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Flip-Flopping: As American as Apple Pie

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.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.