In 2012, nearly three-quarters of Asian-American voters went for President Obama. But, rewind — 20 years prior — and you’ll find fewer than a third voted Democrat.
In fact, in the span of two decades, the Asian-American vote in presidential elections has gone from being solidly Republican, to increasingly Democrat.
Analysts have described the Asian American political evolution as the most dramatic swing in recent presidential voting behavior across any demographic. But, how did it happen?
It’s a complicated story. Asian-Americans are the fastest growing racial group in the country, but, they’re also the least likely to vote. Nearly half (47 percent) consider themselves politically independent.
‘Reagan was my hero’
Genie Nguyen came to the U.S. in 1975 as a refugee from Vietnam. These days, the petite non-profit worker is the president of Voice of Vietnamese Americans, an organization that focuses on civic engagement and voter registration.
Nguyen is deeply engaged in politics, but equally evasive when she talks about party politics. She repeatedly insists that for Vietnamese people, voting is not about being a “Democrat or a Republican,” it’s about issues.
But, her personal story symbolizes a trend demographers are seeing across the Asian-American community. Nguyen lives in Prince William County, Va., a bellweather in a changing political state.
When she first became a citizen, she voted for the Republican presidential candidate.
“I remember I did vote for Reagan,” she said at a Vietnamese mini mall that offers everything from Jasmine rice to jade jewelry. “Reagan was my hero because many Vietnamese at the time, we were very much victims of communism.”
But, she said, the party has changed.
“I think the Republican has gone too far to the right, and they are not the Republicans of the Reagans anymore,” she said.
But, voter concerns have changed too.
The top issue for Vietnamese isn’t communism. Nguyen says these days, they’re more concerned about jobs, affordable health care and the economy.
“Many are working low, minimum wage jobs, so we really care for the higher, better minimum wage,” she said.
Nguyen herself voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012. She said she’s not yet committed to any presidential candidate this election cycle, but, she wants someone who will be strong on the economy and foreign policy, specifically the clash in the South China Sea.
Second thoughts on the Republican Party
Nguyen’s change in voting behavior isn’t surprising, according to research from Karthick Ramakrishnan, a public policy professor at the University of California-Riverside who also directs the National Asian American Survey.
“Asian-Americans tend to have progressive positions on things like taxes, on things like preserving social safety net, supporting the Affordable Care Act,” said Ramakrishnan. Asian-Americans, he added, “including wealthy Asian-Americans, support policies that tend to be more in line with the Democratic Party, than the Republican party.”
But, Ramakrishnan said it wasn’t always that way. The Asian-American political conversion started during Bill Clinton’s presidency because of a deliberate effort to court Asian-Americans.
“There’s a big shift that happens there,” said Ramakrishnan. “The Democratic Party is changing itself. It is portraying itself as a centrist party with respect to economic policy and it is also trying to see itself as ‘big tent’ kind of party.”
During the George W. Bush administration the leftist Asian tilt continued.
“The most likely explanation there is the kind of exclusionary rhetoric after 9-11 with the Patriot Act and racial profiling of South Asians,” said Ramakrishnan. “Many South Asians I know personally who might have been sympathetic to the Republican Party were starting to have second thoughts.”
Anti-immigrant rhetoric could push voters away
The anti-immigrant rhetoric this campaign season is making Asians reconsider their political identity — yet again, Ramakrishnan said. (In the 2014 midterm, some data suggests Asian-American voters swung back toward the Republican party.)
Nearly three quarters of Asian-American adults were born abroad, and Ramakrishan says says even if most of the immigrant rhetoric this election cycle is aimed at Latinos, his research suggests Asian voters will punish candidates with strong anti-immigrant attitudes. In a 2014 poll, Asian voters were asked “if a political candidate expressed strongly anti-immigrant views, but you agreed with him or her on other issues, would you still vote for that candidate, or would you vote for someone else?”
Forty-one percent of registered Asian-American voters suggested they would vote for someone else.
“They’re seeing which party seems like a welcoming party, which party seems like an exclusionary party,” said Ramakrishnan. He added, it doesn’t help when a Republican presidential candidate like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush attempts to clarify his use of the term “anchor babies” — which many Latinos find offensive — by redirecting the conversation to Asians.
“(Bush) did it in a way that cast an entire stereotype that this is how the Asian-American community is,” said Christine Chen, director of Asian-Pacific American Islander Vote, a nonpartisan organization that mobilizes Asian voters. “The Asian-American electorate is immediately starting to take note of all the China bashing, the comments with Jeb Bush as well as the current criticism of China.”
It’s worth noting that the Asian-American electorate is tiny — they made up just 3 percent of 2012 voters. But, the reason their political identity is important is because an overwhelming number of Asian-Americans are actually not officially affiliated with any party, and their numbers are growing quickly. Ramakrishnan says that means they are theoretically open to persuasion.
It’s just a matter of who will persuade them which way.