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The Psychology of Political Flip-Flops

Politicians change their minds like everyone else.
/ Source: Discovery Channel

Politicians change their minds like everyone else.

And accusations of flip-flopping are often thought to be a boon for opposing candidates during heated debates. Depending on certain factors, changing stances can actually help a candidate. But it also depends on what political party both voter and politician belong to.

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"Switching stances can be seen as a positive sign of a reasonable and open-minded person, or as spineless flip-flopping," Kimberly Nalder, government studies professor at California State University, told Discovery News.

"Some survey research shows that in the abstract, liberals are more positive about reasoned changes in position, and conservatives more attracted to the idea of 'sticking to your guns,'" said Nalder.

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John W. Goff, candidate for New York City district attorney in 1890, leveled the earliest recorded political accusation of the sandal-sounding sin of flip-flopping in the U.S., in a campaign speech recorded by the New York Times on Oct. 23 of that year.

"I would like to hear Mr. Nicoll explain his great flip-flop, for three years ago, you know, as the Republican candidate for District Attorney, he bitterly denounced Tammany as a party run by bosses and in the interest of bossism... . Nicoll, who three years ago was denouncing Tammany, is its candidate to-day," said Goff.

More recently, cries of "flip-flopper" haunted Democratic candidate John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election after he voted for additional funding for the Iraq War, then voted against it.

"I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it," said Kerry during a 2004 appearance at Marshall University.

Now, Republican candidate Mitt Romney faces the flip-flop epitaph.

"In Romney’s case, his issue switches are numerous enough (abortion, gay rights, immigration, climate change and gun control, just to name a few) and conveniently in the direction of positions that appeal to a conservative base, that he may well have entered the image danger zone," said Nalder.

Voters reject candidates whose waffles are smothered in self-serving syrup.

"If many/most Republican primary voters see him as taking conservative positions only to win the primary (that is, he does not sincerely hold those views), that might undercut support," said Robert Sahr, political science professor at Oregon State University, in response to questions from Discovery News.

"If citizens start to mentally define the candidate as wish-washy or self-interested, and that becomes part of the dominant narrative about the candidate, the campaign is severely hobbled," said Nalder.

Changes in stance can have a positive effect on a voter's mental image of a candidate, when a politician's new position agrees with a voter's.

"Certainly, if we are attentive enough to even recognize that a candidate has come around to our position on an issue, there may be a sense that 'finally, she/he gets it,'" said Nalder.

But often, a candidate's official platform isn't processed accurately by the voter's mind.

"Citizens often project views they agree with onto candidates they like, regardless of what the political figure has actually expressed or done," said Nalder.

"Political science research suggests that individuals engage in motivated reasoning when it comes to evaluating political candidates. That is, they tend to process incoming information in a biased manner to ensure it is consistent with prior attitudes," Elizabeth Miller, political science professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, told Discovery News.

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"Thus, citizens may very well ignore flip-flopping when they feel positive towards a candidate and exaggerate its importance when they dislike a candidate," said Miller.

The effects of a flip-flop are not limited to public opinion. Support for an opinion contrary to one's personal ethics takes a toll on the mind of a politician.

"If a stance change is purely a pander, the politician would be put in a position of having to publicly espouse a false belief while seeming to be sincere about it in public," said Nalder. "That sort of duplicity is undoubtedly psychologically taxing if the issue resonates with core values."

The psychological burden of supporting a stance out of harmony with one's personal beliefs may not weigh on the mind if the stance represents one's constituency.

"Successful politicians though, tend to be pragmatists, and may justify a switch as part of their duty as representatives in a democracy," said Nalder. "If you are serving the interests of a constituency, choices can't always be driven by personal conviction."