Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Defining a Flip Flop

Where the political middle is is usually the critical question for any election in a two-party system, but not so this year.

Now that Obama has captured the democratic nomination, he must move rightward to focus on the next fight. But Obama hasn't inched but has lunged rightward in recent days, talking about things that liberals do not usually like to address: faith-based initiatives, patriotism, FISA, etc.

What is unusual is that McCain is not returning the favor with equal fervency. In recent days, he continues to talk about signature Republican issues: tax cuts, free trade and foreign policy. He is scheduled to give a talk about immigration today, but it will not be about amnesty, but about security. Despite the three month lead McCain had on Obama on the general election, McCain is still playing his primary season strategy.

So, in another one of this election's firsts, both candidates are courting the right more intensely than they are wooing the left, revealing an unintuitive and peculiar assymetry of strategies. There is, therefore, something other than the traditional search for the middle that is going on. This year, the different elasticities of demand for each political candidate is powerfully shaping the race.

There are two assumptions that Obama's rightward shift reveals, in lexical order:

1. The Obama campaign has assumed that this rightward shift will not cost them their core supporters. That is to say, liberal demand for Obama is relatively inelastic.
2. The median voter in the general electorate is as far right from the median voter in the democratic nomination electorate as Obama's rightward shift calculates, and no more.
Lemma A: The more inelastic the liberal demand (1), the more it will not matter if 2 does not obtain.

1. appears to be a fair assumption. Whereas Senator John Kerry could not take his base for granted in 2004 - and that was why, incidentally, his flip flop became politically salient - Obama has got a firm grip on the younger, college educated, and black vote this year. Obama's Teflon powers against the media pale in comparison to the powers he wields with his loyal base - this is the critical comparative advantage he has over McCain, who is not lunging leftward because he does not believe that he has locked up his base (and he is probably correct); if anything McCain needs to address concerns that he has historically been a party maverick.

[What determines the elasticity of demand for a candidate? Not Obama's intrinsic pull factors but more systemic ones - the drastic depreciation of the Republican brand name and President Bush's unpopularity (not too dissimilar from what Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter had going against them in 1932 and 1980). Enough is enough, a majority of the electorate determined in the realigning elections of 1932 and 1980.]

And so a flip flop isn't as simple a thing as just an objective change in position; it is subjectively defined and predicated in part by the degree to which candidates' supporters forgive them for straying from their erstwhile positions. This year, it isn't so much where the political middle is but the difference in the degree of loyalty that voters have to McCain and Obama that will determine the results in November.

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