The Electoral Benefits of Lacking Consistency?

Conventional wisdom in political science and elsewhere is that voters value candidates who are consistent and whose policy stances are perceived as credible. I suspect that this holds true much of the time but there may be some important exceptions. Consider this snippet from David Brooks’ column on the possibility of a President Perry:

First, Romney could accuse Perry of being the latest iteration of Tom DeLay Republicanism. On the one hand, he is ideologically slippery. The man who sounds so right wing today was the Texas chairman of the Al Gore for President campaign in 1988. The man who now vows to appoint only anti-abortion officials to relevant administration jobs endorsed Rudy Giuliani four short years ago.

I read this as implying that Perry is a lot safer for mainstream Republicans because he has a recent past in which he has espoused more centrist views than what he appears to stand for now. Centrists recognize the incentives for opportunism presented by populist shifts in the electorate. They may thus discount the rhetoric and policy proposals of those politicians who appear to shift to where the electorate is going, whereas they find the leaders of the populist movements who have consistently carried the message credible but undesirable (e.g. Bachmann). Thus, in contrast with 2004, accusing the candidate of flip-flopping may not be a wise strategy for centrist opponents.

I have seen similar things in the Netherlands, where some of the more outlandish proposals by Wilders (who has a mainstream past) are discounted. The question is whether and how such an opportunistic strategy can be a winning one in equilibrium. After all, Tea Party activists should question Perry’s sincerity and prefer a more credible alternative (e.g. Bachmann). Similarly, centrists could find someone who credibly and explicitly conveys a more centrist message. Perhaps more puzzling is how Perry could defeat a true compromise candidate: someone who stakes out a middle ground position rather than someone who stakes out extreme positions in his rhetoric while comforting centrists with more moderate deeds in his record.

What then makes someone like Perry, who should be viewed with suspicion by both sides, such an appealing candidate? And why does this appear to work for Perry whereas Romney has struggled mightily to adopt a similar strategy?

An obvious point on the first question is electoral rules: Republicans have to pick one candidate and most would prefer to pick one who can defeat Obama. This means that you have to be acceptable to both more centrist and more populist factions. That doesn’t answer the second question. It also doesn’t explain why candidates do not appear to be taking middle-ground positions in their rhetoric. For example, on pure policy grounds it would appear to be a winning campaign strategy to advocate some tax cuts on the rich. Yet, some fear that a promise to raise taxes only on those making more than $1 million is not credible: it creates a slippery slope.

Why then does an absolute promise appear more credible? One answer could be that, as this article (gated) suggests, voters only punish politicians for flip-flopping on principles, not on more pragmatic issues. Lowering the threshold from $1 million to $250,000 may be cheaper post-election than raising even a few taxes when you promised to raise none. The latter may be viewed as violating a principled stance whereas the former can be justified as part of a pragmatic compromise. This makes the $1 million promise less credible ex ante and thus less valuable electorally. This could be true even if both the median voter and the candidate prefer the $1 million option to the absolute promise, thus creating incentives for taking rather more extreme positions. This may be a scenario where the need to be consistent and the need to make credible promises do not necessarily converge.

One answer to the latter question could be that Perry has had the opportunity to demonstrate his more populist credentials in office whereas Romney has only seen the light during his campaign. In other words, Romney is too overtly opportunistic whereas there is a sufficient degree of ambiguity on what Perry would truly do while in office. It could also be that Perry is simply a better salesman than Romney. As Perry’s former lieutenant-governor observed in yesterday’s New York Times:

“I think he’s the best I’ve ever seen at picking up on a trend, a movement, and getting out in front of it very early.”

Yes, I know that we political scientists scoff at these types of explanations. But do we really know?

I am not sure what the answers are here. What did I miss on consistency and credibility?

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Erik Voeten

Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh associate professor of geopolitics and global justice at Georgetown University.