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Inside the Mind of a Flip-Flopper

Rivals accuse Mitt Romney of being inconsistent. But USC research finds that “flip-flopping” can be a rational response to uncertainty.

In the 2012 presidential race, Mitt Romney has faced allegations of flip-flopping, with charges that his political positions have been more inconsistent than those of rivals like Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum. A recent article by political science professors at USC and American University finds that when politicians demonstrate an ideologically inconsistent voting record, they may just be responding to uncertain, changing electoral conditions.

Many commentators label legislators’ inconsistent behavior as evidence of an erratic, unpredictable nature, note Christian Grose of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and Antoine Yoshinaka of American University’s School of Public Affairs. But they view the phenomenon differently. “We argue that legislators engage in ideological hedging when faced with high levels of uncertainty about constituent preferences, and that this hedging behavior leads to ideologically inconsistent voting on roll calls,” they write.

The researchers looked at the voting patterns of U.S. senators over four decades, and found that the politicians whose constituencies changed the most were more likely to vote in an inconsistent pattern. Examples included Southern Democrats, who experienced “legislator uncertainty” as their traditionally white voter populations shifted with the enfranchisement of blacks. Other cases of legislator uncertainty involved senators who had a general idea that their constituents were liberal or conservative, but had trouble gauging exactly how liberal or conservative those voters were.

In these types of situations, legislators may “hedge their bets” by spreading out their positions more widely across the ideological spectrum. “Inconsistency may thus be a rational, strategic attempt to respond to uncertainty,” Grose and Yoshinaka argue. Through this process, politicians can get a better grip on their constituents’ wishes. “By casting some roll calls that are in different locations in the ideological space, legislators are able to offer something for everybody. This allows legislators to explain their positions to constituents, and assess reactions to each.”

Contact Christian Grose, assistant professor in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, at (213) 740-1683 or, or follow him on Twitter @christiangrose. To view Grose and Yoshinaka’s article, published by Cambridge University Press’ British Journal of Political Science in October 2011, click here.

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