Although the first vote has yet to be cast, conventional wisdom has it that the primary race is down to two candidates, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. Since both Romney and Gingrich have changed positions on issues large and small in recent years, it seems all but certain that whoever the nominee is, next fall's campaign will feature extended charges and defenses around the idea of flip-flopping. We'll hear about which flips were flopped, which flops were flipped, and what each says about the character of the flopper. So before that gets started in earnest, it’s worthwhile to step back and ask just what a history of position changes is actually supposed to tell us about a candidate, and what insight such a history might—or might not—offer to a presidency.
Despite the charge of flip-flopping making regular appearances in general elections, the primary campaign is the place where it ought to matter. Primary voters are the ones judging the candidates on ideological fealty. They want to know not just whether a candidate has been on their side in the past, but whether he'll remain committed to them in the future. Once a candidate pledges support to party orthodoxy, any change in the general election to appeal to more moderate voters is necessarily away from that orthodoxy.
But it’s not just whether the candidate has the right position that's important—it’s having faith that those beliefs are firmly held. This is why party loyalists are the ones for whom "trust" matters. Mitt Romney, for instance, has to date moved in only one direction—to the right—and in doing so has aligned his position as closely as possible with the party's base. Romney wants them to believe he's done flipping; as failed Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell said when she endorsed him, "That's one of the things that I like about him—because he's been consistent since he changed his mind." But the very enthusiasm (some might say shamelessness) with which Romney has made those changes could serve to undermine Republicans' trust in him. His evident eagerness to cater to their every whim and take whatever position seems to offer the most tactical advantage, no matter how extreme, reeks of such insincerity that it isn't surprising a Republican voter would hesitate before trusting him not to flip right back to the center (or even the left) once doing so became politically advantageous. That might be just fine with Democrats or independents, on the other hand—from a substantive point of view, the real question is which direction the flip is moving, either toward your position or away from it.
Either way, the defining feature of Romney's flip-flops is the care with which he approaches them. Newt Gingrich flips on many of the same issues, but seems to flip impulsively, adopting new positions off the top of his head during the course of a speech or interview. Still, even his flip-flops are all about scoring political points.
Which gets to the heart of why a history of flip-flops is so repugnant to primary voters. What the Republican base is searching for is, yes, someone qualified who can beat Barack Obama, but that person must also connect with them on an emotional level. He must feel what they feel, hate who they hate, and resent what they resent. To a primary voter, the problem with the flip-flopper is that he is too much head and not enough heart.
The flip-flop charge has a long history; Wikipedia points to this article from an 1890 edition of the New York Times, in which a candidate for district attorney accused his opponent of a "great flip-flop" on the issue of Tammany Hall's nefarious influence. More recently, Hubert Humphrey depicted Richard Nixon in a 1968 ad as a weathervane spinning back and forth as he took different positions; Nixon aired an almost identical ad against George McGovern four years later. In the 1988 Democratic primaries, Michael Dukakis torpedoed Richard Gephardt's campaign with an ad featuring a guy in a suit doing back-flips. And of course, George W. Bush's 2004 campaign was built on the charge that John Kerry was a flip-flopper (this Bush ad featured Kerry windsurfing "whichever way the wind blows").
Although it's difficult to point to one particular attack as having swung a particular race, political scientists have long understood the importance of trust in campaigns. Research in the 1970s and 1980s pinpointed competence and integrity as the two key areas of character assessments voters make about potential presidents. A remarkable amount of the discussion in every presidential campaign revolves around whether each candidate is someone we can trust. But what does trust, or the lack thereof, really tell us? Short of Nixonian criminality, the answer is not all that much. George W. Bush never wavered in his commitment to low taxes for the wealthy, nor did he go wobbly when it came to appointing conservative judges. When he said he was going to do something, he usually did it. Did that consistency make you feel any better about him?
In other words, the question of trust is inextricably tied to ideology. Democrats shouldn't really care whether Mitt Romney will stick to his current pro-life position; in fact they'd be happier if as president he flip-flopped. So when we move from the primary to the general election, we also move from the specific flip-flop attack to the general flip-flop attack. When one of his Republican foes reminds voters that Mitt Romney has changed his position on abortion, the criticism is meant to raise doubts that Romney will be there for Republicans on the issue of abortion. When Romney is forced to defend his prior support for an individual health insurance mandate, Republican primary voters are wondering if he'll work against the Affordable Care Act with the vigor they seek. But when the Obama campaign charges that Romney is a flip-flopper, the particular issue in question will be almost irrelevant. What they're hoping to promote is the vague sense that you can't trust him, and don't worry about the particular situation in which his alleged untrustworthiness is supposed to play out.
In campaigns, we treat "character" issues as being not only of central importance but running only on one axis of good to bad. The candidate's character is either strong or weak, pure or unclean, and principled or unprincipled. But we shouldn't forget that flip-flopping has its upside, depending on where you stand.