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Dr. David Hill: Don’t ignore polls from Russia

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Even before Russian troops rolled into the Crimean region of Ukraine last week, Vladimir Putin was upside down in American polls. 

The Gallup organization polled 1,018 American adults Feb. 6-9, as the Olympic Games were getting underway, and only 19 percent said they have a favorable impression of the Russian president, while 63 percent held unfavorable views. (In fairness to Putin, this poll was probably contaminated by endless negative stories in our media during the Olympics launch, decrying the deplorable and unfinished Olympic facilities and athletes’ dorms, typically with ugly file footage of Putin, often shirtless or otherwise doing things American politicians don’t do, implying propagandistically that the shirtless boob was responsible.) 

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Putin’s unfavorable ratings were up 9 percentage points from a Gallup poll taken during 2013. But it hasn’t always been this way. In two polls taken around 2002 and 2003, Putin was actually right side up, with more Americans holding favorable impressions of him than held unfavorable views, albeit with many undecided at that early period of his presidency.

Gallup, many Americans and even some gentle readers of this column may believe that Putin was interested in these poll results. Why shouldn’t he be? We are the global superpower in economic matters, military might and even polling prowess. But I doubt that Putin gives a flip where he stands in Gallup’s polls. Do you think President Obama cares where he stands in a Republican primary poll result? No. In fact, both might wear it as a badge of courage and accomplishment that “the enemy” is unhappy with them. 

What Putin probably cares more about is a poll result few Americans follow, the one from Levada-Centre, an independent, Gallup-like survey organization in Russia, or VTsIOM, the state-run polling operation. They will doubtless tell him that the only polls that really count to Putin back his actions in Ukraine, polls based on interviews with Russians, not Americans.

American media seldom cover polls of the Russian people, especially if they aren’t supportive of our worldview. It seems as though many Americans aren’t really sure that Russians have free will and the opinions that flow from that freedom. It’s a reaction that sees today’s Russians as yesterday’s Soviets. And even if we get over the notion that Russians cannot think for and express themselves, we assume that every institution in Russia is designed to support the regime, as in the Soviet-era, so the polls are probably rigged just like the elections. So why bother paying attention? 

This is a terrible mistake on our part. 

Based on personal experience in Russia, I can vouch for the fact that today’s Russians do have opinions that are well thought out and expressed. And because I also keep up with their polls, I can assure you that the polls aren’t rigged, or at least not always. Plenty of polls are released that are not favorable to the regime and that probably irk Putin. But even these are hard to find unless you read Russian or even a few European newspapers.

The Guardian in the United Kingdom published an article Monday reviewing Russian polling and interviewing Russian pollsters. It concluded that “most Russians believe upheaval in Kiev was a western-sponsored coup and that Crimea was never Ukrainian.” Putin and most Russians saw TV footage of Kiev burning, the capital of a neighboring state and former client-nation, and became uncomfortable, just as we would if we saw parts of Ottawa or Mexico City ablaze from political unrest. Do you doubt for a moment that an American president would send troops to Cabo in Baja California or Windsor, Ontario, if he felt that American interests there were at risk from a political coup? 

Russians want the same security that Americans crave here. Why is that so hard for us to understand?

Hill is a pollster who has worked for Republican campaigns and causes since 1984.

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