Five takes on Asian Americans trending Democratic

President Barack Obama’s 50-point edge over Mitt Romney among Asian American voters was one of the most surprising election results for me. Growing up during the 1980s, it seemed like all of my Asian American friends’ parents were Republicans. Bill Clinton received an estimated 31 percent of the Asian American vote in 1992, compared to 62 percent for Obama in 2008 and 73 percent for Obama this year.

Since the election, I’ve read several attempts to explain this trend. The most interesting links are after the jump.

Asian Americans are “the highest-income, best- educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States.” California and Hawaii, already deep-blue states, have historically large Asian American populations, but this demographic group is growing quickly in many swing states as well, such as Virginia, Florida, and Nevada.

An estimated 1.9 percent of Iowans (roughly 58,000 people) are Asian American. College towns and some larger metro areas in Iowa have higher percentages of Asian Americans: 6.2 percent in Story County, 5.4 percent in Johnson County, 3.7 percent in Polk County, 2.7 percent in Dallas County, and 2.5 percent in Woodbury County.

Newt Gingrich was reportedly looking to the Chinese-American vote in Iowa during his presidential campaign. He’s not the only Republican to see Asian Americans as natural allies. Conservative writer Charles Murray ponders why Asian Americans have drifted away from Republicans “despite all the reasons that should naturally lead them to vote for a party that is identified with liberty, opportunity to get ahead, and economic growth.”

Murray blames social conservatism, or the image of the GOP as dominated by social conservatives, for the shift. David Brooks suggests these voters are “from different cultures, with different attitudes toward authority, different attitudes about individualism, different ideas about what makes people enterprising.”

Political science professors Taeku Lee at the University of California Berkeley and Karthick Ramakrishnan of the University of California Riverside have been studying Asian American voting behavior for a long time. They see a more complex picture:

Since 2000, the Republican Party has moved more sharply to the right than the Democratic Party has to the left, especially on issues that resonate with Asian Americans. For example, Republicans in Congress escalated their heated rhetoric on immigration and, despite the Bush administration’s efforts, consistently scuttled efforts toward comprehensive immigration reform. Our 2008 National Asian American Survey also found very strong support among all Asian American groups for universal healthcare and for bringing a quick end to the Iraq war, two issues on which the Republican Party did itself no favors with these voters.

This mix of “push” and “pull” factors continued during the first Obama administration. On the “push” side of the ledger, the Republican Party has not been helped by its close liaison with the tea party movement, which received low favorability ratings in our 2012 survey, nor by presidential candidates and party activists emphasizing Christian values. Thus a Pew report on Asian American religion showed the highest Democratic Party support among Hindus and the religiously unaffiliated who, together, account for more than 35% of the Asian American population.

On the “pull” side is the significant rise in the number of Asian Americans Obama has appointed, from Cabinet positions to the World Bank, and policy achievements that matter to Asian Americans like healthcare (the Affordable Care Act), education (college loans and the Race to the Top initiative) and foreign policy (ending the Iraq war). On all these matters, and even on job creation, our 2012 survey showed Asian Americans giving a sizable edge to Obama over Romney. It is no surprise, then, that Obama did even better among Asian Americans in 2012 than in 2008.

Ramakrishnan and Lee discussed their findings further in this blog post, which I highly recommend reading in full. Excerpt:

Charles Murray, writing for AEI, argues that Asian Americans, like many other groups that voted for Obama, see Republicans as “the party of Bible-thumping, anti-gay, anti-abortion creationists,” and thus cannot bring themselves to support Republican candidates.  This assertion, like Posner’s, is in line with our argument regarding “push factors” associated with a vocal set of Republican leaders.  However, Murray is inaccurate in his assertion that Asian Americans would otherwise align with the Republican Party with their support for fiscal conservatism. Our 2012 survey shows that Asian Americans support increasing taxes to help reduce the federal deficit, and a Pew survey from early 2012 indicated that Asian Americans prefer a bigger government that provides more services to a smaller government providing fewer services (55% to 36%, respectively), almost the mirror opposite to the U.S. average (39% vs. 52%, respectively).

