In all the commentaries about the president’s 2013 State of the Union address and the responses by Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, one really stood out.[i]
Democratic thought-leader Van Jones said it outright: “Marco Rubio is dangerous for Democrats.”[ii]
Because he gets emotional about the issues, and, as Jones pointed out, genuine, authentic, caring emotion sways American voters.
The GOP has long acted as if all politics needs to be intellectual, and emotions are often treated as weakness or shallowness by the Right.
But the electorate loves emotion, and votes accordingly.
Put simply, if a top Republican can unite large segments of the populace behind authentic emotional passion, he or she will be a serious challenger in the 2016 election.
The last Republican candidate to elicit such raw emotion was Ronald Reagan.
Jones went on: “Marco Rubio is to the heart, what Paul Ryan is to the head…. [Rubio’s] ideas are extreme, the Tea Party loves this guy, but he is dangerous for Democrats because he can connect in a way that other people with those ideas cannot.”[iii]
Bill Clinton and Barack Obama appealed to both the mind and the heart, and so did Reagan.
Indeed, great presidents know how to effectively communicate in both realms.
The problem for the GOP in 2016 is simple: primary voters want something different than the general electorate.
The primaries tend to select candidates based on intellect, while the general election emphasizes emotions.
This is a headache for a party deeply divided between the following factions:
Tea Parties: “We’re broke, and going more broke. Fix the finances. America is in decline because our financial house is a mess—and getting rapidly worse. Freedom means small, limited government that lives within its means and unleashes the power of free enterprise.”
Fiscal Conservatives: “If we don’t get our fiscal house in order, we will continue to decline. But drop the angry tone. Let’s just fix the finances. Freedom demands wisdom.”
Social Conservatives: “It’s all about morals. If we don’t turn our hearts to God, we don’t deserve our freedoms or prosperity. We are in decline because our values are under attack. Freedom means moral strength.”
Compassionate Conservatives: “Government should be limited, fiscally strong, and attentive to real social needs. America is in decline because it is widely divided by classes and racial conflicts, and the solution is for government to wisely reform, cut spending, raise taxes where needed, and emphasize public-private cooperation to increase social justice. Freedom flourishes when government and the private sector work together.”
Neo-Conservatives: “Free markets are flourishing in the world, and the future of freedom has never been brighter. American isn’t in decline, we just need a solid conservative in the White House. Freedom means taking responsibility in the world.”
Ron Paul-Style Revolutionaries: “We’re way past reforming things. We need an outright revolution, and we need a great man or woman to lead it. Progress and decline are simply a matter of who leads us, and it’s time to get a great leader. Fix the finances, stop being the world’s policeman, and make America free and great again. Freedom is cool.”
There are also a number of Special-Interest Republicans who focus on one central theme (such as immigration, gun control, etc.) in their voting.
In the end, all of these groups will most likely support the Republican candidate, but during the primaries each will put forth its favorites.
This is the perhaps the biggest irony in American presidential politics: While Republican primary voters are generally very emotional, the Right usually turns intellectual during general elections.
The problem seems to be that the various factions of conservatives have a hard time getting passionate about supporting other kinds of Republicans.
They see the need to unite behind one candidate, but their support is mostly intellectual—not raw, gut emotion.
Democrats don’t seem to deal with the same challenge.
They are emotional during the primaries, but they generally transfer their emotional support to the chosen candidate—regardless of who they supported in the primaries.
Intellect will be required for a candidate from either party to make it to the 2016 general election.[iv]
Once the two top candidates are selected, their biggest challenge will most likely be convincing Latino and independent voters that they care about their interests and needs.
No candidate is likely sway either group without a genuinely strong emotional appeal.
The GOP’s biggest benefit in 2016 might be President Obama.
If his administration continues its drive to the left—continued spending, taxing, borrowing, inflating the dollar, and regulating—most conservatives will be deeply emotional about politics after four more years.
If their frustration reaches a boiling point, we may witness a waking giant.
[i] Perhaps the most striking thing about the event is that fewer people watched the State of the Union address than any in the last 14 years.
[ii] CNN commentary on the 2013 State of the Union.
[iv] It always is.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.