Obama or Romney: Who would Russians choose?

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

It’s safe to say that Russians are fed up with presidential elections. Having gone through a high-profile presidential election campaign at the beginning of the year – a campaign accompanied by heated and often nasty political rhetoric and then followed by a series of protest actions organized by the opposition – Russian citizens, to be sure, can live the next few years in quiet.

Naturally, there is even less interest in presidential elections in other countries. Who cares? Yet, there is evidence that many Russians are paying close attention to the ongoing presidential election in the United States, a happening that is only nine short weeks away from the finish line. This attention has its roots in deep, sometimes even bordering on obsessive, interest in all things American and – whether or not Russians themselves would be willing to admit it – on the fact that the United States still remains perhaps the only country whose opinion actually matters to Russia. It’s impossible to imagine a Russian who doesn’t know the name of the U.S. president.

So, if given a chance, who would Russians vote for in the U.S. presidential election: the sitting president Barack Obama, a Democrat, or his Republican opponent, the former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney?

Answering this question is tricky. For starters, even the electoral preferences of Russians living in the U.S. are far from clear. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, a consensus was that Russian-Americans overwhelmingly voted for Republicans. The explanation was that, being intrinsically “conservative,” Russians were better aligned with the conservative social and economic views of the Republican Party. Besides, as political refugees from the Soviet Union, they idolized the Republican President Ronald Reagan, whom they credited with forcing the Soviet leaders into allowing the Jewish immigration. After becoming eligible to vote, Russian-Americans poured their passion for Reagan onto his successor, George W. H. Bush, whom they supported en masse in 1988 and 1992. Or at least that’s how the story goes.

But much has changed since then. In the intervening years, scores of Russians came to the U.S. not as political refugees, but as skilled workers, bringing along a diversity of social and political views. And as aging refugees of the 1980s and 1990s are becoming more dependent on state programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, they may feel more appreciative of some policies traditionally associated with the Democratic Party. One thing is clear: These days, no Republican presidential candidate can take the “Russian vote” for granted. It’s hardly coincidental that the states with large numbers of Russian-American voters – California, Massachusetts and New York – remain solid Democratic strongholds.

But what about Russians living in Russia who are not versed in the intricacies of U.S. domestic politics and who view American politicians from mostly personal point of view?

One factor that would strongly play against Obama in the eyes of Russian “voters” is his race. It’s not a secret that a disturbingly large number of Russians hold negative, even derisive, view of Obama because he’s an African-American, a sentiment I witnessed first-hand myself during recent trips in Russia. One the other hand, Russians seemingly favor known quantities over unknown personalities and clearly have no problem with the politicians who’ve been in public service forever. From this point of view, many Russians would be expected to vote for Obama exactly because they’re used to him and know “what to expect.” Besides, even more importantly, Russians seems to consider Obama’s policies toward Russia as generally friendly. Otherwise, it would be difficult to explain the dramatic rise in U.S-positive attitude expressed by Russians in numerous public polls since Obama succeeded George W. Bush in 2009.

Another factor that would help Obama win over Russian voters is the strong anti-Russian position of his Republican opponent Mitt Romney. Gone are days when Russian pundits hailed “pragmatic” views of Republican presidential candidates on arms control and human rights. There is nothing “pragmatic” in the way Romney views the future of U.S.-Russia relations: He called Russia America’s “number one geopolitical foe” and went on record describing the New START nuclear arms control treaty as Obama’s “worst foreign-policy mistake.” In his acceptance speech at the recent Republican National Convention in Florida, Romney promised to intensify pressure on Russia over the issue of democracy and human rights. Few in Russia would doubt that under Romney the president, U.S.-Russia relations will be seriously damaged.

So, again, who would Russians vote for in the U.S. presidential election? Hopefully, a public opinion agency, such as Levada Center, will pose this question in one of its future polls. But in the meantime, I’d make a wide guess: 60 percent to 40 percent in favor of Obama. Just don’t let Vladimir Churov count the vote.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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11 Responses to Obama or Romney: Who would Russians choose?

