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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Think Twice About Changing Your Mind

Ah, primary season. It’s the wonderful time of year when party activists get to sit down in the intimate setting of a boisterous rally and hear their candidates’ strongest values and desires–you know, the ones they forget immediately after winning the nomination. In a country with wide cultural and social differences, some strategizing on issue positions is necessary in order to win elections. But how much shifting can you get away with and still avoid the devastating label of “flip-flopper”?
This question is addressed by a recent APSR article published by Margit Tavits of Mizzou. In her article, Tavits uses a cross-national dataset of 20 democracies–including the U.S.–to test whether shifting position yields political dividends or losses (in terms of vote totals), and under what conditions. For the purposes of her study, she divides issue positions into two categories: economic or “pragmatic” issues (such as tax policy, regulation, and economic planning), and social or “principled” issues (such as traditional morality, social justice, equality, and environmentalism). A full list of the issues can be found in the original article.
Tavits finds that, on average, shifts on pragmatic issues benefit politicians politically, whereas shifts on social issues are harmful. Since it seems like there is potential for a lot of overlap between issues designated as either “pragmatic” or “principled,” the waters are muddied somewhat. But attempting to moderate or reverse one’s positions on strong, clearly principled issues like abortion, gay marriage, or religion’s place in public life appears to be one ticket to a lost election. If you’re on the record supporting liberal social policies and you’re worried about the South and Midwest, it’s probably a better bet to remain passionate on the stump, while not exactly leading with those issues.
The same could go for moderates in those ideological primary battles. Giuliani gets it on abortion. So does Clinton on the War. If Tavits knows what she’s talking about, we can only hope that the Republicans nominate Mitt Romney.

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