Mitt Romney's flip-flopping didn't hurt him (+video)
The Obama campaign labeled Mitt Romney a flip-flopper. But Romney's position shifts did little to fundamentally harm his election prospects. Obama only narrowly defeated Romney, and election day results closely mirror projections from June – before Romney’s move to the middle.
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The flip-flop label had minimal effect for three reasons. First, many people remained uninterested in whether he flip-flopped and just cared about the similarity of their own and Romney’s currently stated positions.Skip to next paragraph
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Second, while the media emphasizes the downside of flip-flopping – being cast as a wishy-washy opportunist – there is also a positive aspect. Our research suggests that many people view reversing positions as evidence that a politician is willing to learn and adjust policies. Finally, by pointing out that Romney flip-flopped, Obama ended up emphasizing Romney’s more moderate positions, thus helping to win over some voters for his opponent.
The last two presidential elections greatly energized the myth of flip-flops and election defeat. The flip-flopper label attached to Mr. Kerry may have been more damaging in 2004 since it was on a national security issue (the Iraq War) that was central to the election. Because of this, the Bush camp was able to make Kerry seem weak and indecisive on a topic where strength and conviction are traditionally valued.
Kerry also had a famous quote that completely encapsulated his flip-flop (“I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it”), something Romney had been careful to avoid (although Romney’s spokesman did make an Etch A Sketch reference to position changing in March). This fall, the Obama camp depicted Romney as someone who flip-flops on domestic issues, but not national security, making it harder to portray him as a weak and indecisive leader.
Our research – and this presidential election – confirm that people generally back politicians who support popular positions – no matter how late the candidates come to hold them. And while some might be distrustful of a politician who only espouses such positions later in an election, it is critical to recognize that this strategy will typically win more votes than it costs. Advocating for positions popular with voters leads to more votes than consistently promoting less popular positions – even if it necessitates flip-flopping.
The flip-flop labeling flop should encourage people to reconsider their assumptions about the political costs of position changing.
Sarah E. Croco is an assistant professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. Scott Sigmund Gartner is a professor of international affairs at the Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs and Dickinson School of Law.