Putin’s Extraordinary Ratings
March 22, 2024
  • Denis Volkov

    Director of the Levada Center (Moscow)
Based on pre-election polls and focus groups, Levada Center head Denis Volkov writes that, despite the completely predetermined election result, the Kremlin has managed to summon a loyal electorate. But will the near future be as uneventful as the presidential campaign has been?
The original text in Russian was published in Forbes and is being republished here with small changes and their permission.
Vladimir Putin at the 21st Congress of the "United Russia" party. December 2023.
Source: Wiki Commons
The results of the presidential elections held on March 15-17 were largely predetermined by the events of February 2022. The outbreak of hostilities, which the majority of Russians (following the lead of the Russian elites) perceived as a confrontation between Russia and the West, doubled Vladimir Putin’s electoral prospects. The number of Russians who want him to be re-elected for a new presidential term increased from 42% at the end of 2021 to 78% at the end of 2023. Over the same period, the number of Russians who chose “Putin” when asked who they wanted to be president in an open poll with no additional prompts increased from 32% to 58%.

By November 2023, our surveys, as well as those conducted by other organizations, showed that Putin would likely receive 80% of the vote, based on responses given by those who were planning to vote and had already decided on a candidate.

It should be clarified that these were not forecasts of election results, but of the distribution of attitudes at the time of the survey. We weighed the data obtained by gender, age and level of education, but without adjusting for past voting results, which theoretically could have slightly increased the share of supporters of the favorite in the final sample. However, there is nothing unique in the sharp increase in national-patriotic feelings against the backdrop of a military conflict; under certain conditions, it can occur in any country, be it Russia, Ukraine or, for example, the United States.

In Russia, the consolidation of public opinion surrounding the president can be seen not only in his growing ratings, but also in the content and tone of the conversations held in our focus groups. In 2019-2021, participants who sympathized with Putin were not always able to find a clear motive for their support, often answering the question with a question: “Who, if not Putin?” But with the onset of the military operation, these responses changed.
In the eyes of the loyal majority, Putin has become Russia's main, irreplaceable defender against the existential threat posed by the United States and its NATO allies.
“If it weren’t for Putin, the West would have devoured us.” Over the past two years, variations of this opinion have often been heard in focus group discussions. In other words, Putin’s high level of support is largely ensured by the extraordinary circumstances of the ongoing military conflict. Attacks by Ukrainian armed forces on the Russian border during election days likely only encouraged Russians to vote for Putin.

Other factors influencing the president’s high approval rate — namely the large-scale redistribution of resources in favor of the general population and the fact that the media is dominated by official discourse — are discussed in more detail in our recently published article.

Weak opponents

One thing that could have diminished Putin’s extraordinary approval ratings would be vibrant political campaigns from other presidential candidates. In previous elections, newcomer politicians managed to gain popularity by utilizing the additional airtime allotted to registered candidates. When this happened, they undoubtedly bit off a chunk of the favorite candidate’s votes. Mikhail Prokhorov rocketed to popularity in this way in 2012, gaining 8% of the vote, as did Pavel Grudinin with nearly 12%.

This election, however, nothing of the sort occurred.

Aside from Putin, the only other candidates were little-known politicians who were unable to convey what they stand for or who they are addressing during the two months of campaigns. By the end of February, almost two-thirds of respondents were unable to answer the question of whose interests are represented by Leonid Slutsky, Nikolai Kharitonov or Vladislav Davankov. And in the case of Boris Nadezhdin, who was not registered to participate in the elections, three-quarters of respondents found it difficult to respond.

For comparison, only 8% of respondents were at a loss about Putin on this issue. And even with regard to Alexei Navalny, whom most Russians approached with caution, two-thirds of respondents still had at least some idea about his policies.
Putin’s opponents remain a mystery to the majority of voters.
Putin and his “competitors” at a concert in Red Square dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the annexation of Crimea by Russia on March 18, the day after the elections. Source: Wiki Commons
The focus groups affirm this: not all respondents could list the names of all the candidates in the upcoming election and explain in at least a few words who these people are, what their values are, and what their campaign platform was.

Ultimately, Vladislav Davankov (New People Party) attracted younger and more educated voters, while support for Leonid Slutsky (LDPR) was concentrated among middle-aged voters and Nikolai Kharitonov (KPRF) expectedly won the sympathy of older voters. The registered electorate of the parties that nominated these candidates comprised the majority of the voters.

One presumed attempt by political strategists to stoke interest in Putin’s sparring partners was the contrived intrigue surrounding who would take second place after Putin. At first, they spoke a lot about the prospects of Vladislav Davankov, then about the fact that the authorities were afraid of his rising popularity and would “ground” him.

