In July 2014, Vladimir Putin’s net favorability rating among Republicans was minus 64 points, according to an Economist/YouGov poll (reported by the Washington Post). Now, according to the same source, it is only minus 16.
What has happened in the past two and half years that might affect how one views Putin? I can think of three things.
First, Putin’s forces have taken a major role in perpetrating the atrocity in Aleppo, which Samantha Power correctly describes as one “of those events in world history that define modern evil.”
Second, Putin is widely believed to have been behind the hacking of Democrat operatives’ emails and/or the release by WikiLeaks of those emails, which were used in the 2016 election, likely to the detriment of Hillary Clinton.
Third, Donald Trump, now the Republican president-elect, has spoken somewhat favorably about Putin.
The first development isn’t causing Republicans to view Putin more favorably. In a better world, it would cause them to view the Russian thug less favorably. It dwarfs the second and third developments.
The second development might well cause Republicans to view Putin more favorably. If GOP voters believe that Putin was trying to undermine Hillary Clinton, or even that he harmed her without wanting to, they might well give him points for this (though I don’t believe they should).
Evidence of this dynamic comes from another Economist/GOP finding. Republicans now view WikiLeaks far more favorably than before.
In the summer of 2013, WikiLeaks was viewed more negatively than positively by Republicans by a 47 point margin. Now, Republicans view WikiLeaks favorably by a 27 point margin.
This is a swing of 74 points. The swing of opinion about Trump is 56 points (assuming that the pollsters have accurately measured opinion).
The third development — Trump’s somewhat favorable statements about Putin — are also likely to have helped move Republican opinion. Many Republicans have considerable confidence in the judgment of the formidable president-elect.
Party rank-and-file should take the views of their president, or president-elect, seriously. When they conflict with one’s own view, it isn’t wrong to take a second look.
But one can look at Vladimir Putin twenty times and the view should be the same. He is a a thug, a butcher, an aggressive, serial destabilizer, and an ally of Iran.
We should also keep in mind that president-elect Trump does not possess much foreign policy experience. Moreover, he also says he doesn’t know Putin. Thus, his favorable comments about the Russian leader provide no good basis for altering one’s opinion.
Finally, how do Democrats view Putin? The same Economist-YouGov polling shows that they have become more anti-Putin. The swing — 18 points — is not as great as among Republicans. However, Clinton voters now view the Russian unfavorably by a margin of 72 points.
The explanation should be obvious, and I don’t think it’s Aleppo.
The good news is that Republican voters still view Putin negatively, albeit by a much smaller margin than before. That’s the only rational view one can hold. Reasonable people can and do disagree about whether (or to what extent) we should adopt a combative posture towards Russia, but about Putin himself there should be no disagreement.