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March 22, 2012 5:02 PM “Mitt the Flip-Flopper” As a General Election Theme

By Ed Kilgore

One consequence of the Great Etcha-Sketch Incident of 2012 (other than its impact on Ohio Art stock) has been to stimulate discussion about whether Mitt Romney’s rep as a world-class Flip-Flopper could be a general election issue for Obama and company.

Its utility and ubiquity in the GOP nominating contest is pretty obvious, insofar as most of the battle has been over self-identified conservative voters in a vengeful mood who are being asked to support a front-runner who has visibly struggled to keep up with the ever-escalating demands of an evolving conservative orthodoxy. Indeed, it’s sometimes forgotten that the flip-flop charge has been an effective weapon against other candidates as well, as wielded, ironically, by Romney, whose Super-PAC has frequently run ads questioning the constancy of Gingrich and Santorum.

But assuming that (a) conservatives will dutifully fall into line for Romney against Obama, as every bit of evidence indicates they will, and (b) swing voters aren’t really concerned about Mitt’s fidelity to the movement conservatism, and might actually welcome signs he’s strayed, then is this really a fruitful line of attack for Democrats?

Our Ten Miles Square colleague John Sides asks this question at The Monkey Cage today:

The question… is whether voters’ perceptions of “who’s the biggest flipflopper” are as potent as their perceptions of other characteristics of the candidates. Consider characteristics like “cares about people like me” or “cares about the middle class”—qualities on which Romney is also disadvantaged relative to Obama. Which of these is the strongest predictor of vote intention in a Romney-Obama race?

After evaluating polling data on the subject, and recognizing that a lot of people perceive Obama as a flip-flopper as well, John reaches this tentative conclusion:

[W]hen people evaluate Obama more favorably than Romney on the flip-flopper dimension, they are also more likely to prefer Obama in a head-to-head match-up. But this apparent effect pales beside the effect of two other dimensions: cares about people like me and cares about the middle class.

So here’s the upshot:

These results—preliminary to be sure—suggest that people prioritize the candidates’ empathy more than their tendency to flip-flop. If the choice is between drawing Romney’s face on an Etch-a-Sketch or putting it on a $10,000 bill, I’d take the bill.

Ah, but is it really a “choice?” Sure, logically it makes no sense to simultaneously attack someone as a “flip-flopper” and as someone with immutably unattractive characteristics or views. But that sure didn’t keep Republicans from going after John Kerry in 2004 as “the most liberal member of the United States Senate” and as a “flip-flopper.” Indeed, the general idea seemed to be to depict Kerry as a godless liberal who “flip-flopped” in an ineffectual effort to hide that fact. Romney strikes me as significantly more vulnerable than Kerry ever was on that score, since he’s flipped and flopped back and forth on some issues (most notably abortion) depending on his particular circumstances.

In the end the significance of the “flip-flop” charge in 2012 may simply be that its potency before Romney’s nomination may force him to make even more commitments to right-wing orthodoxy which will play into Obama’s general election strategy. But I’d advise Democrats not to throw those Etch-a-Sketches in the trash just yet.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • Jim Pharo on March 22, 2012 5:22 PM:

    Ed, the flip-flop charge will stick if Chuck Todd wants it to. If the idio-pundit-ocracy decides it's old news and that Real Murkin voters don't care and only care about jobs, then this goes down the memory hole. If Chuck Todd wants to keep this around, he'll explain that even though it's not an issue in the polls, "a lot of people" are "really uncomfortabe" with what kind of President R-Money will be given his "Etch-A-Sketch" problem.

    Really, we could write the front page of the NY Times for any day between now the election and be scarily prescient.

  • N.Wells on March 22, 2012 5:32 PM:

    It depends on the framing. In the remaining Republican primaries, the attack will be "this guy is not really a conservative", and, as noted, that will actually be a good thing in the general campaign. However, if the framing is not "he's not really a conservative" and is instead "he's a liar" (you can't trust him because he always tells people whatever he thinks they want to hear) then it will hurt him hugely, as it should.

