With the September 8 election fast approaching, the Moscow mayoral race is heating up. Thus far, the campaign has been the most contentious in a major Russian election in recent memory, with mayor Sergei Sobyanin’s surprise resignation and bid for reelection, and activist Alexei Navalny’s dramatic entry onto the electoral scene, despite a conviction for embezzlement.
It is no mistake—or sign of liberalization—that this race has been more competitive than past elections. Navalny may have been released from detention pending his sentencing and allowed to campaign in order to legitimizing Sobyanin’s eventual victory. Even with a popular oppositionist in the running, Sobyanin has higher name recognition and is popular enough to win, as state-run pollster VTsIOM recently predicted he would, with 67.4%. Yet political openness can prove hard to control, particularly around elections, as demonstrated by a recent survey by marketing research firm Comcon saw votes for Navalny jump 5 percentage points in one week, to 19.9%.
Given the level of competition, it’s worth asking a simple question that rarely comes up in Russian politics: how are voters deciding whom to vote for?
Using a crowd-funded survey of 1,000 Muscovites completed by Levada Center in the first week of July, we can begin to piece together how voters are making up their minds. Although the numbers are now somewhat out of date, this is the most complete data set I have found. Levada’s report is available here with a link to the full data set.
Voting by Party and by Personality
It’s generally assumed that Russian voters pick candidates either by straight-ticket voting or by personality. A straight-ticket voter supports the same party and that party’s candidates in every election; for example, a supporter of the Communist Party who voted for Zyuganov in the last presidential election will either vote for the KPRF mayoral candidate Ivan Melnikov, or not at all. A personalist voter casts his vote based on the candidate and his reputation, but not his policies, ideology or party, like a voter who supports Navalny simply because he is Navalny, not because the voter supports the PARNAS party under whose aegis Navalny is currently campaigning. In the era of United Russia and Putin, both voting approaches are popular. The dominance of United Russia means other parties are small and ineffective, while Putin has devoted untold energy, funds and media resources to nurturing his personality cult.
In this election, it is perhaps not a surprise that Sobyanin, the United Russia candidate, will benefit most from straight-ticket voting—though not as much as you might expect.
60% of voters who supported Putin in the March 2012 presidential election would vote United Russia if an election for State or Moscow Duma were held in the very near future. Similarly, 60% of those who voted for Putin would vote for him again if the election were held immediately. We can thus assume that 60% of those who voted for a third Putin term are United Russia single-ticket voters, and indeed, 64% of them are ready to vote for Sobyanin.
It might seem that a majority must support Sobyanin, but in fact, given the low support for Putin and United Russia in Moscow, only 14.4% of the 1,000 people surveyed were loyal United Russia voters. While United Russia certainly gives him a boost, it does not guarantee victory: United Russia single-ticket voters should account for less than half of Sobyanin’s support, which was 33.7% overall (ie. of all surveyed, not of those definitely planning to vote).
Personalism seems to have only a marginal impact on this race, judging from candidate recognition compared with voting intentions. This may in part be because this is a local election, and no party would run its biggest candidate—with the exception of Navalny, who is not running under his own party. But the activist-cum-internet celebrity was only known to 40% of people who would definitely vote, and of those, only 5.3% were planning to select him. It would seem, then, that the establishment’s fears of the Navalny personality cult are still premature.
Issue Voting in Russia?
If people are not voting on party or personality, it is possible they are voting by issue? A closer look at un decided voters in this survey indicates that issues might play a bigger role in this election than observers have previously thought.
The numbers cited above for Sobyanin and Navalny are low because, as of early July, when this poll was conducted, 41.7% of those surveyed had not decided whom they would vote for. Likewise, 30.2% had not decided if they would vote at all and 27% were probably going to vote. We can consider this group “swing voters,” under the assumption that if someone is uncertain about voting, they are not a strong supporter of any candidate, have not made up their mind, and thus might be more likely to vote on issues. Looking at how these swing voters responded to a prompt to select 5-6 problems in Moscow that most upset them allows us some insight into what could—or should—be the biggest issues of the final weeks of the campaign.
