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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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.