Why don't we ever hear about the Asian-American vote?
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Presidential campaigns can feel like an informal census. As the candidates traverse the country, they pander to Latino voters, African-American voters, working-class white voters, older voters, younger voters, elite-college-graduate voters … everyone gets to feel important.
Except Asian-American voters. Somehow, amid all the demographic navel-gazing, the country's third-largest, fastest-growing minority—now 15.2 million people, or 5 percent of the population—gets overlooked.
Not this week. Or, more accurately, not for several hours on Tuesday. That's when a nonprofit group called Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics held a news conference excitingly titled "Political Role of Asian Americans Examined" while the Obama campaign scheduled interviews about its outreach efforts to Asian-American and Pacific Islander voters. The message from both events: Asian voters can make a difference. Attention must be paid.
More about that later. But first, a question: Why, with all our obsessing over demographics, do we hear so little about the Asian-American vote?
The most obvious reason is size. Asian-Americans make up only 5 percent of the U.S. population. (Note: "Asian-American" here, and at the press conference Tuesday, is defined in the broadest possible sense, to include Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Thai, Filipino, Indian, Pakistani, and Indonesian, among others.) Fifteen million people is a lot, but not compared with other ethnic groups. African-Americans now number 38.4 million, according to the 2006 census; Latinos boast 44.4 million. Plus, Asian-Americans have the lowest proportion of eligible voters compared with the populations (about 52 percent) of any racial group. And of those, very few (about 50 percent in 2006) actually register to vote. So we're talking about 7 million eligible voters and about 3 million actual voters.
But wait—it gets worse! The five states with the largest Asian populations are, in order, California, New York, Texas, Hawaii, and New Jersey. Not exactly the swingiest places around. There are two big exceptions: Nevada and Virginia. Both states have rapidly growing Asian-American populations—they constitute 6 percent of eligible voters in Virginia, possibly enough to swing a competitive presidential race.
Another difficulty is the Asian-American community's heterogeneity. Koreans and Chinese and Vietnamese aren't necessarily more or less fractured than Mexicans and Puerto Ricans and Cubans. But, unlike Latinos, they speak different languages. Campaigns can easily cut Spanish-language ads to run nationwide; it's tougher to run ads in Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, etc. (Only about 60 percent of Asian-Americans speak English.) Then you'd need to target ethnic media, which is costly and, on the national level, of marginal benefit.
Then there is the difficulty of targeting Asian-American issues. This is a problem in ethnic politics generally—opinions on immigration, for example, are more diverse among blacks than among the interest groups that lobby on their behalf—but it is especially acute among Asian-Americans. Yes, there are general bread-and-butter issues like health care and education for which platitudes about access and opportunity are useful. There are also hyperspecific concerns that are not ideal campaign talking points: Chinese care a lot about U.S.-China relations. Taiwanese care about China-Taiwan. Vietnamese favor anti-Communist policies. And Filipinos often vote based on whoever supports benefits for Filipino veterans of World War II. Plus, segments of the Asian-American community often disagree—as Taiwanese-Americans and Chinese-Americans do on Taiwan, for example, or Pakistanis and Indians on Kashmir.
Finally, as if demographics and geography and message weren't challenging enough, there is partisanship. Or, more precisely, lack thereof. African-American voters break heavily toward Democrats; Latino voters (with the exception of Cubans) are also largely Democratic. Asian-Americans, meanwhile, can't make up their minds. About a third of them are Republican, a third Democratic, and a third unaffiliated. This last group consists largely of immigrants—more than half of Asian-American were born overseas—who often won't develop party loyalty for another generation.
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.
Photograph of South Koreans by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images.