The Republicans must accept that they can't rely on white votes to win

With whites now accounting for only 72 per cent of the electorate, the party's election strategy is bust.

The Republicans used to routinely win Presidential elections. Now the party will have to have a fundamental rethink if it is to win again. The central key to Republican dominance a generation ago was race and demography. The same factors are now the key barrier to the party winning again.

The race for the White House in 2012 offers a striking example of a major western election in which a party has destroyed its own prospects of power by going too tough on immigration, by being perceived to adopt so hard a tone on the issue that it has toxified the party brand, particularly with Hispanic voters, who are the fastest-growing section of the electorate, but also with voters under 35 more generally, particularly graduates.

White voters remain by far the largest group of voters, but they are falling, election on election, as a proportion of the overall electorate.
Mitt Romney did more than enough last night to win the 1988 or 1992 Presidential elections – by taking 6 out of 10 white voters last night
In 1992, 6 out of 10 white voters would have given the Republican candidate a majority of all Americans: because 87 per cent of the electorate in 1992 was white, six out of ten white voters would have made up 52.2 per cent of all of those who voted.

If you could only take Romney back two decades and he had enough white voters to win the election, without the need to win a single non-white, Hispanic or black voter at all. But fast forward a quarter of a century, and the Republicans are still campaigning like it is 1988, in an America that looks and so votes rather differently.
Meanwhile, in 2012, only 72 per cent of the electorate is white. It is decreasingly likely that any candidate will ever win a majority of the electorate based on support from white voters alone. That would now take not just six in ten, but seven in ten white voters last night, a feat beyond any candidate in any imaginable competitive US national election.

So the Democrats ought to worry that Barack Obama’s share of the white vote fell from 44 per cent in 2008 to 39 per cent according to exit polls this time. But the reason as few as four out of ten white votes were enough for the Democrats is that the Republicans are so bunkered in with non-white voters. As the Hispanic share of the electorate rose again from nine per cent to 10 per cent, the Republican share fell to 29 per cent from the peak of 40 per cent won by George W Bush in 2004, and a worse performance again than the 31 per cent of John McCain in 1988. That cost them Colorado, Nevada and Virginia last night – and kept Florida on a knife-edge again – helping to close off any viable route to the White House through the electoral college. As authoritative analysis of the Latino vote from America's Voice shows, it is hard to see any future Republican majority without addressing this issue head-on. Yet this is just the latest twist in how the ability to appeal to shifting demographic coalitions has reshaped the American political contest and the fortunes of the major political parties.

This 2012 defeat means that the Republicans have now lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections since the end of the Cold War, excepting George W Bush’s re-election as a war President in 2004, though they also took the White House by splitting both the electoral college and the Supreme Court down the middle in 2000. The popular vote tallies show again that this has been a closely contested electoral era – a story of the 50:50 nation, split down the middle between red and blue states, so that all eyes so often turn every four years to Ohio and Florida – and yet the fundamentals underpinning that contest have been gradually shifting against the Republicans, unable to unseat a President with economic and jobs data which, historically, has signaled defeat rather than victory.

Yet the Republicans had won five out of the six Presidential elections before that, only losing one of the contests from 1968 to 1988 (and fairly narrowly) in the wake of Nixon’s disgrace over Watergate. From 1968, the Republicans benefitted from a kaleidoscope shift in electoral politics because of race and civil rights. They may have been the party of Abraham Lincoln, but it was Democrat LBJ who signed the civil rights act in 1964. It was the greatest single peacetime political achievement in recent US democratic history, and the President’s party paid a high price for it.

"There goes the south for a generation", LBJ said as he signed the Civil Rights Bill into law. And he was right. 1964 was the last year that any Democratic Presidential candidate won a majority of white voters, because the opportunity to appeal to the southern Democratic base was skillfully exploited by Richard Nixon, with an appeal to the "silent majority" and a "piano strategy" of appealing to the grievances of white southerners to build a new dominant Presidential coalition.

Many of the same themes were still at play, and effective, during the brutal electoral mugging of Michael Dukakis in 1988. The Democrats’ large lead at the time of the conventions eviscerated by Lee Atwater’s campaign which successfully portrayed him as weak, soft on crime and too liberal on welfare and tax, with some emotionally resonant appeals to fear, in the infamous Willie Horton advertisement, and grievances, over affirmative action, politics to make the point resonate. Sixty nine per cent of the Hispanic vote for Michael Dukakis couldn’t save him from defeat.

But there is nothing inevitable about the Republican party suffering from these demographic shifts. "Demographics is destiny" does not make any sense in politics.  What matters is what choices the parties make to respond – just as they have to an expanded franchise, shifting levels of education, and the changing social role of women in the past.

Republican strategists of the Reagan era talked about the question of whether Hispanic voters become like Italian-Americans – so that voting patterns converge on those of the broader electorate, perhaps with conservative social values or pro-business instincts coming to the fore – or like Afro-Caribbeans, where there remains a strong sense of group identity and very distinctive (pro-Democrat) voting behavior.

George W Bush, with a message of “compassionate conservatism” and supporting bipartisan immigration reform including regularization of the undocumented, followed the Reagan strategy – and won 40 per cent too of Hispanic votes in 2004. Everything that that the Republicans have said and done about immigration since 2008 has created more cohesive, and anti-Republican, voting patterns – making the Hispanic vote look less Italian, and more similar to black voting.

British Conservatives face a similar, if less intense, problem than the Republicans – winning just 16 per cent of non-white voters, compared to 37 per cent of white voters, in the 2010 election - and so should now understand the Republican failure with Hispanic voters as an object lesson in what not to do. The US experience strengthens the warnings from influential thinkers such as Paul Goodman, co-editor of ConservativeHome, that “On present voting trends, the party is facing demographic marginalization”, based on the evidence on British attitudes among  non-white voters compiled by Michael Ashcroft. Britain has changed since the last Tory majority victory in 1992, and the failure to win a majority in 2010 was partly a failure to adapt the right’s strategy sufficiently to keep pace with it.

Tory strategists are aware of the need to avoid the same pitfalls as the US right, and are studying how the Canadian Conservatives have also made enormous inroads into traditionally Liberal minority communities, and won a majority as a result. Yet there are bound to be pressures from the growth of UKIP in the run-up to 2014 which could lead them into the same trap as the US right, as long as the need to deal with potential defectors from the anxious right flank is not balanced in the party’s internal discussions by the need to reach out to those who were not persuaded in 2010.

In the States, the next generation of Republicans, especially Mario Rubio and Jeb Bush, may need to have quite an argument with the party base over how to take the Republicans out of the bunker of demographic decline. Immigration reform and the “Dreamer generation” of those who were born and bred in America is likely to become a symbolic touchstone. It could split the US right for a generation. Their best argument will be to use the examples of Reagan and Bush to persuade the party that it could retain its values – and compete to get elected in the United States of America of this century as well.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at the podium as he concedes the presidency. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.