Texas polling and Trump's influence on Republican attitudes toward the Russian invasion of Ukraine

A look back at Texas attitudes toward matters related to Russia during the Trump presidency suggests how Donald Trump’s strange relations with Vladimir Putin and Russia influenced a reshaping of partisan views of the U.S.’s Cold War enemy – and provides a glimpse into the uncertainty around Republican voters’ views of the U.S. response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

This data also provides an opportunity to note the continuity between Russian efforts to weaken civil society in the U.S. by amplifying domestic political hostilities, and Putin’s larger cultural and geopolitical ambitions – now on clear display in Ukraine. Congressional investigations, ample reporting, and, of course, the Mueller report all yielded ample evidence that even as Trump’s posture moderated attitudes toward Russia among the GOP rank and file, Putin’s ambition to aggressively project of Russian geopolitical power was being covertly (more or less) focused on the United States in 2016. (“More or less” because Putin's public embrace of Trump was a thinly-disguised part of the Russian leader’s strategy.) 

Considered in their entirely, the attitudes of Texas Republicans in Texas polling results underline how much Trump’s admiration for Putin and his persistently self-interested denial of the significance of Russian efforts to disrupt American politics have played into GOP attitudes toward Trump – and why his pronouncements in coming weeks may have continuing impact in the context of the the war Russia is waging in Ukraine. The difference between the degree of Republican approval for Trump’s resistance to the investigations into Russia, and the comparatively more negative or ambivalent views of Putin and Russia divorced of any Trump-related context, illustrates the potential significance of what Trump says about Russia, and how often he says it, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues on its currently uncertain path.  

Setting aside the capacity of the U.S. to have a material impact on events in Ukraine, the extent to which the U.S. is able to obstruct Putin’s efforts in Ukraine will be partly determined by the domestic support for any such efforts. That support will, in turn, be determined in large part by public opinion about U.S. action. Donald Trump’s provocative rhetoric this week praising Vladimir Putin and criticizing Joe Biden highlight how difficult it is to predict Republican responses to the Russian invasion. The former president remains a powerful presence among the Republican rank and file. Consequently, we should expect his presence to influence GOP elected officials' responses.

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CategoryLean RepublicanNot very strong RepublicanStrong Republican
Very favorable46%29%66%
Somewhat favorable27%39%25%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable10%9%3%
Somewhat unfavorable6%11%4%
Very unfavorable11%11%2%
Don't know/No opinion0%0%1%

Trump’s embrace of Putin and his downplaying of geopolitical competition with Russia during the 2016 campaign, and his subsequent denial of the overwhelming evidence of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, fed a refiguring of partisans’ Cold War dispositions about Russia – particularly among Republicans. (Vox’s Dylan Matthews noted the uptick in the share of national Republicans’ who viewed Putin favorably between 2014 and 2017; Julia Manchester made a similar point in The Hill in 2018.)   

The extent to which Trump continues to issue public expressions of admiration for Putin will likely be a leading indicator of how mixed Republican support for the Biden administration's handling of the Russian invasion ultimately gets. Republican criticism of Biden’s tactics vis a vis Russia generally and Ukraine specifically are to be expected, given the partisan environment (especially in an election year). But Trump has already raised the bar for criticism of the current administration’s handling of the crisis. 

Trump’s speech on February 26 at the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) meeting found him resorting to his familiar tactic of claiming that his rapport with Putin (as with Kim Jong-un) was good for the country, that he had been tough on Russia, and that the current American leadership was both dumb and not tough enough. While this was a somewhat more complicated message than his admiration for Putin’s “genius” earlier in the week, it was, to say the least, a very selective telling of the tale of his handling of Russian relations in particular and foreign policy with Europe more generally – not to mention Putin’s handling of Trump. 

