The group designed an Asian-language outreach program with a six-figure budget and papered voters with mailers in three languages on behalf of Democrat Jerry Brown. His opponent, GOP billionaire Meg Whitman, took to the airwaves in Cantonese and Mandarin. It was a preview of what future campaigns could hold.
In the end, Asian-American voters did swing. Brown won 57 percent of their votes, according to exit polls—a sharp reversal from four years earlier, when Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had carried 62 percent. Though both Brown and Schwarzenegger won in routs, Asian-Americans were the only ethnic group that flipped partisan allegiance. “If the Asian vote goes for a candidate statewide,” Smith sums up, “there’s a very good chance that candidate wins the race.”
Today, the California state controller, the attorney general, and the mayors of Oakland and San Francisco are Asian-Americans. In 2012, three new Asian-American candidates are running for the House from the Golden State with a legitimate shot to win: Ricky Gill, a 25-year-old GOP wunderkind challenging Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney; Ami Bera, a Democratic challenger to Rep. Dan Lungren; and Mark Takano, who is running in an open Southern California seat. “Ten years ago, we had trouble trying to get people to run,” says Wong, the Democratic strategist. “Now we’ve got people lining up.”
Ed Lee, the San Francisco mayor who won by fending off four other Asian-American candidates, sees a generational shift. “A couple of generations before, it was, ‘Let’s not deal with politics. It’s dirty. You got to compromise too much,’ ” he says. The community now realizes that “if you don’t have the seat at the table, you’re probably going to be on the menu.”
It’s not just happening in California, of course. In 2012, a record number of Asian-Americans have run for Congress, including 25 challengers—triple the number who ran in 2008 or 2010, according to the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies. Many are poised to break new ground. In Hawaii, the only state with a majority Asian-American population, Democratic Rep. Mazie Hirono is likely to be the first Asian-American woman elected to the U.S. Senate. In New York, Democrat Grace Meng has the inside track to become the first Asian-American to represent the state in Congress. Same for Democrat Tammy Duckworth in Illinois.
Currently, only eight Asian-Americans are in the House and two in the Senate (both from Hawaii). “It’s about time we had more members of Congress,” says Duckworth, an Army veteran who lost her legs in the Iraq War and had a speaking slot at this year’s Democratic convention. “It opens the door in other Asians’ minds.”
At the presidential level, the real campaign focus and cash this year went to better-established voter-outreach programs. Obama and Romney have submitted to Univision interrogations about Latino issues and cut numerous Spanish-language ads. (Somos una nación de inmigrantes, Craig Romney says in one.) Amid a billion-dollar political advertising spree, almost no money will be spent on Asian TV.
But pols are beginning to recognize the changing future. In Virginia, Republicans are hoping to follow the inroads that McDonnell made into the Asian-American community. Cox, McDonnell’s campaign manager, says that his team viewed the Asian-American vote as essential from the start of the 2009 race. “Every single time he was in Northern Virginia, which was multiple times a week, there was an event with the Asian community,” Cox recalls. And at stops with Vietnamese voters, McDonnell wore a yellow-and-red scarf draped around his neck.
In a state where Asian-Americans accounted for nearly one in four new residents in the last decade, despite being only a fraction of the population, every major 2012 campaign has made a play for their votes—leafleting at Asian festivals, attending Indian fairs, and churning out plenty of bilingual literature. At one sleepy park barbecue this spring sponsored by a local Chinese-American GOP club, George Allen and his wife lingered for more than an hour, shaking the hands of every attendee and asking them to volunteer.
Making an effort matters, especially in a community that has long been ignored. “It definitely makes an impact, because it shows they’re trying,” says Jonathan Duong, a 21-year-old who works in the Eden Center mall and plans to vote for Romney.
Mindy Tran, who runs a skin-care and cosmetics shop in the mall, remembers the yellow-and-red scarves the Romney boys wore. The pattern “has a lot of meaning to us,” she says. “Look,” she points to a flag nestled on the top shelf of her store, almost touching the ceiling. “There’s one up there.”
This article appeared in print as "The Next Swing Voter Is Asian-American."
This article appears in the Oct. 27, 2012, edition of National Journal.