In American politics, the oft-repeated claim that “demography is destiny” has gained widespread currency, much to the delight of Democrats and to the chagrin of Republicans.
Many political commentators have argued that the rapid increase in the number of visible minorities relative to that of Caucasian voters means it is only a matter of time before the Grand Old Party (GOP) is permanently relegated to second-tier status. This is because a strong majority of visible minorities tend to lean Democratic.
Indeed, the GOP has now lost the popular vote in five out of the past six presidential elections. The result of the most recent presidential election further confirms the view that the single biggest weakness of the Republican Party is its inability to attract votes from visible minorities, which comprised a sizable 28% of the 2012 electorate.
In 2012, President Obama garnered 71% of the Latino vote, far exceeding Governor Romney’s paltry 23%. The president also won 93% of the African-American and 73% of the Asian-American votes. With numbers like these, future GOP presidential hopefuls have some serious reflecting to do. Why do they struggle to win the hearts and minds of minority voters? Does the problem stem from bad policy proposals, or is the issue merely one of bad public relations?
To answer these questions, Republicans can start by looking north of the border.
In Canada, the centre-right Conservative Party under Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been in power since 2006. Mr. Harper and his Conservative Party have won three federal elections in a row, most recently winning a majority government in 2011. The party is also positioned competitively in recent polls ahead of the October 2015 Canadian federal election. Here is the clincher: they have done so not in spite of, but because of their successful outreach efforts toward minority voters.
The Republican Party and The Conservative Party of Canada, while not exactly alike, are nonetheless similar in several ways. Both parties espouse the conventional fiscal conservative views of low taxes, balanced budgets, and minimal government regulation. Both parties also derive the bulk of their support from rural regions. Unlike the Republican Party, the Conservative Party of Canada has done two shrewd things to broaden its appeal: shift to the progressive side on socio-cultural issues and painstakingly engage with stakeholders in communities with high ethnic minority and immigrant populations.
What the Canadian Conservatives have understood is that challenging the left on social issues is a futile endeavor given the seemingly inexorable leftward shift in public opinion. Whereas, only a decade ago the Conservative Party was openly anti-gay and anti-abortion, the official party position today on these sensitive topics can best be described as neutral to modestly progressive.
For example, Mr. Harper, in defiance of members in his own party, promised in 2011 not to introduce any anti-abortion legislation as long as he remains Prime Minister. Former Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) and Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird has even become a gay-rights champion of sorts. For instance, he has repeatedly condemned homophobic laws in other countries and declared in a passionate speech in 2012 that Canada will “stand up to the violent mobs that seek to criminalize homosexuality.”
Republicans could learn that embarking on a gradual leftward shift on social issues need not alienate minority voters whom they mistakenly believe to be naturally more conservative. The belief that the Catholic faith of Latinos or the “industriousness” of Asian-Americans predispose these groups to vote Republican is simply not borne out by the facts.
In addition to shifting to the left on social issues, the Conservative Party of Canada has enthusiastically and relentlessly sought to curry favour with visible minority and immigrant voters with much success. Central to appealing to these voters is maintaining a pro-immigration stance grounded in sound economic arguments. At a time when the Republican Party is awash with forceful “seal-the-borders” rhetoric and centre-right parties across the Western world are scrambling for ways to reduce immigration, Canada’s Conservatives have bucked the trend and have increased immigration to what is already the highest level in the Western world in per-capita terms. This, no doubt, has softened their public image.
Moreover, the Conservative Party has a robust outreach strategy. The party actively recruits candidates from ethnic and religious minorities. Its politicians are regularly seen taking part in a variety of cultural and religious celebrations such as the Lunar New Year Festival and Diwali in communities across Canada. On June 22, Prime Minister Harper hosted a high-profile iftar dinner at his official residence during which Muslim families gathered to break the Ramadan fast.
These efforts have paid off. In the last federal election, the Conservatives won an impressive 35 out of 54 seats in metro Toronto, a city where visible minorities represent 47 percent of the population. Most Canadian political analysts agree that the Conservative breakthrough in the greater Toronto area was arguably the single most important factor in their victory.
Republicans would do well to take a page from Canada’s Conservatives. Crucially, the GOP could learn that the package of fiscal conservatism and modest social progressivism can indeed be a political winner among visible minorities as long as the right effort is put in. In politics, demography is not destiny after all.