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Columbia Immigration: New Voters, Old Fears

Asians Shading Blue

The Asian American vote was once split, but now it could be moving decisively to the Democratic Party
By Mira Jang, July 26, 2008
Image: SF poster
A campaign poster in San Francisco days before the Feb. 5 California primary.

When exit polls showed that Hillary Clinton won the Asian American vote 3-1 against Barack Obama in the California primary, some pundits and scholars blamed racism for Clinton’s margin. If it had been true that a significant number of Asian Americans rejected Obama because of his race, John McCain should have an opportunity to capture these votes in the general election. But after Clinton conceded defeat, a June SurveyUSA poll found that 68 percent of Asian Americans in California, regardless of party affiliation, said they would vote for Obama, while only 27 percent said they would support McCain. No other group expressed stronger support for Obama, including whites and Latinos.

It’s tempting to conclude from these results that a strong majority of Asian Americans will back Obama, but the Asian sample size was probably too small. Except for the California and New York/New Jersey exit polls, no other scientifically sound survey measured Asian American opinion of the presidential candidates. "It's a group that is understudied and underpolled," says Sergio Bendixen, president of polling firm Bendixen and Associates, which conducted a rare national political survey of Asians in 2004. "The media doesn't pay attention to these voters, which is a mistake."

But on the basis of extensive interviews conducted among Asian voters in Southern California and discussions with political scientists and other experts who study the Asian American vote, it is possible to draw tentative conclusions about where Asian American voters are headed, and these conclusions bear out what polls have found. Asians are becoming more Democratic with each election, and Barack Obama is likely to benefit from this trend.

Obama supporters in Washington, D.C., February 10, 2008.

Asian Americans are the fastest growing segment of the electorate. According to Bendixen, their numbers doubled to four percent over the past two presidential election cycles. And while they comprise only five percent of the U.S. population, the majority live in three politically powerful states—California, New York, and Texas—and in Hawaii. Some swing states, such as Florida and Virginia, also have sizeable Asian populations.

Since the 1990s, Asian Americans have been becoming more Democratic, spurred, in part, by the anti-immigrant sentiment fueled by the Republican-sponsored Proposition 187 in California, where most Asians live. There, only 39 percent of Asians voted for Clinton in 1992, but four years later 51 percent backed the Democratic incumbent, according to exit polls. By 2000, 63 percent supported Gore, and in 2004, 66 percent backed Kerry. Among 18- to 24-year-old Asian Americans nearly half—47 percent—identified as Democrats, making this group as Democratic as young blacks and Latinos, according to a 2007 poll conducted for Harvard University’s Institute of Politics. Only 15 percent of the Asian youth said they were Republicans. Older Asian immigrants who had been inclined to vote Republican have come to consider racial discrimination as a serious problem the longer they have lived in the country, and they see the Democratic Party as a natural fit for civil rights issues, says Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political scientist at the University of California at Riverside.

But there were still significant political divisions among Asian Americans. In the 2000 election, according to a national survey conducted by Pei-te Lien, a political scientist at the University of Utah, Democrat Al Gore won 64 percent of the Chinese vote but only 44 percent of the Korean vote. A slight majority of Vietnamese (54 percent) voted for Gore while 35 percent backed Bush. The same pattern persisted in 2004. Just two months before the election, a national poll of Asian Americans conducted for New California Media found John Kerry leading George Bush by only seven percentage points (43 percent to 36 percent), with 20 percent of likely voters undecided. Most Vietnamese and Filipinos preferred Bush, while the majority of Chinese and Indians liked Kerry. Japanese, Koreans, and Pacific Islanders were split almost evenly. “Asian Americans lean Democratic, but not consistently so,” says Janelle Wong, a political scientists at the University of Southern California.

Their inability to coalesce as a voting bloc could be due to significant intra-group differences. Asian Americans comprise many distinct ethnic groups with different languages, cultures, and histories. Their immigration patterns vary, from the Chinese who began immigrating in the 19th century to work on California’s gold mines to the post-1965 waves of Koreans who came for economic and educational opportunities. Many Vietnamese and Cambodians came as refugees, while a large portion of Asian Indians entered with work visas.

