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The Inconsistent Waffle Factor

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, October 8, 2007

If you were Barack Obama, you would be scratching your head, too.

Democratic voters generally place their distaste with the Iraq war close to the top of their priority lists. Democratic presidential front-runner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) helped authorize that war back in 2002, so how is it that she has come to lead the senator from Illinois by 33 percentage points in the Democratic primary and steadily grind her other competitors into the dust?

The question of why Clinton is not being punished for what some say is her about-face on the war is vexing the Obama campaign. But it is also of increasing interest to political scientists and psychologists.

Waffling, or the perception of political inconsistency, played a big role in the 2004 presidential election, when Sen. John F. Kerry's contortions provided President Bush with endless ammunition. Studies have repeatedly shown that voters say they want consistent leaders.

Evidence, however, has recently emerged to suggest there may be basic differences in how Republican and Democratic voters perceive waffling, and that voters may view inconsistency differently among Republican and Democratic politicians.

In one experiment conducted in Obama's home state by psychologists Cynthia Nordstrom and Susan Thomas of Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, volunteers were painted a picture of an inconsistent politician.

The psychologists found that while waffling among all candidates was frowned upon, voters were more likely to punish Democrats who waffled. "Moreover," they noted in an article they published this year in the North American Journal of Psychology, "the Democratic candidate was perceived to be more of a waffler and was less likely to be voted for than the Republican candidate."

If Democrats are held to a tougher standard for inconsistent stances, why have Clinton's positions on Iraq not come under greater fire? Nordstrom's results might have been influenced by the 2004 election, in which Democrats were painted as wafflers. But, Nordstrom and others said, it is also possible that Clinton and Kerry have been treated differently because he was facing a general election, whereas, so far, she has dealt only with Democratic voters. Michael Tomz, a political scientist at Stanford, said partisans might be generally more willing to forgive waffling among politicians from their own party.

Liberals and conservatives might also be fundamentally different when it comes to dealing with political inconsistency: "Conservatives are far more conservative -- they are far more likely to hold fast and circle the wagons, whereas liberals are more adaptive," said Hillary Hoffman, a psychologist at the University of Miami who has studied the issue of consistency in politics. "That is part of the definition of 'liberal' and 'conservative.' "

If either theory is true, it could mean that Clinton's positions on the Iraq war might well face much tougher scrutiny in a general election than in a Democratic primary.

Nordstrom said several factors that have dovetailed since 2004 also may have changed the way inconsistency is perceived by the American electorate as a whole. The immense unpopularity of the Iraq war may have caused voters to value consistency less highly than other qualities, she said. What this means is that when public opinion on an issue swings overwhelmingly in one direction, voters may care less about waffling and more about having a politician agree with them.

President Bush's unyielding stance on the Iraq war may have also given consistency a bad name, Nordstrom added. "Where decisiveness may have been perceived as a virtue, I am not sure it is viewed the same way after the events of the last four to five years," she said. "A lot of people think Bush should have been changing tack in response to new information, and the very thing that was a virtue is now his Achilles' heel."

Finally, Hoffman pointed out that for many Democratic voters, Clinton simply might not be perceived as being inconsistent at all.

"Clinton is saying she didn't change her mind, but that the circumstances she knows now she didn't know then," Hoffman said. What this suggests, Hoffman added, is that the perception of political waffling is not an objective phenomenon but a combination of how well a candidate presents her views and how well her opponents exploit potential weaknesses.

Obama has recently revved up efforts to draw attention to the fact that he opposed the war in Iraq from the start. In a speech he gave four years ago this month, Obama said the war would "require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences," adding: "I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars."

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