  • T2 on March 22, 2012 5:34 PM:

    the only people who matter here are Independents (typically Republicans who don't want to admit being connected to the likes of Santorum and Gingrich) and Republicans (who are currently splitting their vote between the likes of Santorum and Gingrich and Romney). Of those two groups, Republicans are used to being lied to so much that they accept it as a feature, not a bug. Therefore, the Flip-Flopper charge isn't likely to stop them from voting for Romney.

  • Joe Buck on March 22, 2012 5:39 PM:

    Every politician changes his or her mind occasionally, and sometimes for self-serving reasons. But the issue with Mitt Romney isn't whether or not he is a "flip-flopper", but whether he is a complete phony with no core beliefs, willing to say anything to pander to any audience, a cynical empty suit whose only core conviction is that he is entitled to be president.

    Because of this, Democrats should avoid calling him a "flip-flopper" as that word is so overused as to be meaningless. His problem goes way beyond that. It's a lack of integrity.

  • Ron Byers on March 22, 2012 5:43 PM:

    N. Wells has the correct take. The Washington insiders view the flip flopping issue as whether Mitt is a moderate or a real conservative. People outside the beltway view it as a character flaw. They see Romney for what he is, a man who is selling his soul for a chance to win the Presidency. The Presidency is not a prize. It is a job that requires integrity. People have to trust a president, any president. Nobody can trust Romney because his flip-flopping proves a stone cold liar.

  • Maroc on March 22, 2012 5:49 PM:

    Well, but the issue isn't really the flip-flopping. That's a ridiculously mild way of alluding to the true and underlying issue, which both Rachel Maddow and Rick Santorum have highlighted within the past 24 hours: the man lies all the time. It's not merely that he changes substantive positions; it's that he changes them and then lies about what his positions were. And what the underlying facts are. And what he said three days ago.

    But no matter how you frame it, the behavior pattern ought to be a huge issue for the general election. I think, unfortunately, that he's likely to govern as he's campaigned to the base, if he's elected. But he's not going to be telling general election voters that; he's going to be saying he's a reasonable centerist. That he changes his positions all the time, according to the convenience and whim of the moment, is something worth pointing out to anyone who thinks it's safe to vote for him, hard-right primary voters and general election voters alike.

    These aren't sensible grown-up "I thought about it more and changed my mind" flip-flops. As Maddow says, the guy lies. He lies all the time, about critically important things and trivial things alike. The behavior pattern is nothing like anything we've seen from Obama. It's as important an issue as any in the coming election, and I can only hope the press chooses to highlight it.

  • jjm on March 22, 2012 5:50 PM:

    Re "After evaluating polling data on the subject, and recognizing that a lot of people perceive Obama as a flip-flopper as well, John reaches this tentative conclusion:"

    In what universe is Obama a flip-flopper?

  • liam foote on March 22, 2012 5:55 PM:

    If Mr. Romney is the GOP candidate we can be certain that his campaign and SuperPAC will launch an attack upon Mr. Obama as a flip-flopper, just to establish the equivalence, a time honored GOP tactic.

    We will likely hear about campaign promises such as closing Gitmo and his failure to do so, despite the fact that Congress wouldn't allow it. We will hear distorted nonsense about his being against Keystone (i.e., north) before being for it (south).

    These folks are adept at this kind of distortion and spin and are likely to affect at least some of the undecided voters, giving them a reason to ignore Romney's blatant lies and general inconsistency.

  • Stephen Stralka on March 22, 2012 6:02 PM:

    I think it comes down to the same thing. The lack of empathy, the relentless flip-flopping, not to mention the shameless lying, are all emanations from the howling void where Romney's soul should be.

    If I was running against him, I would present him as a man without any real convictions, but who has signed on whole-heartedly to the Republicans' draconian agenda for purely self-interested reasons. Basically a man who is willing to trash Medicare if that's what it takes to be President.

  • Christopher on March 22, 2012 6:13 PM:

    There's a difference between flipping and flip-flopping. You can explain flipping as "changing your mind," and everyone is allowed to change his mind as he grows older. But Romney regularly changes his mind back to where it was before and that just doesn't fly with voters. He was a moderate Republican and then a liberal Republican and now a conservative Republican and he's going to be a moderate Republican again for the general election. But it's really going to be hard because he doesn't have the secret conservative army that Bush had when he ran as a moderate. And so at every turn he's going to risk alienating either the base or the independents.

