High numbers of California’s Asian American voters still undecided


Many Asian American voters are undecided on key candidate races and ballot measures in the lead-up to the Nov. 4 election, according to a new analysis by the Field Poll’s Mark DiCamillo. The trend tracks with other surveys that have found Asian American voters in California showing more ambiguity than white, Latino and African American voters on key issues in this year’s election.

Latino and African American voters in the state showed strong support for the water bond (Prop. 1), a measure that regulates health insurance premium hikes (Prop. 45), a measure on medical malpractice lawsuits (Prop. 46), and an initiative that reduces sentences for non-violent offenders who commit certain crimes (Prop. 47). Asian Americans, meanwhile, had the highest percentage of voters who were undecided on these propositions. 

“Asian American voters are withholding judgment on Prop. 1. They need more information,” said DiCamillo, who presented an analysis of ethnic likely voters from a poll fielded in late August at an elections briefing for ethnic media on Oct. 14 that was organized by New America Media.

With concerns over a record drought, ethnic voters generally backed the $7.5 billion water bond by a 2-to-1 margin. Support was lowest among Asian American voters (39 percent), with 44 percent of them undecided on the measure.

Jenesse Miller, communications director of the California League of Conservation Voters, says she was surprised by the number of Asian American voters who were undecided on Prop. 1, which authorizes $7.12 billion in general obligation bonds for state water supply infrastructure projects. CLCV’s polling has found a higher level of support among immigrant and minority communities on environmental policies and measures to support clean air and water. 

“Supporters should be doing extra work to compel and convince Asian Americans to support Prop. 1, since so many of them are undecided still,” said Miller, whose organization endorses the measure.

According to the Field Poll analysis, Asian American voters statewide also held the highest level of undecided votes for Prop. 45 (about half undecided), Prop. 46 (40 percent undecided), and Prop. 47 (27 percent undecided). 

That trend even extends to the governor’s race, where Gov. Jerry Brown enjoys a 16-point lead over Republication challenger Neel Kashkari. Support for Brown was highest among African American voters (82 percent) followed by whites and Latinos (at about 50 percent) and Asian Americans (40 percent). Forty-one percent of Asian American voters were undecided. 

One possible explanation, DiCamillo says, is the high number of Asian American voters who are not affiliated with a political party. According to a recent survey by APIA Vote and Asian Americans Advancing Justice, 45 percent of Asian American voters identify as “independent” or “don’t know.”

Chinese American voters had the highest rate of non-partisanship (57 percent), followed by Vietnamese (53 percent), Filipino (39 percent) and Japanese and Korean American voters (about one-third). 

The high levels of nonpartisanship among Asian American voters, DiCamillo says, shows that they have a “lack of connection” to those political parties.

Karthick Ramakrishnan, professor of public policy and political science at the University of California, Riverside, who conducts research on the Asian American electorate, says part of this may be related to the large numbers of foreign-born Asian Americans. 

“They are the most heavily immigrant group in country,” he said, adding that the proportion of immigrants among the adult citizen population is much higher for Asians than Latinos. Ramakrishnan says that translates to less experience with the U.S. political system, and a lower level of engagement.

But campaigns also frequently overlook Asian American voters. 

A survey of Asian American voters by APIA Vote and AAJC found political candidates and campaigns conducted little outreach to Asian American voters. Ramakrishnan conducted research and analysis for that study.

The report found that only one-third of Asian American voters were contacted by Democrats, while one-quarter were contacted by Republicans.

Ramakrishnan says Asian Americans are overlooked by political campaigns as well, citing Prop. 30 – a 2012 measure that temporarily raised taxes to fund education. About eight percent of voters in the state where undecided on the measure, compared to a quarter of Asian American voters. He says the campaigns on both the “yes” and “no” sides overlooked Asian Americans.

With Asian Americans representing one in 10 voters in California, Ramakrishnan says, “It’s increasingly a risky proposition (to overlook these voters), because these are voters who make up their minds relatively late in the game and they are not being reached out to.”

In tight races or ballot measures with potentially close outcomes, Asian American voters could be a swing vote. 

Yet only about half of Latino and Asian American adults registered to vote in the last two elections, a rate that is lower than their African-American and white counterparts.

In California, pollster DiCamillo says, the outcome of Prop. 45, a measure that would require the insurance commissioner’s approval before health insurers can change their rates, could be “quite close,” as support for the measure has been falling since July.

According to the Field Poll analysis, Prop. 45 is now ahead by 15 points (down from 50 points in July), with the strongest level of support coming from Latinos and African Americans (just over half), followed by whites (38 percent) and Asian Americans (less than one-third). Nearly half of Asian American voters are still undecided on Prop. 45.

In tight races, DiCamillo says, the votes of Asian Americans could be decisive.

Ethnic media, he says, also play an important role in informing Asian American audiences.

He noted that the APIA Vote/AAJC study found that one-third of Asian American voters rely exclusively on ethnic media for news on U.S. politics, and 13 percent said they use both mainstream and ethnic media for this purpose.

Vietnamese American voters were most likely to go to ethnic media for political news (61 percent), followed by Chinese American voters (55 percent).

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