Because there were so few Asians to begin with, the rapid growth rate can be misleading in some places. But not everywhere: In Nevada, for instance, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders now make up about 9 percent of the population—more than the state’s much-discussed Mormon community.
It’s one of the reasons that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid hosted a get-out-the-vote rally with Filipino boxing sensation Manny Pacquiao in Nevada two years ago. And why this year’s Senate combatants there, GOP incumbent Dean Heller and Democratic challenger Shelley Berkley, have clashed over who would better represent Filipino veterans. In Clark County, home to Las Vegas and most of the state’s population, ballots will be available for the first time in three languages: English, Spanish, and Tagalog.
Three converging trends have magnified the importance of the Asian-American vote, says Bill Wong, a Democratic political strategist in California. The first is rapid population growth. The second is that political campaigns can be won and lost on a razor’s edge. The third is that Asians are swing voters. “We’re large enough to be relevant, and the margins are small enough to make it matter,” he says. Or, as Mee Moua, president of the Asian American Justice Center and a former Minnesota state lawmaker, likes to say, “Those who ignore us do so at their own peril.”
The GOP is learning to play this game. Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Nikki Haley of South Carolina, both Indian-American, are considered among the party’s brightest rising stars. And one of Mitt Romney’s top policy advisers, Lanhee Chen, is Taiwanese-American.
Still, there have been hiccups. Earlier this year, the Republican National Committee accidentally featured a stock photo of Asian kids on a website for Latino outreach. And GOP Senate candidate Pete Hoekstra of Michigan was widely criticized for an ad that featured an Asian woman riding a bike through rice paddies and speaking in broken English about how Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow shipped money and jobs to China. “Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good,” says the Asian actress in the ad, who later apologized for playing into stereotypes.
As TV ads set to ominous music hammer China as the enemy of American jobs, Steel—whose wife of 30 years, Michelle Steel, is Korean-American and an elected California tax board member—frets over the “cluelessness of Republican consultants who refuse to expand their minds” and grasp the importance of outreach to Asian-Americans. “For Democrats, this comes natural,” Steel says. “Give them a new community and they’re all over it. They’ve done this for 150 years, ever since Tammany Hall welcomed the Irish.”
UP FOR GRABS
Every year, the United States becomes less and less white. In the 2012 election, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney could win a record share of the white vote—as much as 60 percent—and still lose. Already, African-Americans are solidly in the Democratic coalition, and each cycle seems to move the Latino vote further in that direction. Asian-Americans have been following them steadily into the Democratic Party (in presidential politics) for two decades. In 1992, Bill Clinton garnered only 31 percent of the Asian-American vote. By 2008, Barack Obama had doubled that mark, pulling a high of 62 percent. In every presidential race in between, exit polls showed Democrats steadily increasing their vote share.
But the Asian-American political story isn’t fully written just yet. Studies show, and political strategists on both sides of the aisle agree, that the community remains persuadable by either party. The National Asian American Survey showed that 32 percent of likely voters in this group were still up for grabs in September—at a time when most surveys found only 5 to 10 percent of the total electorate still undecided. (The survey, which conducted more than 3,000 interviews in 11 Asian languages in August and early September, found that Obama led Romney 43 percent to 24 percent.) “There is all this talk about how everyone has made up their minds. That’s absolutely not true for Asian-Americans,” says Karthick Ramakrishnan, the survey’s director and a professor at the University of California (Riverside).
Yet both parties do a relatively poor job of reaching out to them. A sizable majority of Asian-Americans said in a different poll this spring that neither political party had contacted them in the past two years. The survey, conducted by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, even over-sampled the swing states of Florida, Nevada, and Virginia. Still, among self-identified partisans, only 23 percent of Asian Democrats and 17 percent of Asian Republicans said they had been contacted this cycle. “That’s lower than we’ve seen for other populations,” Lake says.
Among coveted independents, nearly 60 percent of Asian-Americans said they’d heard nothing from either major political party. This is what drives Shawn Steel bonkers. “You’re going to melt TV sets all over America with your ads,” he says of the presidential contest, yet “there is still a fresh opportunity to go after Asian-American voters.”