Polling is like three-card Monte. With a bit of legerdemain you can get any result you want.
You need to know what question to ask and how to word it. And, like in an EU referendum, if you don’t get the result you want, you rephrase the question, ask again and keep asking until respondents get it right.
This explains the problem the Bloomberg news agency has found itself in. It reprinted the results of a poll conducted by the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Centre, a government-owned pollster.
Asked to name politicians they trusted, only 27 per cent of respondents gave the right answer, Putin. Seeing that it was in effect the Russian government itself that had conducted the poll, Bloomberg happily published the findings.
The agency ignored the truth universally acknowledged that, polls or no polls, Putin’s approval rating must be at least 100 per cent. More than that would be welcome, but anything less constitutes an act of aggression against Russia.
After all, Russia is coextensive with Putin, as the Duma Speaker Volodin once claimed. “There’s Putin, there’s Russia,” explained Russia’s answer to Sir Lindsay Hoyle. “No Putin, no Russia.”
That was the premise from which Mr Volodin responded to Bloomberg’s calumny. As everyone knows, American, and all Western, media are in the pay of the CIA, whose sole purpose is to destroy Russia.
Hence the Bloomberg publication was part of a dastardly conspiracy to “discredit the president, the key institutions of power and leading politicians, weakening them and undermining trust.” And of course the ultimate goal was “to dismember Russia”.
The Russian Embassy in Washington launched an official protest, demanding that real, as opposed to subversive, poll results be published, accompanied by profuse apologies for that “disinformation”.
If that was the tone of Russia’s reaction to a publication outside her control, it doesn’t take much imagination to picture the fear of God put into her own culpable researchers. People have been defenestrated for less, and the hapless pollsters were doubtless reminded of that fact.
As a result, they hastily conducted another poll that yielded a respectable 67.9 per cent support for Putin. That was more like it, though still lamentably short of the universally acknowledged figure of 100 per cent plus. Oh well, next time.
The new finding was waved under the nose of Bloomberg and its CIA spymasters. There, this is the right poll, you hirelings of Wall Street.
In fact, both polls were right. They just asked different questions and therefore activated different response mechanisms.
The first poll didn’t give respondents any names. It simply asked which politicians they trusted most, leaving the options wide-open. Respondents racked their brains, pondered the comparative qualities of politicians they knew and gave Putin a paltry 27 per cent support.
The second poll involved no such mental exertions. It demanded a simple yes or no answer to the question “Do you trust Putin?”. Now, to understand why Putin’s rating improved so dramatically, you must consider both the current and historical context.
Since Putin is Russia and Russia is Putin, in effect the question was: “Are you a patriot of our motherland or its enemy?” Take it from someone who grew up there, opting for the latter isn’t easy.
Actually, in my day that would have been tantamount to suicide, most likely only professional but possibly also physical. After all, the people posing the question lived by Gorky’s aphorism: “If the enemy doesn’t surrender, he must be destroyed.”
A binary division of all into two simple groups, friend or foe, has been a permanent feature of the Russian state ever since its inception. That has inculcated in Russians a response mechanism based on the preservation instinct, which clicks into action whenever a thorny question is asked.
The consequences of a wrong answer have fluctuated in severity, depending on the current ruler. But one could always have feared at least some consequences.
The response mechanism in question isn’t always, and never merely, rational. Yet it’s always there.
If pressed, respondents to the second poll would have probably admitted that the chances of suffering any immediate repercussions for a ‘no’ answer were slim. But slim doesn’t mean nonexistent. Thus, to be on the safe side, it was more natural to nod ‘yes’ and be done with it. God looks after those who look after themselves.
Then again, the situation in Russia is such that the screws can be turned at any moment. The combination of coronavirus and derisory oil prices is producing mass discontent, and not just among the intelligentsia.
Covid will make us all poorer, but we won’t starve. The Russians will – in fact millions are already starving. However you measure Putin’s support, it’s dropping. Before long, rallies of protest will attract not just writers, historians and scientists, but, well, everyone.
The Russian state, including its present kleptofascist incarnation, knows only one possible response: unbounded violence. Witness the three unrelated doctors who posted videos protesting against having no protection in their fight against Covid, and also against the government falsifying the death statistics.
All three have fallen out of high windows, no doubt committing suicide after realising the enormity of what they had done. Some people just can’t handle guilt, can they?
Hence I must congratulate the circumspect respondents in the second poll on their prudence and foresight. Better safe than sorry, wouldn’t you say?