For as long as there have been politicians, those politicians have changed their minds. And for almost as long, they’ve been accused of “flip-flopping.”
As reported in the New York Times in 1890, John Goff, a candidate for District Attorney attacked his opponent: “I would like to hear Mr. Nicoll explain his great flip-flop, for three years ago, you know, as the Republican candidate for District Attorney, he bitterly denounced Tammany as a party run by bosses and in the interest of bossism.”
Goff was also quick to clarify it wasn’t really an attack: “I shall throw no mud in this campaign, but Mr. Nicoll’s political record is public property.”
Flip-Flopping on TV
With the introduction of television advertising in political campaigns, candidates and their admakers had a new tool in their belt. Rather than just tell voters that their opponent had changed their mind, they could actually show voters.
One of the earliest versions of these ads came in 1956. In a rematch against President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Adlai Stevenson pulled a clip from one of Eisenhower’s TV ads four years earlier. In “How’s That Again, General?” they played the clip of Eisenhower complaining about the cost of living increasing before vice presidential candidate Estes Kefauver made the case that Eisenhower had broken his promise.
In 1972, supporters of Richard Nixon chose a more figurative way of illustrating that George McGovern had changed his stance on certain issues. In an ad from Democrats for Nixon, “McGovern Turnaround” showed a photo of McGovern flipping back and forth as a narrator explained McGovern’s new and old positions on issues like busing and marijuana legalization.
Decades later, the same concept behind the Nixon ad would be put to great use by supporters of George W. Bush. Instead of a still photo, they used video footage – of John Kerry windsurfing. The ad charged that Kerry went “whichever way the wind blows,” in addition to contributing to the perception of the candidate as goofy and out-of-touch.
Since then, flip-flops have been a routine charge in political campaigns. By 2012, another wealthy, out-of-touch presidential candidate from Massachusetts faced countless accusations of flip-flopping. It didn’t help that one of Mitt Romney’s top advisers introduced a new metaphor for how easily he changed positions – the etch-a-sketch.
Today, with improved technology and organizations committed to candidate tracking like American Bridge 21st Century and America Rising, it’s easier than ever to catch politicians telling one audience one thing, and another group something completely different – even when those statements are years apart. It may be that the most important debate a candidate faces will be with their former self.
Flip-Flopping in 2016
A little more than a decade after George W. Bush blew John Kerry out to sea with his windsurfing ad, supporters of Jeb Bush are hoping to capture the magic once again to salvage his presidential bid. They’re throwing everything at the wall and hoping something sticks.
In one ad from Bush’s super PAC, Right to Rise, they show Marco Rubio as a weathervane, changing directions in the wind as he goes back and forth on immigration reform.
But in “Boots,” not only do they attack Rubio for flip-flopping on issues like immigration, Syria, and Iran, they also manage to include mention of his record of missed votes – and a shot at his attention-grabbing boots. Never mind that boots and flip-flops are two completely different types of footwear – Bush’s allies are hoping that a catchy tune, an embarrassing image, and an inconsistent record are enough to knock Rubio off track.
As society changes and public perception shifts, elected officials are bound to change their views and policies accordingly. But no politician wants to be accused of flip-flopping; it’s much better to suggest you’ve evolved.