Despite the differences, a non-partisan organization called the 80-20 Initiative, founded by seven Chinese Americans in 1998, has been trying to create an Asian American voting bloc, ideally with 80 percent of Asians backing the candidate that the group endorses. It claims 700,000 members on its e-mail list and will consider endorsing either Obama or McCain in August based on which candidate it deems more committed to Asian American issues. Its main goal is to eliminate glass ceilings for Asians in the workplace. If it backs Obama, which seems likely given that McCain has yet to respond to a key questionnaire that Obama has returned, the group may take credit for Obama’s possible victory among Asians. However, its influence is limited. Only 20 percent of Asian Americans—mostly Chinese—have heard of the group, according to the 2000 national survey, and Chinese Americans still comprise the bulk of its leadership and membership. If Asians do vote together, a more plausible reason would be the growing unpopularity of the Bush administration, along with demographic changes among Asians, which could be moving more Asians to the Democratic Party.

Image: Ob poster
A voter registration drive in Los Angeles.

The Vietnamese had been a reliable Republican bloc since they began arriving in the 1970s to escape Communism. However, as the younger generation, who care less about foreign policy and more about domestic issues, have reached voting age and as older Vietnamese immigrants have become more aware of party differences, their Republican ties have weakened. “The Vietnamese vote is up for grabs,” says Ramakrishnan. “There is a general change happening in the Vietnamese community.” In Orange County, California, home to the largest population of Vietnamese Americans in the country, Democratic Vietnamese candidates have begun to win local seats that were once dominated by Republicans. For the first time this year, more newly registered Vietnamese voters are identifying as Democrats than Republicans, according to the Los Angeles Times. Also, McCain’s use of the racial epithet “gook,” in reference to his Vietnamese prison guards, during his 2000 presidential campaign, could hurt him among Vietnamese voters and other Asians.

Asian American groups that have been leaning Democratic have become even more so. As a result of the discrimination they experienced after September 11, South Asians have become even more Democratic, says Ramakrishnan. Now, even wealthy South Asians who were more likely to be Republicans now identify as Democrats, thus narrowing the class divide and solidifying their Democratic support.

But will this trend extend to Barack Obama’s candidacy? That’s where the question of racism comes in. After Clinton won the Asian vote in California, political scientist Taeku Lee told The New Republic that "many Asian Americans have very deeply rooted and stereotypical reviews of African Americans." CNN aired a piece that featured several Asians who liked Clinton, with one woman saying that she preferred the New York senator because she was white. And a Time magazine article asked, "Could some Asian Americans not be voting for Obama simply because he's black?"

Of course, some Asian Americans might oppose Obama because he is black (his mother is white, though), but there is no evidence that most Asian American voters will use his race against him. In fact, polls conducted after Super Tuesday showed that the majority of Asian American Democrats had a positive view of Obama. That was true even before Clinton dropped out. According to a May Field Poll of California voters, 56 percent of Asian Democrats (small sample) supported Obama. Only 33 percent backed Clinton. “Obama’s race, in general, will be a net positive for him in attracting Asian American voters because of the possibility of electing the first non-white president,” says Ramakrishnan. In fact, whites have been the most resistant to backing Obama.

Korean American Obama supporters at a press conference, February 20, 2008.

Hillary Clinton’s initial popularity among Asian Americans was largely due to her name and association with Bill Clinton, who had presided over a period of economic boom and had appointed Asians to high-level federal seats. Among female Asian voters, some backed Clinton because they wanted a woman in the White House. With Clinton out of the race, most Asian Democrats seem to be shifting their allegiance to Obama. "Many Korean Americans and APIs (Asian Pacific Islanders) didn't know who Obama was," says Dae Joong Yoon, who helped found Korean Americans for Obama, a Los Angeles-based political action committee that placed pro-Obama ads in Korean-language newspapers in Texas before the state’s primary. "His middle name is Hussein, so they thought, 'Isn't he Middle Eastern, isn't he Muslim?' But once they heard who he was, everybody said 'Wow, that's great.'"