That full Pew survey is available here (pdf). The latest National Asian American Survey (more comprehensive because it’s conducted in ten languages) is here (pdf).

Earlier this year, Lake Research Partners conducted a large Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) voter survey, and found candidates and political parties often miss opportunities to reach out to this voting bloc.

“Every vote counts, especially in a tight election. If AAPIs vote at the same level as they did in 2008, it could mean increasing margins for the party they prefer — 47,000 more votes in Virginia, 33,000 more in Florida and 9,000 more in Nevada,” said [Christine] Chen, acting executive director at APIAVote. “Political leaders must engage this rapidly growing voting bloc in the conversation. We’re working with dozens of community-based groups to get AAPIs more civically engaged, but locally we’ve barely been contacted by either party.”

Most importantly, if candidates address the community’s issues, there’s a lasting benefit because AAPI voters are younger than the general population and have roots spread across the country. In asking about stances on values and fairness, the poll found AAPI voters are looking for candidates who will stand up for the middle class and treat all Americans fairly, and that the most important issues to them are the economy, health care, education and immigration.

“Candidates for office and political parties ignore Asian American voters at their own peril,” said pollster Celinda Lake. “Many Asian Americans don’t really know the differences between the two leading political parties, because they haven’t been engaged by either Democrats or Republicans. There’s a real opportunity there to define the debate.”

I question whether stronger outreach by Republicans would be enough to overcome what Ramakrishnan and Lee politely call “‘push’ factors by a vocal set of Republican officials that portrayed a party as exclusionary on religion and strictly conservative on immigration.” Xenophobic rhetoric from the “birther” movement and the tea party wing of the GOP is repellent to many Asian Americans. Josh Marshall has posted several e-mails on this topic from readers of Talking Points Memo. For instance,

Many of us have experienced racism from “non-racists” all too frequently. As an Asian-American, the questioning of Obama’s American-ness really strikes a raw nerve.

(This is perhaps the one experience that unites Asian-Americans – being treated as a foreigner in our homeland). I see in Barack Obama a smart man who worked hard to get an education and to achieve a better life, only to be questioned about his credentials and his authenticity. I identify with that. So do many other people.

One of the e-mails posted at Talking Points Memo came from an Iowa native:

I am Indian-American, born and raised in Iowa (my childhood in Ames and Marshalltown and college years back to Ames) to immigrant parents. Obama’s heritage and identity as a racial minority is a big deal to me, no question, and was an attraction to me in 2007…he is the only Presidential candidate ever to get my money in a contested nomination fight, before he was the presumed nominee. There is no question the Obama Presidency has exposed a lot of racism and xenophobia and religious bigotry among Republicans and conservatives, disturbingly more than I would’ve guessed. […]

Republican candidates and electeds know that they can lose primaries for openly challenging racial and other bigoted hostility toward Obama. And all this is very personal to me. When I was a small child in Ames, Iowa, in my immigrant family, neighborhood teenagers assaulted our home regularly, pelting fruit and whatever else at our house. Several times my dad had the police come and lecture this group of kids. It was all about race, and these kids’ parents did nothing. So when Mitt Romney in a Michigan stump speech snarks that no one asked him for his birth certificate, and his GOP allies defend the racism as “just a joke,” when so many GOP federal and state electeds endorse or tacitly condone questioning of Obama’s citizenry and engage in other dog whistle racism, these are always personal attacks equally on me…if Obama is not an American and does not legitimately belong, then they’re saying the same about me. I imagine I’m not alone, that people of color across the board see what I see, and the election results confirm this.

