When is Changing Policy Positions Costly for Politicians? Experimental Evidence

Abstract

Although changing policy positions is often thought of as costly for politicians, this may not always be the case. We present findings from two survey experiments designed to assess how people respond to politicians who change positions on an issue. We examine the direct effects of position changes on both summary evaluations of a candidate and ratings of a candidate’s character. We find that the effect of changing positions varies across issues and that the passage of time attenuates the negative effects of a change of position. We also find that although individual voters prefer a candidate who moves closer to their own preferred policy position to one who sticks to a disliked policy position, in the aggregate changing policy positions may be costly unless the prospective new position is supported by a supermajority of the public.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    We use the term “character” to generally refer to the politician’s nature or makeup. As such, our use of the term is broader than its use in theoretical models that define a politician’s “character” as being committed to a campaign platform (e.g., Kartik and McAfee 2007).

  2. 2.

    Sigelman and Sigelman (1986) also note, however, that “out-of-character” acts can raise respondents’ assessments of a (fictional) president’s “flexibility and open-mindedness.”

  3. 3.

    However, this effect is conditional: people are no more forgiving of financial scandals when they occurred long ago.

  4. 4.

    A multinomial logit model predicting treatment assignment (to one of the five treatment conditions described below) with an array of pre-treatment demographic measures (age, gender, race, education, income, income missing, political ideology, party identification, and political interest) suggested some covariate imbalance (p = .042 for test of joint significance of the model). This imbalance was driven primarily by imbalance in respondent race across conditions. In the analysis we report below we include controls for this vector of demographic measures. Identical models excluding these controls yield substantively similar results.

  5. 5.

    For example, -1 indicates that the respondent either strongly supported or strongly opposed the policy and was presented with a representative who adopted the opposite position; 1 indicates that the respondent had a strong preference and agreed with the representative’s position. Respondents indicating that they either “somewhat” supported or opposed the policy described were scored as −.33 or .33, depending on whether they (somewhat) agreed with the representative’s position.

  6. 6.

    In additional analysis, presented in Supplementary Table A3, we assess whether Policy Agreement moderated the effects of the Change of Position treatments. However, theoretically we might expect this interaction to be either positive or negative. If a change of position fosters doubts about the sincerity of a candidate’s true current position we would expect a change of position to attenuate the positive relationship between policy agreement and evaluations of the candidate (negative interaction term). Alternately, current substantive policy agreement may attenuate the negative effect of having changed position (positive interaction term). We find no evidence of a statistically significant interaction between agreement on Abortion and either Change of Position treatment and including these terms does not jointly improve the fit of the model (p = .627; Supplementary Table A3, column [1]). Nor do we find evidence that agreement with the representative’s position on Social Security or nuclear power moderate the effects of a position change on Abortion (Supplementary Table A3, column [2]). Unfortunately, our data do not provide a way to determine whether these null findings are the product of off-setting positive and negative moderating effects or if no such moderating effects exist.

  7. 7.

    Estimates drawn from a model regressing summary candidate evaluations on indicators for the Change of Position treatments, the Agreement: Abortion indicator, and interactions between Agreement: Abortion and each Change of Position measure indicate that this difference is statistically significant (p = .036; two-tailed test).

  8. 8.

    A multinomial logit model predicting treatment assignment (to the control or one of the four Change of Position treatment conditions) with an array of pre-treatment demographic measures (age, gender, race, education, income, income missing, political ideology, party identification, and political interest) found no evidence of covariate imbalance (p = .684 for test of joint significance of the model). For the sake of consistency with the analysis presented in the first experiment, in the analysis we report below we include controls for this full vector of demographic measures. Identical models excluding these controls yield substantively similar results.

  9. 9.

    Question wording: “Regardless of what you think should or should not be done in each of the following areas, how important (relative to all other issues—not just those listed here) are the following issues to you?”.

  10. 10.

    Question wording: “How confident are you that you have the knowledge and expertise to evaluate policy in each of the following areas?”.

  11. 11.

    In additional analysis we find that, as with the analysis presented in the first experiment, the treatments affected each of the five measures used to construct the Evaluation of Candidate scale similarly (see Supplementary Table A4). As in the first experiment we find no evidence of a statistically meaningful interaction between the Change of Position and Policy Agreement measures. See Supplementary Table A3, column (3) and footnote 7 above.

  12. 12.

