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

In a recent poll, 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.

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

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.“ 

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“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?

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“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.”