Last summer, when Republican candidate Mitt Romney began to alter his political positions and move to the center, the Obama campaign was thrilled. They believed, given the evidence from past elections and especially the 2004 defeat of Sen. John Kerry, that Mr. Romney’s position shifts would allow them to label him a flip-flopper – a tag that would dramatically undermine his appeal. Yet the results from Election Day 2012 closely mirror projections from June – before Romney’s move to the middle.
This suggests that this moderating tactic, or flip-flopping, did little to fundamentally harm Romney’s election prospects. How can that be?
The answer might surprise you: Our research suggests that the act of flip-flopping may not matter, and certainly does not have the dire electoral costs claimed by so many pundits, scholars, and media analysts. We conducted a number of experimental studies of how people responded to potential shifts in senators’ positions on the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. We found that whether a politician recently adopted a position or held it consistently had little effect on public support for the senator.
Instead, people backed politicians who held positions similar to their own and opposed politicians who held differing positions. In our studies, people prioritized the similarity of their own and the senator’s current wartime position and not on whether a politician shifted positions – flip-flopped – to reach that position.
Following the Republican primaries, Romney dramatically moderated a number of his previous positions – including tax policy and healthcare – widely seen as among the most important issues of the campaign. In doing so, people put off by his previous, more extremist positions now saw him as holding views similar to their own and viewed him more favorably. In response, the Obama campaign labeled Romney a flip-flopper, with the president saying his opponent’s position changing is a sign he has “Romnesia.” Yet Tuesday’s final tally shows voters cared little about the shifts.
One way to make more sense of these results is to think about three electoral groups. The first group contains strong President Obama supporters. Romney’s move to the middle does not affect this group because Mr. Obama continues to reflect their policy positions more clearly. The second group represents strong Romney supporters. Similarly for them, Romney’s move to the middle does not make them more likely to support Obama. Even a more moderate Romney is still closer to their view of the world than Obama’s and thus preferred.
The third and smallest group contains the undecided and independent voters. Some of them welcomed the governor’s more moderate general election stance, in particular those who viewed Romney in the primaries as too far to the right but were still not enthusiastic about Obama. Even if some of these voters were put off by his position shifts, the remainder, who had questions about Obama, saw the rebooted positions of Romney more positively.
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.
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.