    For each issue we estimated models regressing summary candidate evaluations on a Change of Position indicator, a policy Agreement indicator (excluding cases where respondents did not report a directional policy preference), and the interaction between the two. A target who had changed to the respondent’s preferred position was evaluated more favorably than one who was not described as having changed positions, but with whom the respondent disagreed (Social Security: p = 0.277; ISIS: p < .01; Nuclear Plants: p = 0.054; Abortion: p < .01; two-tailed tests).

  13. 13.

    We standardize the importance and confidence measures to each have a mean of 0 and standard deviation of 1 prior to calculating these interaction terms. This allows us to interpret the coefficient on each Change of Position indicator as the estimated effect for those with mean levels of confidence and mean importance ratings.

  14. 14.

    Models entering only the Importance interactions or only the Confidence interactions yield substantively similar conclusions.

  15. 15.

    Note that respondents assigned to a “no position change” condition were, nonetheless, randomly assigned to an issue area. We use measures of agreement, confidence, and importance on this randomly assigned issue for these respondents. After creating these measures we rescaled the Confidence and Importance measures to have a mean of 0 and standard deviation of 1.

  16. 16.

    There are several potential explanations for the fact that the Confidence × Change of Position interaction is substantial and statistically significant in the collapsed analysis presented in Supplementary Table A5, but the interactions between separate measures of Confidence and the Change of Position treatments in Table 2 are not (with the exception of Abortion). Perhaps the most likely explanation is simply that the experimental design does not provide sufficient statistical power to identify these effects once they are disaggregated or to identify real differences in how confidence moderates responses to different types of issues.

  17. 17.

    These items asked respondents to rate the likelihood of a change on seven additional issues: nuclear power, taxes, Social Security, Medicare, foreign policy, environmental policy, and immigration. Factor analysis indicated that these measures loaded onto a single underlying factor. Rotated factor scores were used to generate a scale of likelihood of change across these issues with a mean of 0 and standard deviation of 1.

  18. 18.

    Because the policy position a politician adopts matters little to individuals who do not have a preference on the issue at hand, we should expect them to respond to a change in position unfavorably (or be indifferent to the change at best). Thus, all else equal, the larger the share of voters who are indifferent on a given policy matter, the more damaging a change of position is likely to be.

  19. 19.

    If a politician faces a situation where a prospective new position is strongly supported by a large swath of the public, and only somewhat opposed by the rest, this calculus changes. For example, the estimates in Panel D of Fig. 5 suggest that in a situation where the public is evenly divided between supporting and opposing a prospective new position on abortion, changing positions is expected to yield a net .229 unit penalty. However, if we posit that 40 percent of the public strongly supports the new position and 40 percent only somewhat oppose (with the remaining 20 percent being indifferent), this penalty is reduced to essentially zero (estimate = .013; p = .862).

  20. 20.

    For example, President Obama’s much publicized change of position on same-sex marriage may have stemmed in part from an expectation that public opposition to same-sex marriage will continue to wane.

  21. 21.

    Specifically, in columns (1) and (3) of Supplementary Table A7 we estimate models analogous to those presented in column (1) of Tables 1 and 2, interacting the Change of Position indicators with an indicator for whether the target’s current pattern of policy positions indicated ideological consistency (the ideological valence of each issue was determined based on the relationship between respondents’ self-reported ideology and their issue attitudes). Statistically significant coefficients on these interaction terms would indicate that people respond differently to a change of position when that position makes the politician more ideologically consistent. However, the coefficients fall well short of statistical significance. In columns (2) and (4) of Supplementary Table A7 we instead add an indicator for respondents presented with a politician who had been ideologically consistent, but changed positions in a way that appeared to defy his ideology. We find no evidence that people reward (or punish) a representative for adopting a less ideologically rigid policy platform.

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Correspondence to David Doherty.

Additional information

We thank Beth Vonnahme, Gregory Huber, and participants in the Chicago Researchers in Social Sciences group for helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper.

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Appendix

Appendix

Vignette: Experiment 1

Below is a short biography of a hypothetical state representative who is considering running for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2014. Please read it carefully and we will ask you some questions about what you have read.

Mark Jones is a state representative who has been in office since 1991. In his 22 years in office, he has sponsored over 30 bills that have been signed into law. These bills have addressed a variety of issues related to taxation, government spending priorities, and social issues.

