Of course, one of the first rules about the Asian-American vote is that there is no such thing as the Asian-American vote. It is a self-serving construct that community leaders adopted decades ago to inflate their overall numbers. Asian-Americans aren’t monolithic; they are splintered among distinctive ethnic groups, each with its own social, cultural, and political history. Unlike Latinos, most of whom hail from Spanish-speaking countries, Asian-Americans have no common language. “We aggregated ourselves for political leverage,” says Rep. Mike Honda, a Japanese-American and the only member of Congress to have been interned during World War II. “In the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, you needed numbers. You go against the Latinos and African-Americans—our numbers were pretty small.”
“Asian-American” is “a meaningless term,” says Darry Sragow, a Democratic strategist based in Los Angeles. When he convenes focus groups, Sragow says, he segregates by ethnicity. “There are Vietnamese, Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and more.” Otherwise the results are all but useless for targeting voters. “They each come with attitudes from the countries they emigrate from,” he says. Phil Cox, McDonnell’s campaign manager, calls this “the most important lesson that our campaign learned early on” in targeting Asian voters.
Americans of Chinese descent are the country’s most populous Asian-American group (23 percent), followed by those with ties to the Philippines (20 percent), India (18 percent), Vietnam (10 percent), Korea (10 percent), and Japan (8 percent), according to the Pew Research Center. The Japanese and Filipino populations live overwhelmingly in the West. The Indian population is almost evenly spread across the country. Nearly half of Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese residents are in the West, but one-third of Vietnamese residents are in the South. Chinese and Koreans are far more concentrated in the Northeast.
Their political leanings fall on a continuum. On the left, Indian-Americans are now stalwarts of the Democratic Party. Half identified as Democrats in the national survey, while only 3 percent said they were Republicans. Ramakrishnan says that the Indian-American community turned more Democratic after 9/11, when they became targets of racial profiling at a time of GOP rule. They are also, among Asian ethnic groups, the most educated (70 percent have a bachelor’s degree or more, according to Pew) and the least Christian (only 18 percent)—factors that favor the Democrats in the broader electorate.
The Vietnamese-American story, on the other hand, “is very similar to that of Cuban-Americans,” Ramakrishnan says. “Both are intensely anticommunist. Both thought of the Democratic Party as soft on communism.” A plurality of Filipinos (27 percent) and Vietnamese voters (20 percent) identified with the Republican Party. Among Asian-American ethnic groups, Filipinos are the most overwhelming Christian (89 percent, according to Pew), with almost two-thirds of the population belonging to the Catholic Church.
Politically, other Asian ethnicities tend to fall somewhere in between. The common thread across all groups is a relatively weak tie to political parties: 58 percent of Chinese-Americans identify themselves as independent, as do 64 percent of Vietnamese-Americans. Like most Americans this cycle, Asians care most about the economy (55 percent of likely voters), unemployment (13 percent), and health care and education (4 percent each).
Honda, who has traveled the country as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee since 2005, says there is no secret ingredient to wooing Asian-American voters—other than simply talking to them. “They’re not as married to the party as they are to the issues,” Honda says. “They’re out there to be courted. If you talk to them, they generally will move with you.”
THE GOLDEN STATE
No state offers a better window into the country’s increasingly Asian-American future than California, where the Latino boom has obscured other trends. In 1990, registered Asian-American voters in the state amounted to just 3 percent of the electorate and numbered only 400,000, says Mark DiCamillo, director of California’s Field Poll. (To put that in perspective, there are currently more Asian-American residents in Virginia than there were registered Asian voters in California 20 years ago.)
But California’s Asian-American population has mushroomed. By 2012, 1.4 million registered Asian-American voters lived there, representing 8 percent of the electorate. In fact, Asian-American and Latino voters account for 90 percent of all new voters added to California’s rolls in the past two decades, DiCamillo says—a trend that will continue into the foreseeable future.
As demography reshaped California’s electorate, the state’s top labor leaders began an ambitious program leading up to the 2010 gubernatorial election: a massive study to identify the state’s most politically persuadable people—the swingiest swing voters. What was most surprising was how many were Asian-American: 400,000 out of 2 million, or roughly 20 percent—more than double their share of the electorate. What the study meant is that those Asian-Americans who vote have a disproportionate effect on elections. “It was certainly an eye-opener for us,” says Steve Smith, communications director for the California Labor Federation.