Yesterday afternoon, Prof. Timothy Frye, CU political science professor and director of the Harriman Institute, presented his new paper about the popularity of infamous president Vladimir Putin – or, more specifically, whether or not this popularity was real or a trick of the Kremlin. Bwog writer and popularity seeker Betsy Ladyzhets was in attendance to document the lecture.
Vladimir Putin: fearless leader of the Russian Federation, slayer of tigers, victor of wrestling matches, subject of musical satire, banner of memes, and, perhaps surprisingly to many Americans, far and wide the most popular politician in Russia. Despite opposition from numerous foreign politicians and Russian activists, Putin’s approval ratings in Russia have remained high; the most recent poll results show that about 80% of Russians claim to approve of Putin’s political activities.
But that can’t be true, right? Putin is a dictator who squashes opposition, controls the media, and does whatever is necessary to stay in power, right? It’s impossible that so many Russians are able to ignore his faults—either they must be brainwashed by their country’s leaders, or they must be too scared to admit their true sentiments. Right?
This question was precisely what Professor Timothy Frye sought to answer in his presentation yesterday. Despite the lack of free food at the lecture, the room it was held in, up on the fifteenth floor of the International Building, was still nearly full. (It appears that, although Putin’s popularity may be false, the popularity of the concept of studying his popularity is definitely real.)
Prof. Frye first explained what, exactly, approval ratings are. These ratings, collected monthly throughout 45 regions of Russia by the Levada Center, a (supposedly) independent polling and research organization, directly ask people’s opinions of Putin: “Do you approve the activities of V. Putin as the President of Russia?” Few countries have such frequent and systematic polling systems, which both makes Russia an interesting case study and makes the motives behind such a polling system suspicious.
It should go without saying that the Kremlin is very interested in this popularity data, and many political scientists in other countries have wondered if the people answering the poll are hiding their true feelings to avoid suspicion. Prof. Frye said that people might be “afraid to admit they harbor these feelings that might be unacceptable.” On the other hand, the ratings data have moved in predictable ways with political activities in Russia over the past few years, and some Western polling companies have found similar results to Levada.
In order to test the validity of Levada’s polls, Prof. Frye and his colleagues collaborated with the center to conduct an experiment on the back of Levada’s monthly poll. In January, 2015, and again in March, 2015, their questions were asked along with Levada’s usual survey. The experimental questions operated as a list experiment, an indirect method of surveying people that allows researchers to find out the true opinions of a population without any individuals disclosing their personal opinions.
Since his initial explanation left his audience bemused, Prof. Frye clarified. In a list experiment, participants are given a list of items and asked, “How many of these make you angry?”, “How many of these have you done in the past year?”, “How many of these activities do you approve of?”, or some other similar question. One half of the participants tested receives a control list to which they are expected to give predictable responses. The other half receives a list with the same items as the first half, plus an additional “sensitive item.” With this test, participants only need to answer a number without telling the interviewer which item(s) they agree with, approve of, etc., but the researchers analyzing the data can use averages to determine a general public response to the sensitive item.
In Prof. Frye’s study, people were asked, “Given this list of politicians, for how many do you support their political activities?” In one trial, the researchers used a list of politicians from Russia’s history, and in the other, they used a list of contemporary politicians; each list had two politicians everyone was likely to disapprove of and one politician everyone was likely to approve of. (Or, as well as the researchers could manage it: “In Russia, it’s very difficult to create a list in which there are people on the list nobody likes and people everybody likes,” Prof. Frye said.) They also asked a direct question, the same question asked by Levada: “Do you approve the activities of V. Putin as the President of Russia?”
So, did they? Overwhelmingly, the Russian population said, “Yes, we do.” Approximately 87% of the people polled (86% in one trial, 88% in the second) answered “yes” to the direct question, and the list experiment showed an approval rate of approximately 80%. This suggests that Putin’s approval ratings are, in fact, genuine; although a few people are lying, this group constitutes less than 10% of the total population surveyed.
Much of the audience was skeptical. Prof. Frye pointed out a couple of inherent flaws in list experiments, then systematically explained how his test took into account each one; and even after that, the question and answer portion of the lecture took up almost twice the amount of time as the actual presentation, with various audience members attempting to find new ways to look at the data that would suggest it was somehow incorrect.
One audience member even asked if, in future studies, Prof. Frye could try getting the participants in their surveys drunk to find out their real opinions. “Our respondents might have been intoxicated during this survey,” Prof. Frye joked in response. “But we don’t care, as long as there’s an equal number of sober and drunk people.”
Still, the truth remains outed: Putin’s approval ratings aren’t fabricated or coerced. Most Russians truly approve of his political activities, and political activist groups should probably just give up, because they aren’t going to convince the majority of Putin’s failures any time soon. The question, for us Americans watching foreign news with a critical eye, becomes why?
Prof. Frye gave several possible answers to this question: approval of politics generally fluctuates with a country’s economy, and Russia’s economy was doing fairly well until recently; control of the media has some role in influencing public opinion; and Russia’s activities in the Crimea produced a “rally around the flag” effect that led to increased nationalism and support for the current regime. But the full explanation for Putin’s popularity in his country remains a mystery for future political scientists and sociologists. Do Russians only listen to strong, authoritarian leaders? Do they want a man who can fight tigers and seize control of new territory? Or do they all just really hate memes?