Thursday, January 12, 2012

Romney's flip flopping problem

Phillip Klein thinks it will be a bigger problem in the general election than it is in the primary:

During a primary, there’s a certain political balancing act to flip-flopping. On the one hand, changing positions makes a candidate seem inauthentic, but on the other hand, people like it when you agree with them. As it applies to Romney and conservatives, the debate has been between those who see his numerous reversals as evidence that he isn’t truly a conservative, and his supporters, who tout the fact that his current rhetoric is conservative. During the primary season, for instance, some pro-life conservatives have remained suspicious that he’s really one of them, whereas others have argued that opponents of abortion should welcome converts.

But should he be become the nominee, Romney will have to earn the votes of a lot of people who don’t necessarily agree with him. So he’ll essentially get all of the political downside of being a flip-flopper with none of the offsetting benefits. Pro-choice independents, will not only be turned off by his flip flops, but they won’t be happy that he’s now pro-life. So it kind of becomes a double whammy.O

On top of this, he'll have less leeway to shift positions during the general election than typical nominees, because even the slightest change would reinforce the charge.

Ultimately, like everything else, the outcome of the election will likely depend on how the economy is doing. And if it’s bad enough, voters will be more willing to take a chance on Romney. But nobody should underestimate how problematic the flip-flopper label will be to a broader electorate.

He gets a lot correct here. His flipping of positions do make conservative voters question how conservative he really is. And since in the primary there are other candidates who are taking those same positions and who have had those positions for longer than Romney there is a very real possibility that voters will choose another candidate. He is also correct that Romney will have to get some people who don't agree with him on every issue during the general. And mostly, he is correct that in the end the economy will play the biggest role in whether Romney will beat Obama.

But I think the flip flopping problem is more of a concern in the primary than it is the general. Again, Klein gets it correct when he says people like it when you agree with them. And during the general election conservatives will agree with Romney much more often than they will Obama. Even if they are fully aware that he flip flopped on any number of issues, it is still better for Romney that he currently holds conservative views because Obama has never held those views and will never hold them. Why would these people choose the person they disagree with 100% of the time over the person they may disagree with 50% of the time? Unlike in the primary, the people only have two viable choices (unless Ron Paul runs as a third party candidate).

I'm not completely sure Romney could get the Republican nomination without flip flopping. How would he be winning conservative voters by sticking to fully endorsing an individual mandate or abortion? Klein tries to tie in independents as a way where his flip flopping will hurt in the general. But I think this analysis is relying on the myth that there are as many independents as they claim to be. Most independents are consistent partisan voters. Most of these independent voters are going to vote the party. And even if they don't, it's likely that they will make their choice more based on the economy than an issue like abortion. Basically, the number of voters who would actually have their vote swayed by his flip flop on abortion or other single issues is extremely small and extremely unlikely to have much influence on whether he wins a state, more or less the entire election.

I don't think this is understating the problem with flip flopping. I think this is just accurately stating what the problem is, which is that it makes him vulnerable in the primary. But it probably won't matter in the general. People will vote their party and the economy. And if Romney is in the position to have his flip flopping hurt him significantly in the general, it will probably be due to the fact that he convinced enough conservatives in the primary that he is sufficiently conservative. And he would have done that in part by flip flopping.

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