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It's not hard to find punditry like

[Trump's] chief campaign strategist Paul Manafort told Republican leaders that Trump’s been acting all along. “The part that he’s been playing,” Manafort insisted, “is now evolving into the part that you’ve been expecting. The negatives will come down, the image is going to change.”

That’s impossible. Welcome to the Information Age. Pivoting to the center may have worked in the 20th century, but now everything’s on video. [...]

In 2012, after Mitt Romney won the Republican nomination, his campaign strategist said something very similar to Trump’s. “Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.” He was wrong. [...]

Are there any academic studies that try to quantify how much of this "campaign pivoting doesn't work anymore" thesis is true, especially with regard to pivoting/shifting toward a centrist position? I'm interested in studies that would try to quantify this across candidates, and if possible across countries, rather than give some other individual examples.

This seems to contradict to some extent what others say about the electorate's decision making process, e.g. Larry Bartels claims that:

So much of politics, not surprisingly, turns out to be about expressive behavior rather than instrumental behavior — in other words, people making decisions based on momentary feeling and not on some sound understanding of how those decisions will improve or hurt their life.

In other words, others say people could still be persuaded by "spin doctors" despite "everything [said in the past] being on video". So are there empirical studies that try to quantify this, one way or the other?

  • Wouldn't somebody have to actually attempt a pivot in order for there to be a study about it? I don't think that there's been any notable pivot in a presidential race since 2008. – Joe Mar 2 at 19:51
  • @Joe: I'm not asking specifically about the US (or the presidential race). That was just the motivation for asking the broader question. – Fizz Mar 2 at 19:55
  • @Joe I think there must have been plenty of historical pivoting going from the primaries to actual elections in the US. whether such a study exists, and how it would be conducted (how much pivoting change was there? how good were the results?) is another. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Mar 2 at 21:38
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Surprisingly, recent research seems to imply that the opposite is true.

In their 2018 article, Representations of reliability: The rhetoric of political flip-flopping, in the Public Relations Review journal, Bentley & Vogue describe the results of a qualitative analysis of 141 political flip-flops, in order to try to understand the best approach to mitigate negative effects on the politician. In particular, they identify flip-flops where, as in the question:

For example, candidates may take more extreme positions to please their base during primary elections, and then moderate their stances to attract swing voters during general elections.

They identified four basic strategies:

  • Ignore the flip-flop, by evading questioning and refusing to acknowledge a change in position.

  • Deny the flip-flop, by arguing that the previous position was misrepresented or misunderstood.

  • Justify the flip-flop, by arguing that the change in policy was necessary to maintain another, more important position, and therefore not a sign of hypocrisy or untrustworthiness.

  • Repent, admitting that the previous position was wrong/a mistake, and do not try to defend it.

They found that the most successful strategy to take particularly depended on whether key stakeholders would care about the flip-flop or not. If not, the best strategy was to ignore or deny the change in position. The results seemed to indicate that it was only worth trying to justify or explain the change in views if there was a high chance that a significant portion of the traditional voter base for that candidate would be likely to change their views based on the new position.

These findings appear to be corroborated by the findings of McDonald, Croco & Turitto in their 2019 article Teflon Don or Politics as Usual? An Examination of Foreign Policy Flip-Flops in the Age of Trump in The Journal of Politics. They examined the response of voters to two contradictory positions taken by President Trump, firstly his position on American involvement in Syria, and secondly his position on the use of trade tariffs against the EU. The participants were split into three groups. The "action" group were told that Trump has made an action on foreign policy, without explicit knowledge of the flip-flop, the "reversal" group were shown an article which pointed out the contradiction in position, and the "control" group were shown an unrelated news story. The views of the participants on the issue at hand before the experiment was also recorded.

The findings indicated that if voters had access to the information about the flip-flop (i.e. the reversal group), they were far more likely to be able to identify the change in position. This would seem to support the hypothesis that greater access to information leads to greater damage to pivoting politicians. However, the results also showed that despite being able to identify the flip-flop, the participants' approval of the change in policy was far more reliant on whether the final position that Trump took overlapped with their view on the issue. That is to say, that the act of pivoting was to an extent only important to a voter if the final position contradicted their personal views.

In conclusion then, studies seem to show that although the dawn of the Information Age allows voters to more easily identify a positional pivot by a politician, the damage, or lack thereof, to the politician is far more reliant on voters' view on the issue. This seems to suggest that flip-flopping can actually help a politician, if the current position is sufficiently unpopular with the electorate, and being accused of hypocrisy is far less of a concern than it was in the past.

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