February 9, 2016

Vladimir Putin has managed to achieve strikingly high public approval ratings throughout his time as president and prime minister of Russia. But are Russians being honest when taking these popularity polls? Many have suggested that Russians are lying to the pollsters, perhaps to avoid political pushback. However, others have found reason to believe that the polls could be true, whether because skepticism around poll results has always existed (no matter if Putin’s popularity goes up or down) or because Western polls have similar results.

Timothy Frye, the Marshall D. Shulman Professor of Post-Soviet Foreign Policy and former director of the Harriman Institute, spoke at SIPA on February 2 about his own recent study on Putin’s popularity.

Working with three colleagues, Frye attempted to test whether Russians are lying in the polls. They conducted two surveys in Russia in January and March 2015 specifically designed to detect dishonest responses to this question. A technique known as the list survey method provides subjects with a list of options, and the test group receives the “sensitive” item being tested. Analysts then observe if there is a change between the control or test group. According to Frye, this survey method could be done to test any sensitive subject, such as corruption or racism.

The first list experiment Frye conducted showed that 6 to 7 percent of Russians are not honest about their preference to Putin in polls. A repeat of the experiment found 8 to 9 percent of Russians are not honest in the polls. Additionally, they then ran two subsequent “placebo” tests to see if the results were meaningful. According to Frye, “the test found there was no reason to expect the polls to be over- or underestimating the popularity of Putin in Russia.”

The results of the polls suggested that Putin was in fact quite popular in Russia, although at slightly lower rates than those found in other polls.

“The survey showed that Putin does seem to be genuinely popular,” said Frye. “It also does not give false hope about his unpopularity in Russia.”

Frye speculated that some of the sources of Putin’s popularity are the annexation of Crimea and the government’s tight control of the media. However, he also speculated that declining oil prices and international sanctions may lead to economic woes, which would make it more difficult to maintain such popularity.

— Kristen Grennan MPA ’16