It was an innocent enough moment. Mitt Romney was delivering yet another campaign stump speech in Irwin, Pennsylvania last month but all of a sudden something strange happened. The crowd rose to its feet and started cheering... and cheering…and cheering. The applause continued for a long time…sixteen seconds.
It wasn’t because the speech was over or Romney criticized some of President Obama’s policies. It wasn’t even because Romney took the president to task for his controversial, “You didn’t build it” line.
This was something totally different.
He actually mentioned the “G” word: God! Not only that but he managed to weave the Almighty and government into the same sentence by saying, “Let’s stop and think about the system of government and what it tells us in our founding document, the Declaration of Independence. It does not say that the government gave us our rights. It says that God gave us our rights. They came with us not with government!”
It is in those moments where Romney will find unity and strength with, “the Teavangelicals,” a group of voters who could ultimately determine whether Romney is the next president of the United States.
Who are these Teavangelicals? They are conservative Christians (typically evangelicals) who are breaking bread with the Tea Party because they believe in many of the same principles. Studies show nearly seventy percent of conservative Christians agree with the Tea Party so when Romney uttered those words about God and government, he tapped into part of the Teavangelical belief system.
They believe that government is getting way too big in peoples lives and becoming the God-like centerpiece of people’s existence. It’s one of the principles I outline in my new book, “The Teavangelicals: The Inside Story of How the Evangelicals and the Tea Party are Taking Back America.”
These Teavangelicals are, in essence the conservative base of the Republican Party. We already know they showed up fervently in 2010. They were actually the largest voting block in those midterm elections and the House flipped to the GOP.
In the GOP primaries, more than half of the voters were born-again Christians, making them once again a decisive force. The fact that they all couldn’t agree on one specific candidate may have diluted their effectiveness but not their overall staying power. Simply put, they have the numbers to make the difference for Romney if they turn out in the general election on November 6.
This Teavangelical type organization did not even exist in 2008. Their chairman, Ralph Reed believes that if he can get an extra three or four million of them to the polls this time around (especially in the key swing states where their organization is very active) then that will have a significant impact.
What does all of this mean? Well, if Mitt Romney wants to take back the White House, he might want to brush up on his Teavangelical reading so he can understand what makes this group tick and how he can do a better job relating to them.
I'll admit, it’s all outlined in my book and I’ll even give the former Massachusetts governor a signed copy if he asks for one! But Romney and his campaign team should be smart enough to see the anecdotal evidence that they witnessed in Irwin, Pennsylvania last month. All they need to do is insert his God and government line into an applause machine meter back at their Boston headquarters and read the results.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what gets the base (Teavangelicals) fired up. Ask Rick Santorum if this works.
The former Pennsylvania Senator based his entire race for the White House during the GOP primary season on this premise and look how far he went.
A Teavangelical message centering on God, the Declaration of Independence, and the vision of our Founding Fathers will generally get people out of their seats and can give Romney the extra oomph he needs to make 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue his new address.
Romney gained further credibility with this audience when he picked a Teavangelical-type vice-presidential candidate in Paul Ryan. By selecting the Wisconsin congressman, Romney chose a man who sees the world through a conservative, Catholic prism. He recently told me that, “A person’s faith is central to how they conduct themselves in public and in private.” That goes for public policy too and that makes Ryan sympatico with Teavangelicals. The emotional connection is present.
One of the things we know in politics is that people vote based much more on an emotional connection to a candidate than they do because they believe in fifty-nine point economic plans.
In his book, “The Political Brain,” Drew Westen, professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University, studied the role emotion plays in national politics and concluded that how a candidate is viewed from an emotional perspective is essential to winning.
Presidents like Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were able to build strong emotional connections with voters and it helped all of them win the presidency.
It’s unclear if Romney can do the same but his ticket to the White House rests on forging an emotional relationship with Teavangelicals. That doesn’t mean he has to begin crying at rallies or shift his laser-like focus away from the economy. But it does mean that he needs to speak to Teavangelical issues. When he does, standing ovations ensue and an emotional relationship deepens.
Teavangelicals want Romney to talk more about the immorality of the debt crisis, a return to Judeo-Christian principles, perceived threats to religious freedom from the Obama administration and how a pro-family agenda is inextricably linked by good fiscal and social policy. Making these issues standard fare on the campaign trail cements a relationship that has been tenuous at best.
Romney’s calculation may be that he doesn’t need to do all of this to capture the all-important Teavangelical vote. He might think that the anger they feel towards President Obama is enough.
That’s a dangerous calculation.
Anger towards the president will no doubt get Romney in striking distance of beating Obama but Teavangelicals are the worker bees of the movement. He doesn’t just need them to show up and vote. He also needs their passion to organize and get others to vote too. That passion starts with more eloquent Teavangelical words from Romney that will lead to standing ovations across the country.
David Brody is Chief Political Correspondent for The Christian Broadcasting Network and host of the national TV show, "The Brody File." He is the author of the new book, "The Teavangelicals: The Inside Story of How the Evangelicals and the Tea Party are Taking Back America" (Zondervan 2012).