Increasingly, new face of Asian American electorate is a Democrat


After the election, media noted that Latino voters helped buoy President Barack Obama to a second term. Largely ignored, however, was the Asian American vote, which exit polls show trumped even Latino support for the president.

National exit polls show that more than 70 percent of Asian American voters broke for Obama, and that this voting bloc may have also played a pivotal role in swing states such as Nevada. The Asian American vote in the Nov. 6 election underscores a key trend born out in a number of recent pre-election polls: The Asian American vote is changing, shifting more Democratic, even across subgroups.

Despite the trend, Asian American voters are not being courted as much as those from other ethnic groups, say community advocates. More than half of Asian American voters said they were not contacted by either campaign or third-party group during the election season, according to a pre-election survey by the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development (National CAPACD) and Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF).

Lisa Hasegawa, executive director of the National CAPACD, said that may be because politicians mistakenly perceive the Asian American vote as either too divided, or too small to make a difference.

“There is the perception that the Asian American vote is split and the community is not together in terms of voting as a bloc,” Hasegawa said. “Latinos and blacks (swing) heavily Democratic — that trend is starting to bear out with Asian American groups as well.”

Academics and others who track Asian American voters say the exact number of registered voters among this group is hard to pin down, but historically, it has been low.

“Voter registration among Asian Americans is the lowest of any group. That means they have lower participation rates,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside. He added that in 2008, according to census data, “45 percent of Asian Americans who were eligible to vote, voted.”

While nearly three-fourths of Asian American voters supported Obama, only 41 percent identified as Democrats, according to the AALDEF and National CAPACD poll.
“People don’t feel affiliated with the parties — they are paying attention to the issues,” Hasegawa said, adding that the economy, health care, immigration and housing topped the list of concerns for Asian Americans.

In the last two decades, support for Democratic presidential candidates among Asian American voters has steadily grown. In 1992, about a third of voters in this group backed Pres. Bill Clinton. By 2008, just under two-thirds backed Obama. That number grew to nearly three-fourths in this election, said Ramakrishnan.

“That is a dramatic transformation of the electorate,” he said. “There is no other racial group in this country that has experienced such a dramatic transition in the last 20 years.”

And, he noted, that bears out across Asian subgroups. For example, Vietnamese Americans have traditionally leaned Republican. They shared the same political outlook as Cuban Americans — an anti-communist sentiment that was aligned more with the GOP than the Democrats. But, recent polls, including one conducted by Ramakrishnan, suggest that affiliation is changing.

“In the last decade, support for universal health care … support for spending on social services — (issues that give an) advantage (to) Democratic candidates — are becoming more important for the Vietnamese American vote, with anti-communism becoming less important,” he said.

Although Filipinos traditionally have leaned toward the Democratic Party, and a significant number supported Obama in 2008, Ramakrishnan noted that among Asian American subgroups today, Filipinos show the strongest levels of support for the GOP — although that support was hardly overwhelming. According to a recent National Asian American Survey, only about 40 percent of Filipinos were leaning toward Romney in the days leading up to the 2012 presidential election.

Asian American voters made up just three percent of the electorate in the 2012 national election, but that figure is estimated to more than double by 2040, according to Ramakrishnan. With one of the highest population growth rates, their political clout will grow, he said.

And, with more of these voters swinging Democratic, he said, “this should make the GOP party very worried.”

The antidote to low voter turnout among Asians may be beefed up outreach, advocates say.

In the battleground state of Nevada, home to a burgeoning population of Asian Americans, voter turnout among this group was likely to have been more robust than other states, given heavy campaign efforts, mostly by community groups.

Peter Jiang, a member of Local 2 (hotel workers) in San Francisco, spent two months in Reno prior to the election campaigning for Obama. The 26-year-old, who is a bellman at a downtown San Francisco hotel, said this was the first time that he worked on a campaign, but he felt it was important because Obama won Nevada by a narrow margin four years ago.

In a closer race than four years ago, Obama won the state’s six electoral votes with 52 percent of the vote to Romney’s 46 percent. Unions, women and Latinos played a key role in the president’s victory there.

“I feel so excited,” said Jiang, when asked about Obama’s re-election. “I worked these two months, I didn’t waste (my) time, because we did really well over there.” Jiang said, like him, many of the people he talked to were most concerned about the economy and health care.

In the Las Vegas metropolitan area, home to about 150,000 Filipinos, organizations such as the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance helped to register 1,500 new Filipino American voters.

Gloria T. Caoile, the group’s political director who said their voter registration work is non-partisan, said the economy was foremost on voters’ minds. Nevada has one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates and highest home foreclosure rate in the country. Nevadans’ choice of Obama, she said, sends a message that “they believe this president can fix it, is fixing it.”

“(They see) that things are improving — jobs opening up, housing developments on the rise,” she said. “These were signs they were paying attention to.”

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