So far, there’s not a clear party line among GOP elected officials, and only early preliminary indications of how GOP base voters will respond. Some Republican elites are clearly uncomfortable with Trump’s flattery of Putin and criticism of Biden in the context of a foreign invasion of a European country, as suggested in a bluntly headlined piece in The Daily Beast, as well as in other more highbrow coverage.  A recent New York Times piece reports that Trump's admiration of Putin's authoritarian politics is much in evidence in radical conservative corners of the internet. As Davey Alba and Stuart A. Thompson write:

The online conversations reflect how pro-Russia sentiment has increasingly penetrated Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, right-wing podcasts, messaging apps like Telegram and some conservative media. As Russia attacked Ukraine this week, those views spread, infusing the online discourse over the war with sympathy — and even approval — for the aggressor.

Support for Putin and Russia in the reactionary corners of the internet illustrates that post-Cold War attitudes on the right may well be to some degree independent of Trump’s pronouncements. It’s fair not to place all the blame on Trump for the illiberal, authoritarian politics that have seeped into mainstream American politics, though they were probably catalyzed by his rise to the presidency. As Trump was pressed on his admiration for Putin and accommodating approach to Russia after the revelations of Russian election meddling, which were designed to help him, he doubled down on attitudes that were likely already taking hold on the fringes. As in so many other areas, Trump’s persistent embrace of seemingly fringe views legitimated them, and liberated their expression.

With all this as a national backdrop of the immediate politics around the Russian invasion of Ukraine, some examples from our Texas polling over the last few years provide a local look at the complicated public opinion context around Russia, Putin, and Trump. Our polling archive contains snapshots of attitudes during the Trump presidency pegged to the well-documented Russian attempts to shape politics in the U.S. during the 2016 election, the resulting investigations, and Donald Trump’s unusually warm (and publicly expressed) view of Russia and of Vladimir Putin. (As the current conflict continues, we’ll likely probe attitudes more directly.)

Favorability ratings of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia revealed strikingly high shares of non-committed views among Texas Republicans in the aftermath of the 2016 revelations of Russian meddling in the U.S. elections.

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Very favorable2%
Somewhat favorable8%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable19%
Somewhat unfavorable16%
Very unfavorable46%
Don't know/no opinion8%

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Very favorable2%4%2%
Somewhat favorable5%5%12%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable7%23%28%
Somewhat unfavorable8%19%23%
Very unfavorable70%39%28%
Don't know/no opinion7%11%8%

After the expressions of mutual admiration between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin during the 2016 campaign, we probed Texans’ approval of Putin in February 2017. The results showed an interesting degree of reserved judgment among Texas Republicans. We haven't asked about Putin again since then.

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Very favorable4%
Somewhat favorable7%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable27%
Somewhat unfavorable22%
Very unfavorable34%
Don't know/no opinion6%

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Very favorable4%4%4%
Somewhat favorable2%10%11%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable17%27%36%
Somewhat unfavorable19%23%25%
Very unfavorable52%24%20%
Don't know/no opinion6%12%4%

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categoryLean RepublicanNot very strong RepublicanStrong Republican
Very favorable4%4%4%
Somewhat favorable15%6%11%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable40%41%30%
Somewhat unfavorable19%23%30%
Very unfavorable20%20%21%
Don't know/no opinion2%7%4%


In June, 2017, we asked Texans about their views of Russia. Even allowing for the fact that the attitude objects of the two questions are different (Putin as an individual and Russia), it’s not much of a leap to note that the mood of reserved judgment among Republicans was even more pronounced. The “neither favorable nor unfavorable” and “don’t know” responses made up 40% of Republican responses, in addition to the 15% who had favorable views. A plurality of Republicans held unfavorable views, as did a large majority of Democrats (71%) and a plurality of independents (47%).  

As investigations of Russian attempts to influence the 2016 campaigns continued in 2017 and 2018, Texas Republicans broadly rejected the possibility of Russian influence on the outcome of the 2016 election, while Democrats remained equally suspicious.

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Don't know enough to say14%21%10%

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Don't know enough to say16%21%10%

Partisans made early judgments about whether Russian efforts influenced the election, and their attitudes changed little as investigations kept grinding on, as the results above from June 2017 and February 2018 illustrate.  It’s worth recalling that 12 Russian intelligence operatives were indicted for “hacking offenses related to the 2016 election” in July, 2018. (They're still wanted.) In June 2017, among those who thought Russian meddling had an impact on the election, the vast majority believed that those efforts were intended to help Donald Trump.

