Last night Romney won an outright majority of the delegates, but Santorum decisively emerged as the moral and ideological leader of Republican primary voters. Super Tuesday’s outcome demonstrates that there is an internal tug of war between what Republicans know they should do—vote for Romney—and what they want to do—vote for Santorum.
While we may like to think of ourselves as rational decision-makers, we are not—Republicans and Democrats alike. Our hearts weigh heavily into our decision-making tasks, especially politics. This is what is occurring among GOP primary voters. Rationally and strategically, Republicans know that Romney is the better candidate to challenge President Obama. More specifically, Republican primary voters indicate that they think the economy is the most important issue and that the best preparation for being president is a background in business. And when it comes to social issues, Romney and Santorum are indistinguishable in their opposition to gay marriage, abortion and contraception provision through insurance packages. Putting all of this into the equation, it would seem Romney is the hands-down choice.
However, Romney’s stand on these issues and his professional experience are being eclipsed by more emotionally laden social and cultural rhetoric. Here is where Santorum has the advantage. Emotions are responses to things that we feel passionate about. More intense emotions such as fear and anger have a greater effect on us and in turn on our behavior. And Santorum has the edge when it comes to stirring up fear and anger, ranging from his “man-on-dog sex” comments to saying the separation of church and state “makes him want to vomit.”
Intense emotions can create a perceptual screen through which individuals will be less likely to deliberately weigh information. From a rational choice standpoint, Romney is likely better able to tackle pocketbook issues than Santorum. Romney is also a social conservative, but the emotional hype around Santorum overshadows Romney. This is not to say that voters’ heads do not have a role to play, but what happens is that intense emotions, when not consciously checked against cognition, will win out.
According to last night’s exit polls, Santorum is preferred among voters who state the two most important candidate traits are conservatism and moral character. There are exceptions, such as the voters in Massachusetts and Georgia who indicate that their respective favorite sons are the conservative real deal. But beyond these exceptions, Santorum is viewed as both the truest conservative and as the candidate with the strongest moral character. Even in his wins last week in Arizona and Michigan, Romney lost out to Santorum in these two categories.
In Tennessee, where Santorum won by 9 percent, Romney is still considered the most likely to defeat President Obama. While voters see Romney as the better candidate for the general election, they don’t necessarily like him. The establishment recognizes this division. Just this week Congressional conservatives Representative Eric Cantor and Senator Tom Coburn urged voters to go with a leader with business and governing experience, to support Romney. And even though eighty Congressional Republicans, along with dozens of other state and local level political leaders, have endorsed Romney, primary voters are still resisting what they’re being told is good for them.
Of the two front-runners in the GOP field, Santorum is the emotional favorite. His brand is based on the emotionally laden issues of abortion, gay marriage and family values, but more importantly, he hams it up with theatrics. Romney has similar socially conservative views, but he has framed his campaign to emphasize the economy and his business experience. In the end, Santorum emerges as the candidate that can hit the emotional hot buttons of Republican partisans. The question now becomes, will the GOP heart or mind win, come the end of the primaries?