A Guide to Flip-Flopping

On October 20, U.C. Berkeley Professor Robert Van Houweling came to Stanford to present his research to the Graduate School of Business. In the event, titled “Candidate Inconsistency and Voter Choice,” Van Houweling explored the consequences of candidates “flip-flopping,” or changing their stance on an issue, usually for political gain.

According to Van Houweling, who conducted his research alongside Stanford political science Professor Mike Tomz, voters tend to punish politicians who change their positions. He argues that when voters decide their vote, they not only take into considerations the candidate’s present stance, but also his previous ones.

The research team’s results show that, on average, inconsistent candidates received 43% of the vote, while the consistent candidate received 57% of the preferences. Van Houweling concludes that the average cost of flip-flopping is 14 points, a significant difference in any election. Thus, those interested in running for office should consider the enormous benefit of labeling one’s opponent as a flip-flopper.

Van Houweling explained that he reached these results after a complex process. The team would ask respondents to choose between two candidates.  The voters were told the candidates’ past and present positions on two issues: whether they favored increasing, decreasing or maintaining abortion restrictions, and whether they supported increasing, decreasing or maintaining the tax rate for wealthy Americans. The team created scenarios where both candidates were consistent, where they were both inconsistent, and where one was consistent and the other inconsistent. This allowed for several combinations, with different groups receiving different questions. For example, one voter could be asked whether he supported a pro-choice candidate who had always been pro-choice, or one who had been pro-choice two years ago but was now pro-life. The ultimate goal was to see when a voter would prefer a consistent candidate with whom he disagreed over an inconsistent one with whom he agreed.

Then, Van Houweling examined whether voters actually believed candidates who flip-flopped. He showed that if a candidate consistently favored raising taxes on the rich, 84% of voters believed he would actually try to accomplish this goal. In contrast, if a candidate previously wanted to reduce taxes but then claims he wants to raise them, only 54% believed him, 36% thought he would maintain the status quo, and 8% believed he would push for his original stance. Van Houweling noted that the 36% who expect the candidate to do nothing might explain why moderates tend to punish flip-floppers less severely than partisan voters.

There are some cases in which flip-flopping might result in political gain. Van Houweling’s data showed that 63% of Americans favored raising taxes on wealthy Americans, while only 7% favored decreasing them. Consequently, if both candidates originally supported decreasing taxes, the candidate who decides to favor a tax increase would experience a 15% gain in popularity, much less than the additional 43% proximity theory would suggest he would receive. He concludes, “You would need the new group to be substantially bigger for you to want to make that move.”

Van Houweling also explored the effect of changing from a partisan stance to a moderate one, as often occurs when candidates move from a primary to a general election. His research suggests that this actually hurts the candidate, as he loses support from the group he abandons, and moderates punish him for changing his position.

In terms of abortion, Van Houweling was surprised by the fact that voters tend to punish flip-floppers on economic issues such as tax policy more than those who flip-flop on social issues such as abortion. Furthermore, pro-life voters tend to be much more welcoming than pro-choice voters to candidates who flip-flop to their own side.

Professor Van Houweling highlighted that this not only affects elections, but also negotiations in Congress. He believed that in the current healthcare debate, many Republicans who have already publicly rejected reform will have a difficult time changing their mind and reaching a compromise, as voters would punish them for their inconsistency. He added that this might also explain the increased polarization in American politics.

Furthermore, these results suggest that public opinion does not have such a great impact on public policy, as candidates would be reluctant to quickly flip-flop in favor of a suddenly more popular position.

In their online research draft, Professors Tomz and Van Houweling stated that their research was sparked by the role flip-flop accusations played in the 2004 presidential election. They contended that scholars are unsure of the extent to which these accusations hurt candidate John Kerry, who was in favor of the U.S. led invasion in Iraq before he was against it. The professors added that experts also disagree on how much Bush benefited from being perceived as a President who faithfully stood by his positions.

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