Tom Pao is one of those Clinton converts. A 57-year-old Thai immigrant who voted for Clinton in the California primary, he said it was easy to back Obama once he learned more about him. "He represents people like me, the lower-class, the working people," says Pao, who manages a Thai market in North Hollywood, in the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles.

Obama’s appeal is cultural as well as political. Beyond his black identity, he has a multicultural background that many Asians appreciate. He was born and raised in Hawaii, the only state with a majority Asian population, lived in Indonesia, and has a half-Indonesian sister and a Chinese Canadian brother-in-law. His father left Kenya to study in the United States. Many Asian Americans, who have felt ignored by politicians, believe that Obama understands them and will heed their concerns about immigration, healthcare, and civil rights, along with more general concerns about the economy and the Iraq war, if he’s in the White House. “He reflects the experience of an outsider,” says Ramey Ko, a Chinese American who founded “He almost had an immigrant experience.”

Obama could also win significant support among Asian Republicans and independents. As a largely immigrant group without a long history of party affiliation, Asian Republicans, disenchanted with Bush and the war, could be more open to backing the opposing party’s candidate. “Even die hard (Asian) Republicans are seeing that more of the same is not what we need,” says 30-year-old Jay Chen, a Chinese American Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention who convinced his Republican uncles to support Obama. “I’ve been surprised by what I’ve seen.”

Chris Chun, a Korean American, is a 33-year-old registered Republican in Los Angeles who has been disillusioned with his party’s handling of the war and the economy. Chun is now backing Obama. “Obama gives you a sense of hope that he’ll make everything better,” says Chun. “I like that he’s completely different from past candidates, especially Bush. We’ve got a shot at real change.”

And Obama has a good shot at winning Asian independents, who comprise about 20 percent of the Asian vote, according to Wong, the USC professor. Oiyan Poon, a 32-year-old Chinese American in Los Angeles, became a Democrat after years as an independent because she was moved by what she described as Obama’s vision of inclusion. “He’s not the typical politician,” she said. “He understands marginalized communities.” Along with volunteering as a precinct captain and mobilizing voters in Hawaii and Nevada, Poon convinced her 57-year-old mother, Pauline, an immigrant from Hong Kong, to vote for the first time—for Obama. She’s also talked her 25-year-old brother Felix into supporting Obama rather than Republican Ron Paul. Her father, Paul, a 62-year-old independent who voted for Bush in the last two elections, will also back Obama. "Any other election year, we would have a split family,” Poon said, “but this year it seems like my whole family, from the most conservative to the most liberal, is backing Obama."

If these examples are representative, Obama will easily win the Asian vote. But in California, where Asians comprise about 12 percent of registered voters, the McCain camp says it will fight for their vote, too. In July, the virtually all-volunteer campaign formed a group to target Asian voters in the Los Angeles region, and the head of a pro-McCain healthcare workers organization is a Chinese American. But it’s unclear how much of the Asian vote McCain can capture. “I have not thought about that, why he (McCain) is particularly better for them,” says Nancy Spero, co-chair of the McCain office in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, where many Asians live. “I just think he’s a better guy, and I think they’d appreciate that.” Moreover, McCain didn’t bother to speak, even by teleconference, to a gathering of about 2,000 Asian American leaders and activists in the heavily Asian city of Irvine in May.

Obama, by contrast, spoke by phone to the group. “I am a Pacific Islander,” he said. “…I consider myself a part of you.” That’s a theme that is resonating with many Asian Americans. If it continues to do so, Obama will win the great majority of these voters in November.

VIDEO: Chen family shifts to Obama
Click here to see how the Chens, once politically split, have come to backing Obama. (02:59)

Asian Americans in the United States