Candidate Repositioning, Valence, and a Backfire Effect from Criticism

AuthorAndrew Gooch
Published date01 November 2022
Date01 November 2022
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2022, Vol. 50(6) 757768
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X221125222
Candidate Repositioning, Valence, and a
Backf‌ire Effect from Criticism
Andrew Gooch
Politicians who switch policy positions are often criticized for being inconsistent f‌lip-f‌loppers, which suggests a valence penalty
for repositioning. Using a survey experiment with six treatment conditions and a sample of 2694 respondents, results show tha t
candidates receive an increase in favorability and perceived competency when holding a consistent position on asylum seekers
from the campaign to holding off‌ice. Repositioning on asylum seekers reduces favorability and perceived competency . However,
in treatment conditions where the candidate is criticized for f‌lip-f‌loppingby unelected groups, can didate favorability improves
relative to a treatment condition where only the repositioning is presented. These results suggest that a back f‌ire effect might
occur from criticisms. This backf‌ire occurs on average across all respondents. This study contributes to the line of research that
shows mechanisms that offset the negative effects of repositioning.
repositioning, experiment, valence, backf‌ire effect
An enduring part of American politics includes politicians
repositioning from one side of an issue to another throughout
their careers, often dubbed negatively as f‌lip-f‌lopping.
When repositioning occurs, politicians are often criticized for
it, and the conventional wisdom is that it can negatively affect
their electoral prospects. Even before the term f‌lip-f‌lopping
became in vogue, criticisms of repositioning were associated
with the term waff‌ling, which originated as a criticism of
Jimmy Carter for waff‌ling and wigglingon issues (Allgeier
et al., 1979). Repositioning is also criticized in terms of
valence by political elites where repositioning creates a
credibility gapfor candidates (Spragens, 1980). Salient
examples of repositioning have their own rich history and
specif‌ic circumstances, which are not exactly replicated here,
but the pervasiveness of criticisms for f‌lip-f‌lopping in con-
temporary politics suggests that repositioning comes with a
reputational cost. This study evaluates how citizens respond
to a candidate who repositions in the short term from a
campaign to taking off‌ice. More crucially, this study evalu-
ates how citizens are affected by criticisms of f‌lip-f‌lopping
from unelected groups like the media, voters, and activists.
Do these criticisms further reduce the popularity of candi-
dates? Or, do they backf‌ire and actually help the f‌lip-f‌lopping
Repositioning is also an enduring part of political science
research. Downs (1957) argued that individuals care about
statements made during campaigns only insofar as those
statements serve as guides to the policies that party will carry
out in off‌ice(107). Candidates who want to maximize their
vote share should hold a consistent position from one time
period to another so that their policy statements are reliable
(Downs, 1957). Consistent positioning also benef‌its the party
brand, which in turn inf‌luences a candidates electoral success
(Snyder & Ting, 2002). However, isolating the effect of
repositioning on a candidates electoral prospects is con-
founding because repositioning occurs at the same time as
many other potentially causal factors. In addition, the nature
of each repositioning case has time period-specif‌ic features
making generalizations diff‌icult. This makes attributing
electoral success or failure to repositioning confounding
using observational data. In addition, successful politicians
do not reposition haphazardly or randomly. Switching po-
sitions typically occur because the politician believes they are
advantaged by doing so for a variety of possible reasons,
perhaps because constituents, donors, and/or interest groups
support the new position (e.g., Karol, 2009). Previous re-
searchers recognized these threats to causality, and as a result,
research has focused on isolating specif‌ic aspects of re-
positioning using experiments. Most experimental research
Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ, USA
Corresponding Author:
Andrew Gooch, Political Science and Economics, Rowan University, 201
Mullica Hill Road, Glassboro, NJ 08028, USA.

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