He is currently considering running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives on a platform that focuses on his [support for/opposition to] raising the Social Security retirement age for Americans who were born after 1960 from 67 to 69 years old and his [support for/opposition to] proposals to build more nuclear power plants as a way of decreasing America’s reliance on imported foreign oil. His platform also includes positions on a wide range of other issues—including abortion, where he describes himself as [pro-life/pro-choice].

Recently, Jones’ likely opponent has heavily criticized Jones’ policy positions. He has also repeatedly questioned Jones’ ability to provide the leadership the public expects representatives to show. [NONE/{20 years ago/Last year} Jones changed his position on abortion. Prior to {1993/2012}, he described himself as [pro-choice/pro-life], but he now describes himself as [pro-life/pro-choice]].

Question Wording

Likely to Vote For If you lived in Representative Jones’ district, how likely do you think you would be to vote for him? (Very unlikely [1]-Very likely [7]).

Job Rating Based on what you know about Representative Jones, how would you rate the job he is doing as a representative? (Poor [1]-Excellent [7]).

Feel about as Person How do you feel about Representative Jones as a person? (Negative [1]-Positive [7]).

Honest and Trustworthy Enough? Do you think Representative Jones is honest and trustworthy enough to be a representative in the U.S. House? (Yes/no).

Would do a good job making tough decisions about policy matters? Representatives in the U.S. House must often make difficult policy decisions. Do you think representative Jones would do a good job making tough decisions about policy matters? (Yes/no).

Likely to Change Position? How likely do you think it is that Representative Jones will change his positions on each of the following topics in the future? (1 = extremely unlikely; 6 = extremely likely)—Abortion, Nuclear power, Taxes, Social Security, Medicare, Foreign Policy, Environmental Policy, Immigration.

Vignette: Experiment 2

Below is a short biography of a hypothetical state representative who ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2014. Please read it carefully and we will ask you some questions about what you have read.

Mark Jones is a state representative who has been in office since 1991. In his 24 years in office, he has sponsored over 30 bills that have been signed into law. These bills have addressed a variety of issues related to taxation, government spending priorities, and social issues.

He ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in November 2014. On the campaign trail he staked out positions on a wide range of issues. He expressed [support for/opposition to] raising the Social Security retirement age for Americans who were born after 1960 from 67 to 69 years old and [support for/opposition to] issuing more federal permits to allow for the construction of new nuclear power plants. He also said he [supports/opposes] laws that make abortion legal under any circumstance and [supports/opposes] sending ground troops into Iraq and Syria to fight Islamic State (ISIS) militants.

Jones’ opponent heavily criticized his policy positions. He also repeatedly questioned Jones’ ability to provide the leadership the public expects representatives to show. [NONE/Last year Jones changed his position on (abortion/raising the social security retirement age/issuing permits to build more nuclear power plants/sending U.S. ground troops to fight ISIS militants). Previously he said he [supported/opposed] [raising the Social Security retirement age for Americans who were born after 1960 from 67 to 69 years old/issuing more federal permits to allow for the construction of new nuclear power plants/laws that make abortion legal under any circumstance/sending ground troops into Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS militants] but now he says he [opposes/supports] that policy.]

Question Wording

Likely to Vote For If you lived in Representative Jones’ district, how likely do you think you would be to vote for him? (Very unlikely [1]-Very likely [7]).

Job Rating Based on what you know about Representative Jones, how would you rate the job he is doing as a representative? (Poor [1]-Excellent [7]).

Feel about as Person How do you feel about Representative Jones as a person? (Negative [1]-Positive [7]).

Honest and Trustworthy Enough? Do you think Representative Jones is honest and trustworthy enough to be a representative in the U.S. House? (Yes/no).

Would do a good job making tough decisions about policy matters? Representatives in the U.S. House must often make difficult policy decisions. Do you think representative Jones would do a good job making tough decisions about policy matters? (Yes/no).

Likely to Change Position? How likely do you think it is that Representative Jones will change his positions on each of the following topics in the future? (1 = extremely unlikely; 6 = extremely likely)—Environmental Policy, Same-sex marriage, Spending on national defense, Dealing with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (the group commonly referred to as “ISIS”), Social Security, Medicaid, Abortion, Construction of new nuclear power plants.

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Doherty, D., Dowling, C.M. & Miller, M.G. When is Changing Policy Positions Costly for Politicians? Experimental Evidence. Polit Behav 38, 455–484 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-015-9321-9

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Keywords

  • Repositioning
  • Public opinion
  • Flip-flop
  • Elections
  • Candidate positioning
  • Representation