However, monthly polls showed that the ratings of the three alternative candidates fluctuated in the range of 3-4% throughout the campaign — just above the level of statistical error and exactly what they received in the end. Therefore, there was hardly any basis for the dramatic statements about an intense struggle for second place.

The struggle for turnout

In fact, only one candidate’s voice was noticeable in this election campaign: Putin, whose public activity has increased significantly in the last two months. Apparently, these efforts were aimed primarily at increasing turnout, since Putin was guaranteed a high percentage of the votes long before the start of the election race. But the middling level of mobilization among the president’s supporters could cause alarm among state political strategists. According to our data, in November of last year only 33% of Russians were “definitely” going to vote, the same number were “most likely” going to participate, and another 12% had not yet decided on their participation by that time. Why go to the polls if your candidate is already polling so high?

The authorities’ concerns about turnout were repeatedly reflected in the constant talk that low turnout “works in the enemy’s favor,” as well as in the cringy videos flooding social networks, urging people to vote “before it’s too late.”

Ultimately, the president's endless meetings with factory workers at defense production facilities, relatives of “special operation” soldiers, long television appearances and interviews with Russian and foreign journalists, as well as general educational campaigns to inform citizens about the upcoming elections did their job. Awareness of the upcoming vote rose from 56% to 90% in the three months from November to February. By the end of February, the number of respondents who said they “would definitely vote” increased by one and a half times to 50%. These figures suggested that turnout in the 2024 elections would be higher than in previous ones.

After the election, there was some discussion that turnout forecasts may have been inflated, but public opinion polls are unlikely to provide proof either way. The work of observers and records of specific violations are much more important in determining this issue. Surveys only show the general dynamics of citizens’ sentiments and intentions.

Growing in tandem with the awareness and willingness to vote was a confidence that things were going in the right direction for the country — from 64% in October to 75% in February.
All this demonstrates that ultimately the authorities were able to achieve pre-election mobilization of their supporters.
The opposition electorate

Another group that must have contributed to the high turnout was the opposition-minded minority, who lined up at polling stations (primarily abroad) at noon of the last voting day. However, the first attempt to consolidate the liberal element of opposition voters was at the end of January, when opposition-minded citizens stood in line to add their signature to the petition list for Boris Nadezhdin to be registered as a candidate. And although the Central Election Commission did not allow him to participate in the elections, the event attracted attention to Nadezhdin and people started discussing him as the new leader of the Russian opposition.

However, this may be premature. Survey results show that Nadezhdin’s support among protest-minded citizens was conditional and the result of recognizable opposition figures urging people to vote for him. If you look carefully at his supporters today — and they comprise about 8-9% (referring to those who approve of his activities, although the politician’s potential presidential rating did not exceed the 3% held by the other three candidates) — they prove to be quite loyal to the authorities.
The line for the polling station in front of the Russian Embassy in Yerevan, “Noon against Putin” protest. March 17, 2024. Source: Wiki Commons
Among those who sympathize with Nadezhdin, a large proportion are supporters of United Russia and other parliamentary parties, half of his audience approves of the activities of Putin, and 43% support the actions of Russian troops in Ukraine; however, support for the idea of peace negotiations among his supporters prevails over all else (74%). This indicates that Boris Nadezhdin’s electorate is loyal to the authorities, and he himself is perceived as a completely systemic politician.

The candidate who collected the votes of most of the opposition voters was Vyacheslav Davankov. This is evidenced by the high percentage of votes cast for him in opposition districts — the intellectual districts of Moscow, St. Petersburg or Novosibirsk, as well as in foreign cities with a large concentration of new wave emigrants, such as Astana, Yerevan or Barcelona. The same result is found in opinion polls.
At the end of February, polls showed that Davankov’s supporters, in comparison with other candidates, had the smallest percentage of government supporters (34%) and anti-war sentiments were the strongest.
Among those who planned to vote for Davankov, support for the actions of the Russian armed forces polled at about 28%, while three-quarters favored a ceasefire and transition to peace negotiations.

However, there is no guarantee that Vladislav Davankov will be able to retain the sympathy of the opposition electorate in the future, especially following the statements he made immediately after the elections, in which he came out as an ardent supporter of Putin and the Russian armed forces:

“You were absolutely correct,” Davankov said to Putin, “when you said that we have a common goal: to win the special military operation and achieve sustainable peace [...] People [ ... ]believe that you are the only person to do it — only you can win in this confrontation […]

The whole affair gives the impression that everyone fulfilled their assigned roles this election cycle. The loyal majority rallied around the figurehead of the president, opposition candidates mobilized a small protest electorate and further increased turnout, and protest-minded citizens stood in line, sizing each other up and somewhat relieved the tension.

And so the key figures this election were able to attend the celebratory concert on Monday in Red Square with a sense of satisfaction. How long they will be able to rest on their laurels after such a crushing victory is another question.
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