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Republicans need to look to Canada to see how conservatives can win

Canadian political strategists of every stripe regularly travel to the United States in search of the latest tips, techniques and technology for winning elections. It's time to reverse the flow.

Republicans need to come to Canada, to learn how a Conservative government has put together the very coalition that eludes the GOP, which has now lost the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential contests.

What do Conservatives get that Republicans don't? In a word: immigrants. It's fascinating to study how and why.

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Dick Morris, the rabidly conservative pundit and pollster, confidently predicted that Mitt Romney would win a landslide for the Republicans right up until the polls closed, Tuesday. Wednesday, he ate crow.

"I mistakenly believed that the 2008 surge in black, Latino, and young voter turnout would recede in 2012 to 'normal' levels," he wrote. "Didn't happen. These high levels of minority and young voter participation are here to stay. And, with them, a permanent reshaping of our nation's politics."

As Mr. Morris accurately (for once) observed, African Americans accounted for 13 per cent of the vote on Nov. 6; 10 per cent of the vote was Latino; 19 per cent was cast by voters under 30. All three groups voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Obama, "accounting fully for his victory," he concluded.

Mr. Morris had based his projections on the assumption that the high voter turnout among these groups in 2008 was a temporary phenomenon, caused by excitement over electing America's first black president. Voting levels among blacks, Hispanics and the young, he confidently predicted, would drift back to previous levels after four years of a presidency that had its share of difficulties.

"I was wrong," he acknowledged. And then some.

Compare this with the Canadian election of 2011. The Conservative coalition in one respect mirrored its Republican counterpart: It was rooted in white male voters in the conservative heartland – in Canada's case, the Prairies, plus the rural parts of British Columbia and Ontario.

But the Conservatives also did well among immigrant voters. In fact, middle-class immigrant voters who dominate the suburban ridings surrounding Toronto and, to a lesser extent, Vancouver were key to the Conservative victory.

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Of course, the Tories only took 40 per cent of the vote in the last election, so one conclusion the Republicans might draw is that they should encourage a third party that would split progressive support.

But the more practical lesson the Republicans could take from the Canadian example is that it is possible for conservatives to win over minority voters by following these two simple steps: 1) Trumpet responsible fiscal conservatism; 2) Lay off everything else.

Conservatives, like Republicans, believe in low taxes, minimal regulations and balanced budgets. Many immigrants to Canada are attracted to that message. They came here to escape the corrupt or tyrannical governments of their native land; they are attracted to a party that promises to mind the store and avoid expensive commitments.

But Canadian Conservatives, unlike American Republicans, are pro-immigration. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has made it his life's work to win over immigrants to the Conservative cause. Immigration levels have remained robust on the Tory watch.

The Republican base, on the other hand, forced Mr. Romney to oppose any reasonable compromise in creating a path to legal status for illegal immigrants, or at least their children. The party at every level presents a hostile face to newcomers. Yes, part of that is because many of them arrive illegally. But the impact on the electoral result is nonetheless proving fatal.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has also avoided promoting socially conservative issues such as abortion or clawing back gay rights. While many immigrants are socially conservative, they also recognize that intolerance toward another minority could also mean intolerance toward them.

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Bottom line: If Mr. Romney had put forward a Canadian Conservative platform of low taxes, balanced books, robust immigration and social tolerance, he might be on his way to the White House.

There was one result from Tuesday's election that Canadian political strategists from all parties should consider. Across the Western world, the young represent a smaller share of votes cast than their numbers warrant.

But in the United States, that's no longer the case. In 2008, voters under 30 made up 17 per cent of the American electorate, yet accounted for 18 per cent of votes cast. On Tuesday, they accounted for 19 per cent of the vote, with 60 per cent of them voting Democrat.

A new generation of young Americans has decided to become politically engaged, because they believe in Barack Obama and what he stands for.

Someday, a politician may emerge in this country who appeals to young Canadians, who embraces their beliefs and who speaks to them through their (social) media. If so, a new generation of Canadian voters could begin to shape the outcome of elections.

The question is simply: When and where will that politician appear?

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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