Republicans look to rising stars like U.S. Senator Marco Rubio to soften the GOP’s image of hostility toward immigrants. But Rubio is afraid to offend conservatives who deny evolution as secular heresy. The anti-science posture of many Republicans won’t help the party’s image with highly-educated Asian Americans, in my opinion.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

About the Author(s)


  • Not just Asian-Americans

    My wife, an African-American, identified even before the election the likely impact of the Republican rhetoric (“taking the country back,” and much worse) on minority turnout. Minority reaction to all this may have been a bigger factor than the Obama turnout machine for the unexpectedly strong showing of Obama supporters at the polls. The flipside of this is that a white Democratic nominee is not likely to have the same turnout benefit.

    • agree on both counts

      What your wife identified is what Josh Marshall called reaping the whirlwind of the birther movement, “You Lie!,” etc.

      I wouldn’t assume future Democratic presidential candidates will benefit from this phenomenon, or that Democratic turnout for the 2014 midterms will be any better than it was in 2010.

  • That was me in the last excerpt......

    And thank you desmoinesdem for this post.

    Unfortunately I wasn’t able to reply to your DM on Twitter because under Twitter rules one can DM only someone who follows them, and since you don’t follow me, I can’t DM you, even as a reply to a DM.

    That aside, it really was a mixed bag growing up Indian in Iowa.  Being a minority-of-one as I was among my generational peers in central Iowa public schools, it was easy and automatic to assimilate culturally, but always there were constant reminders, some malicious and some not, of being different.

    I do think the GOP has crossed a line in the Obama era that will be very hard to cross back.  It would take a uniquely inclusive and embracing Republican, combined with a uncommonly bad Democrat, for the GOP to reverse anytime soon the 80-20 Democratic split that people of color give to Democratic Presidential nominees right now.  Most likely we’re looking at a long-term period of having an electoral college map that gives us a natural edge in Presidential elections, and over the next couple decades that will filter downballot, too.  The GOP then has to decide if it’s going to go the way of the California GOP, which is a path to political suicide for them, or transform into something new and redefine what “conservative” means.

    • follow fail corrected

      I thought I was following you already on twitter. Anyway, I see the birther movement’s impact on people of color as similar to the school prayer movement’s impact on American Jews during the “moral majority’s” heyday. It hits a very sore spot, and I agree with you that lasting damage has been done. A generic or even above-average Republican will have a hard sell.

      Not convinced yet that the electoral college favors Democrats, though. A generic Democrat won’t necessarily inspire strong turnout, which could easily flip a bunch of states.

      • Midterms

        We’ve got to educate these younger voters about midterm elections, you can’t just re-elect Obama, he doesn’t have some magic wand, people still have to do the work everyday.  

      • "Strong turnout" is a given now, no inspiration needed

        Our electoral college advantage comes automatically from population change, not from inspiration.  The little secret is that OFA’s efforts moved the needle only very little in the turnout model in the two elections; most of it was simply population change over time that finally came to a head in the electorate.

        The only part of the turnout model that was significantly Obama-centric was the black turnout at census+1, when it usually had been anywhere from census to census-2.  While that turnout likely drops a little going forward, the reality of voting behavior is that once someone has voted a couple times, they stay in the electorate and keep voting……voters always return to the scene of the crime.  I am guessing that black turnout will remain at census, not lower, going forward, while also not matching the +1 model of the Obama elections.

        Where GOP hostility toward minorities hurts them is in who people of color vote for, not in whether we vote at all.  Hispanics and Asians going over 70% for Obama is driven by hostility toward the GOP……it’s tempting to call our performance there “unnaturally” high, but what’s natural changes, and frankly I don’t see the GOP recovering quickly.

  • Education is part of the explanation

    The ten states with the highest percentage of people with bachelor’s degrees all went for Obama. Nine of the ten states with the lowest percent went for Romney. (The exception was Nevada.)

    There was a similar result in Iowa. Six of the seven counties with the highest percent of people with bachelor’s degrees went for Obama. (The exception was Dallas Co.) Six of the seven counties with the lowest percent went to Romney. (The exception was Jackson Co.; the Mississippi River border counties were all blue.)