Why Jeb Bush's Flip-Flopping Charges Against Donald Trump May Flop

Experts in political science cast doubt on Bush's strategy.

Donald Trump vs. Jeb Bush: Who Won the Latest Round?

Facing a barrage of attacks from Donald Trump, Jeb Bush is going nuclear on the Republican presidential front-runner by trying to paint him as a closeted liberal. A Web video released Tuesday by the former Florida governor splices old clips of Trump expressing liberal positions.

The flip-flopper charge has been devastating to some past presidential candidates. But experts in the political science of flip-flopping doubt Bush's attacks will damage Trump.

"It wouldn't surprise me if these attacks are less effective than you'd think," said political scientist Robert Van Houweling, who co-authored a 2012 paper with Michael Tomz about the effects of "political repositioning" on voting. "He's moving towards the primary electorate and a lot of people in the primary electorate will welcome that."

Bush's video features Trump calling himself pro-choice in 1999, identifying "more as a Democrat" in 2004, and praising Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton while she was a senator from New York. The video emphasizes Trump's statements that he's from New York.

"I doubt that the flipper charge will have much effect on Trump," said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College. "He's running on his cojones, not his issue positions."

Bush's attack from the right is designed to turn Trump's strength with conservative voters—his right-leaning views on key issues like immigration—into a weakness by signaling to the base that it cannot trust him.

Trump responded by assailing Bush for a "flailing campaign" and reiterating in two follow-up tweets his claim that the Floridian is beholden to his donors. Later Tuesday he posted an Instagram video with 2013 footage of a Bush speech honoring Clinton's public service.

Trump's retort hardly addresses the issue. Bush is no flip-flopper; he has been remarkably consistent in his views even if it has cost him with conservative voters (as it has with his support for immigration reform and Common Core standards). Trump has clearly changed his past views. But how damaging will that be? In their paper, Van Houweling and Tomz found that "repositioning is costly on average" for candidates as it calls into question their character, but considerably less so in a primary than a general election.

"We've found in our research that primary electorates tend not to punish candidates so much for moving [in their views]," Van Houweling said. "The people at the extreme seem to welcome the policy conversion. And the people who are in the party at the center—a pro-choice Republican, for instance—tend to place less importance on that issue."

'Ronald Reagan'

Van Houweling said there are two important factors that could mitigate Trump's pain. The first is that he hasn't contradicted himself recently. "As time increases the tendency of voters to look negatively at changes declines," said Van Houweling. "You can tell that by the videos—[Trump] looks younger, he looks different." The second, Van Houweling said, is that Trump's explanations haven't fallen into the fatal trap of suggesting he changed his mind for political expediency. It's more effective with voters to cite a change of heart.

"I've evolved on many issues over the years. And you know who else has? ... Ronald Reagan evolved on many issues," Trump said during the first debate, referring to the heralded Republican icon who was once a liberal Democrat.

Historically, politicians generally seen as inauthentic are particularly vulnerable to such attacks. For instance, Republican John McCain changed his views on a variety of issues before the 2008 primary, but it was Mitt Romney who was tarred as a flip-flopper and went on to lose. (Four years later, Romney's changes of heart seemed like old news and the Republican base crowned him their nominee.) In the 2004 general election, Democrat John Kerry was badly damaged as a flip-flopper after his infamously clumsy comments about his shifting views.

Where Bush's attack on Trump may be "devastating," said Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth University, is in the "invisible primary"—the process of winning over party elites who historically tend to be decisive in picking the nominee.

"This type of attack will certainly help undermine any traction he might get with Republican elites," Nyhan said. "Jeb Bush is reminding Republicans that Trump is not one of you. Not only is he not a conservative, he wasn't even a Republican until recently."

Bush has already been leading in the invisible primary. Trump, despised by the establishment, is floundering in that contest. Yet it's not clear if that will be important. Trump is well ahead of Bush in the polls, a sign that rank-and-file Republicans are attracted to his promises to take on party elites and shatter the status quo.

"He's been defying political gravity in many different ways," Van Houweling said.