Why Politicians Are Encouraged to ‘Flip Flop’

Voters in general, and Christian voters in particular, express frustration with the lack of principle that characterizes most politicians, and the “flip flops” they engage in during election campaigns. Yet without winking at the lack of principles, it might help us to understand, and perhaps be a bit more forgiving, if we understand that the institutions of democracy themselves—and of U.S. democracy in particular—create incentives for politicians to behave the way they do. Some of these incentives can be changed; others most will not want to change, even if it would promise a change in the behavior of politicians.

Americans sometimes forget that the U.S. presidential election is not one election, but many. Not only do voters elect delegates to nominating conventions on a state-by-state basis, but the election to the presidency occurs through the Electoral College—chosen on a state-by-state basis rather than by a majority of the popular vote.

Politicians need to win what political scientists call the “pivotal” voter in order to be elected to office. In two-party majoritarian elections with a voters distributed along a regular “left-right” continuum, politicians must win the vote of the median voter. So their policy positions will tend to cluster around the policy preferences of the middle voter.

Why the Median Voter Matters

Consider the effect of the primary system on the policy positions that election-oriented politicians take. The median Republican voter in any state tends to be more conservative than the median Democratic voter in that state. In their respective primary campaigns, Republican and Democratic politicians (again, with exceptions) have an incentive to position themselves to appeal to their party’s median party voter. After all, they will not be their parties’ nominee unless they win their respective primary campaign.

Because election-oriented politicians have an incentive to appeal to the median voter in their respective primaries, “closed-party” primaries—in which only registered party members vote—tend to pull the positions of Republican and Democratic politicians apart.

But all voters subsequently mix together for the general election. That means the median general-election voter in each state is more conservative than the median Democratic-primary voter, and more liberal than the median Republican-primary voter. This, in turn, means that the respective winners of the parties’ primary campaigns have articulated policy preferences during the primary that turn out to be “too extreme” for the median voter in the general election.

This creates incentives for candidates to “rush to the middle,” that is, to become more centrist, for general elections. This does not mean that candidates are pandering to party regulars any more than it means that they’re pandering to moderate voters. The behavior, as it were, is incentivized by the institutional structure of the democratic selection process in the United States.

Noting that, however, does not imply that “rushing to the middle” is never costly for politicians. Candidates develop reputations based on what they say during primary campaigns. Moving too fast or too far toward the middle during the general-election campaign may risk losing a candidate’s partisan supporters. Or if a candidate articulates a new policy position, the median voter in the general election may not believe a candidate’s new, more moderate positions in a general election campaign.

Significance of a Candidate’s Reputation

The importance of reputation can be seen in the re-election failure of the first President Bush. In his first general election campaign for president, Bush staked out a clear policy position on taxes: “Read my lips: No new taxes.” He subsequently raised taxes during his first administration, and subsequently lost to Bill Clinton when he ran for re-election.

I’ve heard President Bush address this topic numerous times in his post-presidency speeches. He still argues that he needed to compromise with the Democrats over taxes in order to get Congress to move on reducing the budget deficit.

That may be correct. But what Bush still seems to miss is that his “no new taxes” position wasn’t simply one policy position among many. It was his signature policy position in that campaign. As a result, keeping that policy commitment became a character issue for Bush; his reputation hinged on it. When he compromised with the Democrats to reduce the deficit by increasing taxes (and cutting spending), he set up the loss of his subsequent election to Clinton, in part, because those who supported him in the first election no longer trusted his words.

Nonetheless, many of Bush’s supporters also continued to support Bush. Like the candidates, many voters understand that majoritarian politics means that you get the policies you prefer only if your candidate actually wins. Ideological purity may be emotionally satisfying, but it typically doesn’t win a lot of elections. The institutional structure of democracy sets up the incentive for many voters to accept the “flip flops” of their candidates, as well as setting up the incentives for the candidates to flip flop in the first instance.

Christians and Political Realism

Again, I do not mean to suggest that politicians should not be held to their words. Nonetheless, understanding the incentive structure that politicians face helps Christians and others to have realistic expectations about what politicians “do” do, as opposed to what the “should” do. And in so doing make sounder judgments in expectation that candidates will moderate their positions.

