Why don't we ever hear about the Asian-American vote?

A guide to the swing states.
Oct. 1 2008 4:57 PM

Chinese Democracy

Why don't we ever hear about the Asian-American vote?

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Asian-American voters.
Asian-American voters

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.

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.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.