Migration from the former Soviet Republics and North Caucasus has recently been a hot issue, but a politician interested in swing voters should keep it at the top of the campaign agenda. Migration was the biggest problem indicated by respondents, but 49% of people who were planning to vote, or committed voters, identified it as a problem. On the other hand, 57% of swing voters identified migration as their top problem. This means that clearly, the recent crackdown on migrants in Moscow, including the housing of several hundred mostly Vietnamese migrants in a tent camp at Golyanovo, are shrewd political moves on the part of Sobyanin’s administration. This is an area in which a local government can have little room to maneuver on legislation, so flashy moves like these are a quick way to appear to take action on an otherwise unaddressed issue. Likewise, Navalny’s apparent nationalism might be a scandal in the West or deal-breaker for some oppositionists, but it is not likely to be alienating for voters who feel strongly about migration. Now Navalny’s platform steers clear of nationalism and frames migration as an economic and social issue. He would be wise to belabor those points in his stump speeches, as nearly half of all respondents found that migration was not publicly discussed enough.
Swing voters were significantly more concerned about the economy than non-voters and committed voters, according to this survey. After migration, the second most important issue for swing voters was the price of essential goods—or, put differently, inflation. Fifteen years after the default of 1998, inflation still strikes terror into the hearts of many Russians, who have painful memories of the extraordinary devaluation of the ruble and triple-digit inflation. Yet although everyone suffers under inflation, not everyone was equally concerned about it. Rising prices worried 41% of swing voters, but only 26% of non-voters and 29% of committed voters.
In fact, swing voters were more concerned than committed voters about every economic issue the survey offered, including the presence of the homeless and beggars, low wages, unemployment, housing costs, income inequality, delays in wages and pensions, work stoppages at factories and the closure of cheap markets.
It is not only out of consideration for Sobyanin’s reelection that authorities are frantically trying to defuse current rumors of another devaluation, sluggish growth, and even stagnation or recession. It also doesn’t help that unemployment is on the rise. But the extent to which economic issues are within the purview of local government—even in Moscow—is also limited. There might be little Sobyanin can do about inflation, but at least getting the homeless off the streets and keeping markets open might be a better use of campaign resources than frantically repainting building entryways around the cities.
The economy is an issue that should worry him, as there is evidence to support the theory that when voting on the economy, people tend to act on their feelings about the national economy, rather than their own pocketbook. Just because Russians supported Putin through the financial crisis is no guarantee that they’ll support Sobyanin, who lacks Putin’s appeal and aura of stability, especially if more bad news comes in the next few weeks.
What about corruption, graft and abuse of power, Navalny’s tent-pole issues? Issues with the authorities don’t appear to trouble Moscow’s voters. Even though corruption has been an increasing problem for Muscovites over the last few years, corruption only upset 13% of swing voters. Excessive bureaucracy, inaction of authorities, issues with police, organized crime and arbitrariness of local authorities all ranked between 6-11%. Although Navalny made his name on these issues, and is publicizing his cause by drawing attention to them in his campaign, he is unlikely to win himself many new supporters. He might be better advised not to belabor a complicated issue like corruption and stick to his other simpler, more popular issues like traffic congestion.
Migration and the economy are undoubtedly big issues on the minds of Muscovites and of Russians in general, but it remains to be seen if they will actually motivate voters’ choices on September 8. If voters are used to voting by party or by personality, in elections where policies and ideology do not truly matter, they are unlikely to suddenly change their way of approaching elections. The expected low voter turn out—currently estimated to be around 60%—speaks to that problem, as well as the public’s increasing alienation from politics. Still, both Sobyanin and Navalny have significant opportunity to target these issues and attract swing voters. That could have a real impact on Navalny’s campaign, which would be seen as a success if he breaks the 20% mark.