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  • Nick F.

    I don’t think flip-flopping is necessarily bad in all cases. In particular, if a candidate has seriously taken a new consideration to an opposing side, or if circumstances change so that his or her original stance is no longer viable, I see nothing wrong in a thoughtful change of mind. In fact, it can be a sign of real maturation (not to mention a breath of fresh air) for a candidate to admit that they were wrong on something. Dogged devotion to a single idea in the face of all opposition and reason is a frightening trait in a political candidate.

    And yes, I’m thinking about Grover Norquist (among other issues). :-)

  • http://almostreadytogoamish.blogspot.com Neo

    They flip-flop because the heart is deceitful above all things – most especially when dealing with politicians.

  • http://www.apoorwretch.com Seth Fuller

    I disagree. I think politicians should think about what they say before they say it. I think they should say what they mean and mean what they say. I think their yes should be yes, and their no should be no. I think it is wrong to even subtly hint that they be given some sort of special pass simply because they are in politics.

    I’m also concerned that your argument is not argued from Scripture.

    For His glory,

    Seth Fuller

    • http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/ Joe Carter

      Dr. Rogers is not making an argument but merely presenting an observation based on political science. He’s explaining why Christians in America shouldn’t be surprised when politicians flip-flop; he’s not saying that it’s something Christians should endorse. By being “wise as serpents” we can be less naive in the choices we make and more realistic about what can be accomplished through political means.

      • http://www.apoorwretch.com Seth Fuller

        Joe I appreciate your posts so don’t take this the wrong way. By choosing the “lesser of two evils” we are “endorsing” the character values of the candidates we choose. We are essentially giving them the thumbs up not only for them, but for candidates in the future to continue their wicked behavior. This strategy is a failure for our country, but above all, it is a failure before God to stand for righteousness and justice.

        • Joe Carter

          I don’t disagree with your point at all. My take-away from the article is that it’s not enough to expect a candidate to be consistent since the incentives are strong for the them to shift toward the middle. Instead, we have to shift the median *voters* toward righteousness and justice. If that’s where the votes are, that’s where our politicians will go too.

  • Brian

    Although I agree that he should not have gone back on his word, George Bush Sr. lost because of the third party candiate: Ross Perot.

  • Erin

    I still remember a middle school social studies teacher who explained this concept using the analogy of lemonade stands on the boardwalk. (The lemonade stands would have to keep moving to the middle in order to appeal to more customers.)

  • Ruby

    This really makes sense and makes me think.
    We shouldn’t judge too quickly. :)



  • Steve Cornell

    Helpful thoughts.

  • Lin Crowe

    Flip-flop” is a mis-leading, though eye-catching, phrase. The American political system, particularly for presidential elections, was designed to force compromise and cooperation, eliminating extremism. The Electoral College was instituted as a way to encourage the creation of truly national party structures (that’s why it is so difficult to have 3rd party success in presidential elections) and so our candidates tend to take broad, and sometimes malleable, positions which can be adjusted to accomodate legislative cooperation. In America, because of our 2-party system, the voter is the one who must compromise in order to select a candidate with whom he or she may not entirely agree on all points. In a multi-party system, like many other countries, as a voter you can find a politician who is more exactly like you and so you can more comfortably vote your preference. Christians in America need to realize that the nature of the system created for us by the Founding Fathers has bequethed to us an election process that requires us all to “move to the middle” and has thus created the most stable democratic system in the history of the world. And, for the love of God, and a faithful witness to Christ, we need to turn down the rhetoric.

  • http://www.alivewithchrist.com Jess Simpson

    It’s very important that we take matters of electing our leaders seriously as Christians. Additionally, as Christians we are required by God to speak out against moral evils that leadership in our nation may legislate in favor of. However, on the other hand, there’s one vote that we often lose focus of in times like this, check out that vote at http://alivewithchrist.com/confession/

  • Virginia McLain

    My dad is a pastor and wrote a blog post about the election results that is worth checking out. http://martymclain.com/2012/11/07/my-thoughts-on-the-election/