Read the rest of the Swingers series.
An argument can be made—and is—that excessive partisanship is exactly the problem with a lot of ethnic politics. It goes something like this: Democrats take black voters for granted, Republicans don't even try to win them over, and the result is that they have less influence than they would if they had less party loyalty.
But an argument can also be made that partisanship enhances influence. On the national level, the most powerful groups—unions, African-Americans, evangelicals—are often the most partisan. A pandering politician wants to maximize the efficiency of his pandering. So if the strategy is to mobilize the base, it makes more sense to court a loyal group. (Plus, it gets you more media coverage. The one time the national media noticed Asian-Americans this election cycle was when Hillary Clinton won 75 percent of their votes in California.)
So what are Asian-Americans planning to do about their underwhelming influence? One idea is something called the 80-20 Initiative, a political action committee dedicated to persuading 80 percent of Asian-Americans to vote for one side. Since 2000, the group has endorsed a candidate and asked Asians to support him or her. (They endorsed Gore in 2000 and Kerry in 2004. In the 2008 primaries, it was Hillary; in the general, it's Obama.) The goal of the group, the brainchild of former Delaware Lt. Gov. S.B. Woo, is eventually to turn the Asian-American vote into a bloc vote that can swing both ways, Republican or Democrat.
It's a quixotic enterprise. On the one hand, it's an artificial way to replicate the normally organic process of party identification—and so far, it hasn't quite worked. "You can't get to 80-20 by making a targeted approach in a single election cycle," says Taeku Lee, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. "You build a constituency over time." At the same time, the Asian-American vote already is increasingly Democratic. By the time 80-20 could persuade four-fifths of the group to vote one way, they might already be there. 80-20 does take credit for Hillary Clinton's winning the California Asian-American vote by 3-1. But swinging party primaries isn't the goal here.
Another solution is strengthening the ground game. In Virginia, the Obama camp has hired Asian-American field directors and recruited Asian-American volunteers. It's also distributing foreign-language campaign literature to local communities in Fairfax County—in Vietnamese, for example, in Falls Church and in Korean in Centreville. "We definitely have the potential to be the swing vote," says Betsy Kim of the Obama campaign. There's evidence, too: In 2006, Jim Webb won 76 percent of the state's Asian-American voters and eked out a victory over George Allen. Many believe those voters—with an assist by Allen's "macaca" moment—made the difference. McCain also has done some outreach, but the enthusiasm seems to lie with the Democrats. One columnist even called Obama "the first Asian-American president."
One area where politicians do make concessions is representation. Asian-Americans make up 5 percent of the population, but only about 1 percent of elected officials. So they want candidates to include more Asian-Americans in their administrations. President Bush earned points by appointing Elaine Chao secretary of labor. On a questionnaire, Hillary Clinton promised to select Asian-American judges; Obama balked at quotas but committed to appointing qualified Asian-Americans.
Experts offer up all sorts of other solutions to the relative invisibility of Asian-Americans in politics. Terry Ao, director of the Asian American Justice Center, argues that congressional districts must be redrawn to consolidate the Asian-American vote. She also says the U.S. census understates their population—since Asian-Americans value their privacy and immigrants are often afraid to provide information—and needs tweaking. Voter registration is another solution. Once Asian-Americans register, says Lee, they vote in high numbers. Some activists also encourage pollsters to include "Asian-American" as a demographic, instead of lumping it in with "Other." And of course, electing more Asian-American leaders would raise their profile considerably. The best-known Asian-American politicians now are probably Hawaii Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka, both Democrats, and Chao and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, both Republicans.
Since 1980, the Asian-American population has tripled. By 2030, it's expected to nearly double again. Meanwhile, Asian-Americans are flooding battleground states like Nevada, Minnesota, and Virginia faster than other immigrant groups. So maybe 80-20 shouldn't be telling Asian-Americans how to vote. Maybe it should be telling them where to move.