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.