  1. AK says:

    In the US, going by my classifications, 80-90% of Sovok Jews will vote for Romney; 60-70% of Egghead Emigres will vote for Obama; and the votes of White Russians will be split 50/50. (There are too few Natasha Gold-diggers and Putin’s expats to have much of an effect though they will vote overwhelmingly Obama).

    I’m sure that the vast majority of Russians would vote for Obama. After all even French National Front voters favor him 62% to 20%.

    • Eugene says:

      Of course, having no solid on-the-ground data, it’s silly to defend any numerical projections. My major point was that race will work against Obama, but that would be counterbalanced by him being a “known evil.” On the contrast, I can’t pinpoint any single factor that in the Russian eyes would favor Romney.

    • AK says:

      My point as regards the FN comparison is that Russians have no more reason to like Romney than Obama (quite the contrary, even, as Romney doesn’t regard France as his #1 geopolitical foe); and that even French far rightists prefer Obama by a huge margin.

      Unless Russians are more racist than your average FN member it is just implausible that Obama’s race will play any significant role.

      And even from the perspective of a Russian white nationalist, why should he *care* if “Enemy #1” America is ruled by a negro who will destroy those dastardly yanks anyway?

      Basic point – in this case, it *is* possible to make a strong argument for a massive preference for Obama even without “solid on-the-ground data.”

      As you yourself say, “I can’t pinpoint any single factor that in the Russian eyes would favor Romney.”

      I’d obviously be interested in seeing poll results too but I’m sure they’ll just confirm this.

  2. Dear Eugene,

    I am sure Anatoly is right about opinion in Russia itself (I cannot speak about Russians in the US) but I would be curious to see an opinion poll.

  3. marknesop says:

    I imagine – based on your suggestion that Russians are savvy regarding the major players and the undercurrents of American politics – that the same sense of foreboding prevails as does here in Canada. The next president is going to have an unprecedented opportunity to salt the Supreme Court of the United States with ideologues sympathetic to his own worldview. This opportunity will be tempered by the confirmation process, but we have seen that justices are well aware of the answers questioners want to hear and are quite capable of expressing views during confirmation that do not necessarily reflect their own beliefs. The next president, then, is going to have the opportunity to shape American policy far beyond his years in office.

    If I were among the Russians – assuming, again, their engagement with the American political process – I would worry about the forces which will influence the candidates, since each have their powerful backers for a reason. In Romney’s case, he appears to be somewhat of a peacock, basking in flattery and too ready to do what his advisers say without thinking it through. He would therefore be more likely, between the two, to cater to the interests of the business lobby. On the face of it that would seem to be strictly a domestic situation, but of course it is not and the world could likely look forward to at least as many military interventions as occurred under Obama if not more.

    Still, I would tend to disagree this implies Russians are concerned about American opinion of Russia, since that appears uniformly negative and mostly based on distortions.

  4. AK says:

    BTW, we now have a precise answer to your question.

  5. Zaichek says:

    I have lived in the US for 20 years, I have extensive ties with the Russian community, I can tell you that the majority of Russian Americans will vote for Romney. They have had enough of their share of “wealth distribution” and “tax or get rid of the rich” while living in the Soviet Union.

    • Eugene says:

      I’d agree that those who lived in the Soviet Union will likely vote for Romney. But there are also those who didn’t leave there. For example, my grown up kids are huge fans of Obama, and so are the majority of their Russian speaking friends.

    • marknesop says:

      Do tell, Zaichek. Would that still be true after Romney’s “Boca Moment”, when he informed his audience that 47% of Americans pay no income tax at all, consider themselves “victims” and want the government to take care of everything? Do you think it speaks well of a potential president – not to mention an aggressive tackler of “wealth distribution” and “tax or get rid of the rich” that he believes nearly half the adult population of the United States is unemployed? Has he never heard of payroll taxes? Of those who actually do not pay income taxes, who put in place the policies that made that possible? Conservatives.

      When even UberConservative Bill Kristol calls Romney’s remarks “arrogant and stupid”, I find it hard to believe Russian-Americans will pull the lever anyway for a presidential candidate who plainly either does not know what he is talking about, or believes his audience – the electorate – is so ignorant that they will not know the difference.


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