Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Cost of Flip-Flops: The Electoral Consequences of Candidate Ambiguity

Campaign politics are kind of like a box of chocolates. You never really know what you're going to get, but you can be pretty sure that you'll get a few of the same pieces in each box. 

In the United States, one of these pieces that we get every two or four years is the flip-flop (sometimes called a waffle). A flip-flop is not merely a breakfast food, but can also be when someone holds one policy position before holding a different policy position. The more the latter position contradicts the former position, the bigger the flip-flop (see this website that has a rating system for degree of flipping and flopping). 

Accusing one's opponent of flip-flopping has become the dominant candy in the box of chocolates. For evidence of this, just google "political flip-flop." You'll see 3.53 MILLION pages returned. 

For some bipartisan examples, let's recall President (then Governor) Bill Clinton's 1992 attacks on President George H. W. Bush for flip-flopping on taxes.

And, President George W. Bush's comical attack on Senator John F. Kerry's flip-flopping on a number of issues.

And, the newly available flip-flop footwear with the opposition candidate's face and name on them.

So, it's clear that attacking one's opponent by calling them a flip-flopper or a waffler is common. But, do those attacks work? And, is there some reason why candidates choose to flip-flop on some issues?

At the Summer Institute in Political Psychology, Michael Tomz presented the findings from a paper he and Robert van Houweling published in the 2009 issue of the American Political Science Review in which they try to answer these questions.

These researchers hypothesized that flip-flopping could lead voters to have positive OR negative perceptions of the candidates. Flip-flopping might actually lead people to think that the inconsistent candidate is open-minded, flexible, and responsive to new data. Alternately, voters may come to view the inconsistent candidate as lacking integrity and honesty, and perceive the candidate as willing to say anything to get elected. This negative effect should dissuade candidates from changing their views, lest they suffer the wrath of countless attack ads.

In Tomz and van Houweling's research, they had participants read about two fictitious candidates, one of whom had flip-flopped on an issue. After reading about the candidates, the  participants evaluated the character of the candidates and their confidence in how the candidate would stand on issues if s/he was elected.

Holding all other variables constant, randomized flip-flopping led to an 11% penalty in the polls. However, the story gets more complicated. This effect is particularly true for partisans and when the flip-flop is on an issue that some bloc of voters deems important.

If this is the case, then it would be most sensible for candidates to stay consistent on issues that have appeal across the aisle and be ambiguous about the key issues for one's own party, because members of the candidate's party assume that the candidate shares their view regardless of any clear statement of that view.

Thus, ambiguity can be strategically used by candidates to appeal to specific groups that might not ordinarily support them. If done inappropriately, it can ring the final bell and effectively bring a campaign to its knees... unless it can also frame the other candidate as an ambiguous flip-flopper.

With these implications, we should expect to see a growing barrage of flip-flopper attacks as the 2012 US Presidential Election approaches.

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