FALLS CHURCH, Va.—The silken scarves that Ben and Josh Romney wore as they toured a suburban shopping mall of Vietnamese businesses this month were bright yellow, with thin red stripes. They weren’t fashion statements; they were political accessories. As the Romneys pitched their father’s presidential bid, the scarves epitomized the kind of granular attention to detail that campaigns now pay to Asian-American voters: The vibrant colors identified their opposition to Vietnamese communism and their support for the local Vietnamese-American community.
Asian-Americans constitute only about 6 percent of Virginia’s population, but they have become a coveted constituency in a state at the center of the battle for the presidency and the Senate. And the Eden Center shopping mall in the Washington suburbs has become something of a ground zero in the battle for their votes.
Two of the Romney brothers stopped by this month. So did volunteers for President Obama’s campaign, which organized a voter-registration drive during the mall’s recent Moon Festival. Republican Senate candidate George Allen made a whistle-stop in September, and his wife, Susan, toured several Eden Center businesses over the summer. Democratic Senate candidate Tim Kaine whirled through for an economic roundtable earlier in the year. “They’re all coming down to our community,” says Hung Hoang, a 48-year-old barber who has worked in the mall for two decades. “More, more, more than before.”
Blame Bob McDonnell, at least in part. During his 2009 campaign for governor, the Republican made an unprecedented push for these voters, airing Asian-language television and radio ads and stuffing mailboxes with literature in Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Tagalog, a Filipino language. McDonnell spun through the Eden Center no less than three times. Ultimately, he flipped the state’s most Asian-American-heavy precincts en route to a rare Republican win in Fairfax County, home of the Eden Center and the epicenter of Virginia’s Asian-American population. In one of those precincts, where more than 45 percent of voters have Asian ancestry, Obama won with 63 percent; McDonnell got 52 percent there, a National Journal analysis showed. The lesson: With a bit of effort, the Asian-American vote could be had by either political party.
Long an ignored slice of the electorate, Asian-Americans are increasingly flexing their political muscles this year, as candidates and as constituents. Asians, not Hispanics, were America’s fastest-growing minority group in the last decade, and many now live far beyond the traditional enclaves of California and Hawaii. As a result, they are being courted and catered to in key battlegrounds such as Nevada and Virginia. Asian-Americans hold the governorships in the seemingly unlikely states of Louisiana and South Carolina. They are running for Congress in record numbers in 2012.
And, demographers and political strategists agree, it’s just the beginning.
DEMOGRAPHY AS DESTINY
“We’ve got to get communicating,” says Shawn Steel, a Republican National Committee member and an outspoken evangelist about the importance of the Asian-American vote. He talks in the urgency of now, even if he’s speaking about a slow-moving demographic trend that has been decades in the making. In 1965, the year America last rewrote its immigration rules, Asian-Americans were less than 1 percent of the population. Today, that figure is nearing 6 percent and spiraling upward. The number of Asian-Americans jumped from 11.9 million in 2000 to 17.3 million in 2010, a 46 percent growth rate that outpaced even that of Hispanics, according to the Census Bureau. “I’m on fire about this,” Steel says.
A former chairman of the California Republican Party, he knows what it’s like to miss a demographic wave. As the Latino population swelled in California, it turned Ronald Reagan’s state into a Democratic stronghold. If Republicans were swept away by the Latino wave, Steel reckons, they’d better not miss the coming Asian-American one. “We’ve got to get on it,” he says, “and we’re running out of time.”
The Latino population wave, of course, has long since surged past California and other border states to far-off places like Iowa, North Carolina, and Utah. The breadth of the diaspora is one reason that Latinos are now so politically powerful: The Hispanic vote is a potential difference-maker almost everywhere.
Asian-Americans are following a similar trajectory, only a few decades behind. Every state saw its Asian and Pacific Islander population jump by at least 30 percent between 2000 and 2010 (except Hawaii, which was already majority Asian-American). The Asian population surged by 71 percent in Virginia, 95 percent in Arizona, 85 percent in North Carolina, and 116 percent in Nevada, according to census figures.
Thank an influx of Asian immigrants. Despite the nation’s focus on Latino immigration, Asians actually outnumbered Hispanics in 2010, according to the most recent data available from the Pew Research Center—a reversal of past trends. Nearly two-thirds of Asian-Americans are foreign-born.
This article appears in the October 27, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.