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Why are Republicans using Putin’s talking points? This study helps explain.

Increasingly, Republican voters think Vladimir Putin is a good leader. But Russians don’t feel the same way about President Trump.

- February 3, 2020

During the impeachment hearings and trial of President Trump, former National Security Council official Fiona Hill and others accused Republican congressional leaders of adopting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s talking points.

Why do so many in the GOP seem so unconcerned? Why have they concluded that the costs of associating with the Kremlin are worth it, given the political benefits of pushing Putin’s widely discredited, self-serving story that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 presidential election to help the Democrats?

Part of the answer may be that Putin enjoys a better reputation in the United States than often realized — disproportionately among Republicans.

Trump has successfully converted many in his party’s rank and file to his views on issues from free trade to the abandonment of bedrock ideological principles. Pew and YouGov’s research suggests this also includes their views on Russia and Putin.

Our study found that a significant minority of Republicans now agree with Putin on world affairs, and a sizable majority appear to admire him — but that Putin’s supporters in Russia don’t admire Trump in return.

Yes, Putin cares about Trump’s impeachment — but not for the reasons you might imagine.

How we did our research

Previous polls have focused on whether Americans have generally favorable attitudes toward Putin or Russia. As part of the 2019 Russian-American Relations Survey (RARS 2019), we wanted to consider whether Americans actually support Putin’s ideas or admire his leadership. We also wanted to know whether Russians “return the favor,” viewing Trump much as Americans view Putin.

To find out, from July 22-25 we asked representative samples of the U.S. and Russian populations, with 1,600 people in each, the following questions through the pollsters YouGov in the United States and VCIOM in Russia:

  • {‘type’: ‘text’, ‘content’: ‘“Do you usually fully support, tend to support, tend to oppose, or fully oppose the statements that Vladimir Putin [Donald Trump] makes when he speaks out on world affairs?”’, ‘_id’: ‘PDGX4LB7TZE6PE442NJLQW2JUI’, ‘additional_properties’: {‘comments’: [], ‘inline_comments’: []}, ‘block_properties’: {}}
  • {‘type’: ‘text’, ‘content’: ‘“What do you think? Do you think that Putin [Trump] overall tends to be a very good leader for his country, a moderately good leader, a moderately bad leader, or a very bad leader for his country?”’, ‘_id’: ‘NQCJROVX7RCQRIXJ3VIGXBAP5U’, ‘additional_properties’: {‘comments’: [], ‘inline_comments’: []}, ‘block_properties’: {}}

We also wanted to find out whether voters would punish Republicans for de-emphasizing Russian election interference. We thus randomly divided our respondents into two groups. Just before asking everyone to tell us how they would vote for both Congress and president if elections were held at that moment, we reminded one of the two groups that the next Congress and president will have to deal with “calls to defend the country against Russian cyber-attacks on our democracy.” If the issue of Russian election interference were hurting Republican election prospects, we’d expect to see fewer people saying they would vote for the GOP and Trump in the group receiving this reminder.

How do primary voters pick candidates? Here’s what we know from Iowa.

How much do Republicans support Putin?

Overall, with a margin of error under three percentage points, we found that 22 percent of Americans generally agreed with Putin on world affairs more than they disagreed, and 41 percent thought he was at least a pretty good leader for Russia. Those are high numbers for a foreign leader whom mainstream media outlets widely characterize as an enemy or a rival.

Putin’s approval is even higher within the GOP. A full third of Republicans (33 percent) express broad agreement with the Russian leader on international relations, and 60 percent think he is overall a good leader for Russia. The latter figure reaches a rather stunning 68 percent in red states, which generally vote Republican for president and from which many GOP representatives hail.

Accordingly, we found that reminding people about Russian election interference costs neither congressional Republicans nor Trump any votes on aggregate. If anything, our study indicates that congressional Republicans and Trump gain about two percentage points when voters have the Russian election interference issue in mind, though this change falls within the margin of error.

These patterns do not appear to vary with respondents’ levels of political knowledge. We did find that only 24 percent of the U.S. population could name Ukraine as the country to which Crimea actually belongs, according to official U.S. policy. But this lack of knowledge was relatively consistent across party affiliation and views of Putin.

Trump’s abrasive personality might help him get reelected — if voters feel it’s a dangerous world.

So what do Russians think about Trump?

The answer is mixed. Just 7 percent of Russians “tend to” support Trump’s pronouncements on world affairs, and only 1 percent fully agree with them.

At the same time, a majority (51 percent) think Trump is at least a moderately good leader for his country. But most of these 51 percent are not Putin voters. Rather, they’re a motley collection of Russian nationalists, other Kremlin opponents, people who said they would not cast a valid ballot in the next Russian elections, or individuals who would not or could not say in the survey whom they would vote for.

Praising Putin does not appear to be winning Trump friends in Russia.

A convenient untruth

All this may support the old dictum that foreign relations matter little for domestic politics. But not long ago, association with anyone in the Kremlin was politically damaging in the United States, suggesting a “softness” on national security that hurt election prospects. That makes these patterns surprising.

We must therefore keep in mind that congressional Republicans, in pressing forward with a story that conveniently shifts critical attention from Kremlin interference in elections to the activities of Putin’s enemies in Ukraine, are not veering very far from their base.

What remains to be seen is whether they are shifting it even further the Kremlin’s way.

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Henry E. Hale is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and the author of “Patronal Politics: Eurasian Regime Dynamics in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Olga Kamenchuk is a co-director of the Mershon Center for International Security’s Eurasian security and governance program at Ohio State University and an associate professor (clinical) in the OSU School of Communication.

Carnegie Corporation of New York funded the RARS 2019 survey in the United States, and the Valdai Discussion Club funded its Russian counterpart, all as part of the Working Group on the Future of U.S.-Russian Relations. All views expressed here are those of the authors alone, not of any of these entities or governments.