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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

New numbers from CNN reveal that Americans think both Barack Obama and John McCain are flip-floppers — but like them just fine anyway:

Sixty-one percent of voters believe that McCain has changed his mind for political reasons; 37 percent do not. Fifty-nine percent of voters believe that Obama also shifts positions with the political winds; 38 percent do not.

That’s a change from 2004, according to Holland. “One of the reasons President Bush won reelection in 2004 was that only one-third of voters believed he would change his policy positions because of changing political dynamics. Most voters, on the other hand, believed that John Kerry was a flip-flopper.”

I’m moderately surprised that McCain’s number is as high as it is, since the media has tended not to highlight his flip-flops. I’m not one of those people, by the way, that thinks the media is constantly biased in John McCain’s direction. I think Obama gets more of the bad from the media, but also more of the good.

But in any event, this underscores one of the points I had made before: John McCain is not seen as having the higher ground on the flip-flops issue in the same way that George W. Bush was. Nor is it clear that being labeled as a flip-flopper is necessarily some kind of death-knell for Obama (or McCain for that matter): both candidates were regarded favorably in this poll overall.

That’s not to say there isn’t any danger on this point to Barack Obama. I think his flip-flop numbers will go up some, and I think that might harm his approval numbers by a point or two. On balance, however, I tend to side with Noam Schieber: John Kerry’s problem wasn’t that people saw him as a flip-flopper, it’s that people saw him as sort of a poseur. Likewise, with Mitt Romney, the flip-flop label really stuck in the primaries — partly because Romney has changed his positioning on a lot of issues (there’s a fascinating argument that Romney could have won the primaries if he’d run as a competent, moderate reformer) — but also because people just don’t like the guy.

Another difference with John Kerry is that he committed a gaffe that compounded his reputation for flip-flopping: namely, by saying the words “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it”. A flip-flop is not a gaffe; it is the opposite of a gaffe, something done intentionally with an eye toward improving one’s electoral standing. But Kerry’s sloppy phrasing was a gaffe, and one of the more damaging utterances since “Read My Lips: No New Taxes”.

Finally, Kerry’s alleged flip-flop on the Iraq War was not toward the center, but toward the left. It’s harder to criticize a candidate when they’re taking on a position that is more in line with your own. Moreover, it appeared as though Kerry had been opportunistic twice over: first in voting for the war in the first place, when most of the mainline liberals in the Senate hadn’t –and then by reversing his position later on.

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