Politicians and their 'flip-flops'

Voting card being entered into ballot

"How can something have 90% support and yet not happen?" Barack Obama famously asked about his attempts to introduce gun-control legislation. On hot issues-like guns, the environment, and trade protection -there can sometimes appear to be a failure of democracy. The will of the majority doesn't translate into decisions by policymakers, Maurizio Zanardi explains why this might be the case;and it all has to do with flip-flops. 

After 17 people were killed by a gunman at a high school in Florida last year, there was urgent impetus behind calls for legislation on gun control in the US. Thousands of students walked out of classes to protest about the lack of action. Hundreds of thousands took part in the international ‘March of Our Lives’. US businesses backed away from any links with the NRA (National Rifle Association) movement. 

But the most telling development in the story has come in the US Congress where bills on gun control continue to go nowhere. President Trump was known to be pro-gun ahead of the elections. Despite the clamour for gun control, Trump’s position appeared to have no effect on voting choices. How can this happen in a democracy, a system designed to reflect the wishes of the majority? With co-authors, I studied the mechanics of the system in the US to see why causes like gun control and other populist policies like the environment, and free trade, fail to gain support for change in Congress.

What we found is an essential divide between primary issues in US politics (meaning the ones that a majority of voters cares relatively more about, such as the level of taxation, education, public spending) and secondary issues (such as gun regulations). Only a minority of voters have strong feelings about secondary issues, but they can command more attention from policymakers than the majority of voters. In fact, citizens have only one vote to make their representatives accountable on a bundle of policy issues. When it comes to elections, most people base their choice on candidates who are saying what they want to hear on primary issues, disregarding their position on what they see as being minor issues. And politicians take advantage of this behaviour to increase their chances of re-election. 

Following this logic, we analysed the patterns of votes of US senators on a range of topics. Exploiting the staggered US system where senators are elected every two years for a term of six years, it’s possible to compare the voting behaviour of senators who face different election calendars (some are up to five years away from election, while some other will face voters in a year or less). 


Our analysis has shown that some senators ‘flip-flop’ in their voting behaviour. In other words, they change their position on a given issue depending on how close they are to elections. For example, while the Democratic Party is in favour of gun control, we found that Democrats follow the party line in the early stages of their term in office, but are more likely to vote pro-gun in the last two years of their term to appeal to minority voters. This is a strategy used to maximise the chances of re-election. In this way, their flip-flop behaviour doesn’t affect the majority of voters – who don’t care about this issue – but allows them to secure the vote of the minorities of single-minded voters. And since voters tend to have short memories and forget their politicians’ earlier positions, they can get away with this and target single-minded voters. As a result, a minority comes to play an important role versus a more apathetic majority. An organisation like the NRA may be small but wields an influence out of all proportion with its size. 

The probability that Democratic senators will vote pro-gun increases by between 15% and 19% in the last two years of their term. This is the case even when controlling for a variety of possible confounding factors related to politicians and their constituencies; like gender, age, contributions received from gun-rights and gun-control lobbies, different violent crime rates in the state they represent. However, senators not up for re-election, do not change their behaviour: they are not any more accountable to voters and so they don't pander to special interests. On the other hand, Republicans never flip-flop on this issue, as they are always pro-gun. 

When it comes to voting on issues relating to legislation to protect the environment, we have found evidence of t he same logic but in opposite political terms. On this issue, Republicans flip-flop. While they are typically 'brownish' in their attitudes to green policies (more likely to support legislation that supports business and development), close to re-election they are more likely to vote for more 'green' policies, again as a way of appealing to a strong minority. When it comes to trade policy, we find that all senators flip-flop: they become much more protectionist as the voting booth is in sight (in the last two years of their term). This is largely because there is no free trade lobby, as such, no single­minded minority to pander to. 

Abortion is another interesting secondary policy area. In this case, our results show that senators do not flip­flop because there are intensely motivated minority groups on both sides of the argument, pro-life and pro­abortion. Pandering to one minority could lead to discontent and loss of votes from the other minority, so there's no reason to flip-flop. This example highlights how tactical senators are in picking the right issues to flip-flop on. The consistent use of this strategy suggests it has become established as a successful way of helping them to secure re-election. 


his is a very difficult question. Ensuring that votes on secondary but important issues only take place at the start of the term for new senators can't work, because one third of senators are re-elected every two years. But perfectly synchronised elections would not solve the issue either since there will always be a time when (all) senators are close to re-election. It's not even clear that this flip-flopping behaviour is negative itself, if it allows minority views to be brought to the fore from time to time. 

Direct initiatives such as a referendum may provide an alternative way to bring forward changes when a clear majority of voters share a view. Except in countries where this is common practice, such as Switzerland, this approach is not free from risks and doesn't necessarily guarantee a better outcome. But there is one clear lesson: voters should pay closer attention to the behaviour of politicians, and try not to suffer from short memory problems.

Maurizio Zanardi is Professor of International Economics and Head of the Economics Department. 


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