“Mitt the Flip-Flopper” As a General Election Theme

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

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.