The myth of flip-flops

An imagined ad by George McClellan against Abraham Lincoln in the 1964 presidential campaign.

Who do voters hate more, “the extremist or the flip-flopper?” Seth Masket poses the question at the Mischiefs of Faction blog, and the answer may surprise you only if you’re a political journalist.

Masket writes about a change in position by Cory Gardner, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate from Colorado. Gardner, in a tight race, abandoned his previous support for a “personhood amendment” to the state constitution (and also an equivalent federal law) that would protect the rights of individuals “at the beginning of biological development.” According to a March story in the Denver Post, “Gardner conceded that with his new position on personhood, he might be accused of flip-flopping simply to make himself more palatable to statewide voters.”

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Let’s accept the idea that Gardner executed a “flip-flop,” even though the word implies two actions, or a 360-degree turn, instead of a single change in position. “Flip-flopping” is a reliable old charge to hurl at practically anyone running for office.

In 2004, Republicans managed to tar Democratic nominee John Kerry as both a rigid liberal and an unpredictable flip-flopper. CBS News ran a story on “Kerry’s Top Ten Flip-Flops,” all of which arguably represented changed views in response to changed circumstances (such as the implementation of the Patriot Act and No Child Left Behind Act). CBS ran a similar list for President George W. Bush. (Bush, you may remember, was asked in a presidential debate that year, “give three instances in which you came to realize you had made a wrong decision, and what you did to correct it,” which was practically a dare to flip-flop.)

Getting back to Colorado, the question is whether Gardner will suffer at the polls not for his new position on a personhood amendment, but for the very act of changing his position. Masket guesses not, in part because people are going to vote their partisan preferences anyway: "A study by Michael Tomz and Robert Van Houwelling finds that candidate “ambiguity” is actually a good thing, especially in a partisan election. If voters are uncertain about your stances, those voters in your own party will tend to assume that you agree with them, while voters in the other party at least won't think any worse of you."

In a high-profile case like the Colorado Senate race, I’m not sure how many people will be uncertain of the candidates’ stances. Even so, it doesn’t make any sense for supporters of personhood laws to flip to the Democratic nominee, incumbent Mark Udall, out of pique. If such laws come up in the U.S. Senate, Gardner is obviously a more “gettable” vote than Udall is. And such laws are more likely to be considered by a Republican-majority Senate.

As for opponents of personhood laws, they’re not likely to penalize Gardner for coming around to their view. He may indeed pick up votes from independents who like his economic views but were wary of his stances on “social” issues.

“Flip-flopper” is a favorite epithet of journalists who don’t want to imply favoritism toward one political stance or another. Candidate Smith has a credibility problem because he said one thing five years ago and he’s saying something else now! But there’s no evidence that voters are scandalized by changed minds.

Image from "The Flip-Flop President?", video by FlackCheck.org.

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