  • Danp on March 22, 2012 6:39 PM:

    The etch-a-sketch metaphor is not about flip-flopping. It is about wanton and strategic phoniness. And Romney is a gold plated etch-a-sketch.

  • JW on March 22, 2012 7:59 PM:

    There's a stink on the very term, "flip flop". Sister Maddow sang about it the other night.

    On the other hand, there's a crisp, clean snap about the word "liar".

  • John on March 22, 2012 8:14 PM:

    The problem for Mitt Romney is that he has no convictions at all. He is the well lubricated weathervane. He is a blank slate. He adopts new positions anytime it's convenient for him. The Etch-a-Sketch conveys this idea perfectly. It is damaging to Romney because it is so easy to understand and it is true. This is gold for the Democrats. They should use every opportunity to identify Romney with the Etch-a-Sketch.

  • pjcamp on March 22, 2012 9:40 PM:

    Obama IS a flip flopper. He did a 180 on the Bush national security state literally overnight.

    By the way, your Captchas are illegible.

  • Patango on March 23, 2012 12:50 AM:

    The people who are pointing out romney is beyond flip flopp are spot on ..Has there been such an extreme example since like back in the old school politician days? Telling this many back and forth and back again lies , in just a 3 day or 3 week period?

    And this guy represents a typical wall st rocks for brains ceo , that might be the only blessing in all this , mitt exposing them all for what they are ...The guy appeared normal at 1st , but he just disdains working people and is not afraid to show it

    If people come out in even semi large crowds to vote for romney and what he has been trying to sell , the gop will get even more delusional and impossible to deal with , if that is even possible , they can double down on just making $hit up

  • FreakyBeaky on March 23, 2012 12:52 AM:

    I don't recall Obama ever committing to undoing the Bush national security state.

    Good advice not to throw out the etch-a-sketch. Left blogistan is full of plumb dumb navel-gazing tripe about flip-flopping not being a good attack tonight. I'll outsource my reply to a professional, Tony Blair:

    "With each successive Tory leader, I would develop a line of attack, but I only did so after a lot of thought. So I defined Major as weak; Hague as better at jokes than judgment; Howard as an opportunist; Cameron as a flip-flop, not knowing where he wanted to go. . . . Expressed like that, these attacks seem flat, rather mundane almost, and not exactly inspiring, but that's their appeal. Any one of those charges, if it comes to be believed, is actually fatal. Yes, it's not like calling your opponent a liar, or a fraud, or a villain or a hypocrite, but the middle-ground floating voter kind of shrugs their shoulders at those claims. They don't chime. They're too over the top, too heavy, and they represent an insult, not an argument. Whereas the lesser charge, because it's more accurate and precisely because it's more low-key, can stick. And if it does, that's that. Because in each case, it means they're not a good leader. So game over."

  • Robert Waldmann on March 23, 2012 5:21 AM:

    I absolutely agree. In fact, the themes of Romney the ruthless vulture capitalist and Romney the flip-flopper complement each other (even more than Kerrry most liberal flip flopper did). In each case he can be portrayed as being unscrupulous willing to do anything to get money then or power in 2013. Each mean he is someone from whom one wouldn't want to buy a used car.

    The polling is unclear. The reason is that Obama has been under attack for years. Most people haven't begun to examine Romney. I'm sure they can be convinced by video of him saying one thing and its opposite with the exact same tone and expression (he only has one). Political junkies consider Romney a totally outstanding flip flopper. We are sometimes leading indicators. Also, on topics other than his own core beliefs (or the absence of same) Romney lies extraordinarily often even for a politician.

    The assertion that Romney is completely unprincipled and untrustworthy has the additional advantage of being true.

  • peggy jane on March 25, 2012 10:54 PM:

    No one seems to worry about the fact that Romney is in a cult, Mormanism, that is very scary and secrative. His first loyalty will always be with this cult and most of them never serve their country but serve the cult on their missions. check out ex-mormons who found out how hard it is to be free and how painful when their families cast them out. There goal is to get into the white house. Heven help us if they succeed.