Politicos watch for dreaded "flip-flop"by Julie Siple, Minnesota Public Radio
With primary season just weeks away, accusations of flip-flopping are heating up. Candidates have been accused of changing their positions on everything from the Iraq war to abortion and gay marriage. These charges, true or not, can be catastrophic for a campaign. But where do the charges begin?
I'm starting to think this flip-flop business has gotten out of hand. At the Minnesota State Fair, political activists hand out flip-flops on a stick. Interns show up at campaign speeches dressed like Flipper the dolphin. We've got grown men in foam-rubber waffle suits running after candidates on the campaign trail. How did we get here?
It turns out, some flip-flop charges get started in Terry Cooper's townhouse.
Cooper is a flip-flopper's biggest nightmare. He lives in a three-story house just outside Washington D.C. The whole place is packed with political data.
Walking floor to floor, he points out congressional records in his office, his living room, his wine cellar.
"Even in my bedroom, there are the Uniform Crime Reports from various states and data from the Internal Revenue Service," he says.
Cooper has worked for more than 20 years for Republican campaigns. He's worked for big players like Newt Gingrich. He's like a flip-flop detective.
Cooper does what's called "opposition research." He combs through everything an opposing candidate ever said, wrote, paid for, voted on. To demonstrate, he pulls out a pile of paper.
"I've got the most recent Congressional Roll Call book," he explains. "And I'm looking at page H84, which is the 84th page of House votes."
He finds a particular vote, buried deep in the data.
"I will make a note of that. And then the next time that vote comes up, I'll see if he voted for or against."
Cooper spends hundreds of hours cross-referencing this information, looking for inconsistencies in a candidate's voting record.
One flip-flop is not enough; Cooper's searching for a series of them. And here's the thing -- once a candidate has changed position on a number of issues, it doesn't really matter what they were.
"You just tell people he flip-flopped on this, flip-flopped on that, he flip-flopped on the other," Cooper says. "And he's put in a pretty difficult position of either trying to explain what he did or just letting the charge stick, unanswered."
Cooper's heard plenty of excuses -- or explanations -- from flip-floppers over the years.
"'I didn't understand what I was being asked to vote on,'" he reads from a list. "'A good buddy colleague said it was important to him and asked for my help.' 'The debate persuaded me to change.' That's a really good one."
When Cooper finds something juicy, he passes it on to his client, sometimes a campaign manager. It's the job of campaign workers to make these charges stick, despite the excuses. To figure out how, I called up the other guys.
Damien LaVera is a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee. His job is to turn the kind of raw information Terry comes up with into political gold. How does he do that?
"We integrate it into our entire messaging operation," LaVera says.
In other words, they get the message out.
"We will do it in interviews, we will do it as press releases," he explains. "If we find stuff, we share it with some friendly blogs. And then we just keep a list of reporters who are covering these candidates, and just make sure they can compare what a candidate says today to what they did in the past."
I couldn't get the DNC to spill their darkest secrets. But basically, it's almost like there's a big machine, cranking out flip-flop charges.
You'd think, after a while, once the debate devolves into adults walking around in giant foam costumes, we'd tune out. So, why does the charge still stick?
"There is a general mistrust of politicians out there," says Kathryn Pearson, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota. "And so the notion of flip-flopping, or constantly changing one's mind depending on which way the political winds blow, that really makes voters nervous."
Basically, flip-flopping hits a nerve because we're so afraid our politicians are playing us for fools. We're hypersensitive about it.
"Voters want to know that politicians are acting in the best interests of the country," says Pearson, "rather than in the best interests of their particular political pursuits."
Actually, everyone in this story -- everyone we've heard from -- says it's pretty easy to catch candidates in a flip-flop and cast doubt on their motivations. So it almost feels sleazy, just sitting around waiting for candidates to stumble.
But for Terry Cooper, the opposition researcher, searching out the stumbles -- the flip-flops -- is important.
"I'm looking for a better class of legislator, and I hope there are Democrats out there who doing the same," says Cooper. "We've got some wonderful people in office, but we've got some real jokers, too. And to the extent you can show voters that this guy is a bum, I think you're doing a public service."
As for the ones who get nailed unfairly, well, maybe that's partly our fault. Maybe we're so afraid our politicians are trying to dupe us, we can't even let them change their minds.