In the first year of Trump’s presidency, a majority of Texas Republicans approved of Trump’s handling of Russian interference, though only a plurality approved strongly (40%) and more than a quarter withheld judgment (27%)

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Approve strongly3%21%40%
Approve somewhat1%11%19%
Neither approve nor disapprove3%22%20%
Disapprove somewhat7%9%5%
Disapprove strongly84%26%8%
Don't know2%11%7%

Trump’s response to investigations in Russian activities during the 2016 campaign, especially after the Justice Department’s appointment of a special counsel to investigate, was to label all efforts to investigate Russian activities a “witch hunt.” The line is a by-now familiar one that he still deploys when dismissing any scrutiny of his presidency or his businesses, as he did recently in responsse to recent developments into investigations of the Trump Corporation’s finances. At the time, Republican attitudes conveyed cross-pressures for many Republicans, between their support for Trump and suspicions about Russia.  In October 2017, 78% of Texas Republicans approved of the job Trump was doing as president – 47% approved strongly.  But only 59% approved of his handling of Russian interference in the 2016 election, with more than a quarter (27%) declining to express a judgment.

All this may seem like water under the bridge following the fizzling of the Mueller investigation, the failure of the GOP-led Senate to convict Trump after his impeachment, and voters’ unambiguous ejection of Trump from the White House in 2020. But however unresolved the question of Trump’s role in Putin’s strategic efforts to weaken the U.S., the continuity between Putin’s successful intervention in U.S. politics and society in 2016 and the calculations that have led to the invasion of Ukraine shouldn’t be forgotten, whatever the ultimate outcome of Putin’s current play. An American political system weakened by the kinds of divisions exacerbated by Russian covert actions during the campaign, as well as a strengthening of political forces in the US hostile to US-European alliance, almost certainly were part of Putin’s efforts to prepare the ground for efforts to reabsorb Ukraine into the Russian sphere of cultural and geopolitical influence. 

The net-negative approval ratings of Putin and Russia in Texas during the height of attention to Russian malfeasance in the 2016 campaign did not provide evidence of a wholesale shift in Republican attitudes toward positive views of either. Rather, they illustrate that Trump’s embrace likely triggered reconsideration among a significant share of Republicans and conservative whose support for Trump created cross-pressures among Republicans between their predispositions toward Russia and Trump’s influence on their thinking.

The relative strength of these competing attitudes will be altered by the invasion of Ukraine, which is already drawing widespread condemnation of Putin and support for Ukraine’s underdog resistance (promoted, so far, with skilled use of media by the Ukrainian government). Yet a significant share of the Republican base continues to hold Trump in high regard, as his favorability ratings nationally and in Texas illustrate, no matter the wishful thinking of Republican apostates who fantasize a decline in Trump’s popularity.

For all the attention paid to the seeming defection of high profile Republicans like Mitch McConnell and Mike Pence, Trump’s popularity among the GOP base and his related ability to dominate GOP fundraising efforts still has Republican elites scared to publicly disagree with him. Witness Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton’s appearance on ABC News This Week Sunday morning, in which the otherwise trenchant critic of Putin, with an absurd doggedness, repeatedly declined to disown Trump’s flattery of Putin and insults of NATO policy makers. A few hours after Cotton’s extensive evasive maneuvers, Trump was declared the winner of the presidential straw poll at CPAC, a day after drawing applause at the event for grousing that, "The problem is not that Putin is smart, which of course he’s smart. But the real problem is that our leaders are dumb."  Some Republicans may be ready to revert to their traditional view of Russia after the attack on Ukraine, and join in what seems like swelling sympathy for the Ukranians’ plight. But many of them also remain enchanted by the former president, who remains unwilling to disavow his affinity with the architect of that attack - and unlikely to stop making statements that force Republicans to make a choice that would have seemed obvious to most before Trump's rise to the top of the GOP.