openly contradicts the gospel command “go and make disciples” and, in addition, violates the constitutional rights of citizens.’

      “Financial penalties for violating the law are reportedly up to 50,000 roubles [$800] for individuals and up to one million roubles [$16,000] for organizations.”

      • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 12/22/2016 - 03:09 pm.


        Make Putin a Democrat with no change to his views on guns, god and civil liberties and he would be more reviled than the theoretical off spring of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders: ZERO % GOP approval rating.

        Now take off the big D label, put a hammer and sickle on his back and our conservative friends have him at 37% approval.


        Now, every thinking political figure knows this is screwed up; but, the courage free leadership of every GOP leader not named Donald Trump prevents them from telling their masses:

        “Buck up folks, the true differences between Ds and Rs is not that great and our mutual aspirations for the country are not that dissimilar, especially when compared to someone like Putin who is our adversary and not one to be admired and in reality one to be reviled for his behavior in our last election, regardless if you are pleased or not with the results”

        But, why act like a citizen when you have a political party to defend?

  7. Submitted by David LaPorte on 12/21/2016 - 07:02 pm.

    Party over Country

    I think that calling this the “Trump Effect” is too simplistic. I don’t believe that many Republican’s new-found admiration for Putin and WikiLeaks is just because Trump praised them, although I think that that helped.

    The country has become very polarized and I think that most of the responsibility for that belongs to Trump. I’ve never seen as bitter and angry a campaign as the one that he ran. When Politifact ranked 20 recent presidential candidates for honesty, Obama was the most honest, followed by Clinton in 2nd place. Trump was at the bottom. The New York Times had a similar rating.

    It’s my opinion that many Republicans and Trump are favorably disposed towards Putin and WikiLeaks because they savaged Clinton. This helped Trump, and they’re grateful. It’s difficult to be grateful and despise Putin and WikiLeaks at the same time. This creates cognitive dissonance, which people avoid at all costs. Based on past statements by Donald Jr., Trump appears to also have a lot of investments in Russia, which would also be a factor. We’d know if he’d released his tax returns.

    I agree with Constance Sullivan that Clinton is not refusing to accept the results of the election. I think that this is Steven Schier’s misguided attempt to be “fair”. Both sides DON’T do it. Clinton is upset and feels that she was treated unfairly, but I think that she’s entirely correct.

    I also don’t believe that most Democrats would be embracing Putin and WikiLeaks if they’d gone after Trump to benefit Clinton. It is an attack on our sovereignty for a foreign power to interfere with our elections. I believe that most Democrats would be as outraged as McCain, Graham and other Republicans are. While Putin benefited their party, these Republican leaders are patriots and value country over party.

  8. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/21/2016 - 09:23 pm.

    I wonder how Wikileaks’ approval rating has changed among Democrats…

  9. Submitted by KiraSeer Binkley on 12/26/2016 - 12:37 pm.

    Tethered to the Facts?

    How typical of Leftist leaning publications to try to use vague and personal disinformation to blame others for phenomenon they just can’t understand. Now it is “the Trump effect” and Republicans “not tethered to the facts.” Wake up, Democrats. Conservatives are on a roll!

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