In March of 2012, Vladimir Putin was elected to his third term as President of Russia, after a four year leave serving as Prime Minister. Massive protests and speculation about electoral manipulation and fraud accompanied the election. Yet at the same time, polls ahead of the election predicted a landslide victory by Putin.
Are both the polls and election results incorrect? Could this be explained by social desirability?
Political Science Ph.D. student Kirill Kalinin studies election fraud. Along with Professor of Political Science, Professor of Statistics, and Center for Political Studies (CPS) Faculty Associate Walter Mebane, Kalinin conducted a series of studies that consider the role of social desirability (or the tendency to answer questions not truthfully but in line with public opinion) in the most recent Russian presidential election. This work is possible due to financial assistance from the Department of Political Science at the University of Michigan, Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan, and fruitful cooperation with Henry Hale (George Washington University) and Timothy Colton (Harvard University) within the project of Russian Election Study.
Kalinin focuses on a particular kind of social desirability: preference falsification. Preference falsification pertains to when an individual’s private preferences diverge from public preferences in the context of an election. In the case of Russia 2012, Russian public opinion overwhelmingly supported a strong ruler, i.e., Putin. But did this then push people who would vote against Putin to report to pollsters they planned to vote for him anyhow?
To test this, Kalinin and Mebane conducted a series of list experiments. Run in the month before and after the 2012 election, potential Russian voters were given a list with four statements. Those randomly selected into the sensitive statement condition saw a fifth statement, either about Putin’s electoral support or about voter turnout. Participants indicated how many of the statements they agree with.
Their results overwhelmingly point to preference falsification both ahead and after the election. Specifically, there appears to have been over-reporting both of turnout and electoral support for Putin.
Kalinin concludes that, “In an authoritarian setting like Russia, covering up election fraud is important. This study, however, shows that electoral polling may also be susceptible.” This sets the stage for subsequent election fraud. That is, if Putin is mis-predicted to win, then election fraud can make this win a reality. Poll and election results match but neither is true.