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Political shift of Asian Americans

There is a natural tendency to assume that if you don’t know about something, it likely does not exist. I fell into such a trap recently, replying to a questioner that there just wasn’t much polling giving us insight into the Asian American community. I was wrong. 

While there is less polling than in some other communities, Professors Karthick Ramakrishnan and Taeku Lee’s National Asian American Survey provides useful insight into a group that gave 73 percent of its votes to President Obama, according to exit polling. Indeed, support for the president grew more among Asian Americans than in any other segment of the electorate, and Democrats have improved their showing each cycle for 20 years. 

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The political evolution of this community is nothing short of remarkable. 

In 1992, Asian Americans were less likely than whites to support Bill Clinton. This year, only African-Americans surpassed them in supporting President Obama — an increase of some 40 points in support for the Democratic candidate. 

The National Asian American Survey reminds us that Asian Americans are a disparate community, hailing from counties as diverse as India and China, Cambodia and Japan. And there are some differences among those subgroups, with Mitt Romney leading by 6 points among Filipinos in the fall, but President Obama ahead by better than 60 points among Indian Americans.

Looking at the community as a whole, pollsters find Asian Americans disproportionately concentrated in blue states, liberal in basic political orientation, focused on key “Democratic” issues like jobs, healthcare, education and feeling less than welcomed by Republicans. 

Over half of Asian Americans are concentrated in deep-blue states like California, New York, New Jersey and Hawaii. But that certainly cannot account for the booming growth in support for Democrats in the community. 

Jobs and the economy, healthcare and education were the issues most important to the community, and voters felt Democrats shared their views on these matters by huge margins. Obama was seen as more likely to share Asian Americans’ views on jobs by almost 20 points, on education by 37 points and on healthcare by 40 points. On this last issue, while voters overall are at best split on evaluations of the Affordable Care Act, Asian Americans feel favorably about it by some 3 to 1. In addition, Asian Americans saw Obama as closer to their views on women’s rights, by almost 60 points. 

Asian American voters are also quite comfortable with a host of “liberal” views. They are much more likely than whites to support affirmative action, to call themselves environmentalists and to favor a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers. A Pew survey found Asian Americans reflecting a quintessentially “liberal” viewpoint in endorsing a bigger government that provides more services over a smaller government providing fewer services (55 percent to 36 percent, respectively), almost the mirror opposite of the electorate overall (39 percent vs. 52 percent, respectively). 

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This last issue begins to raise the question of feeling welcome. By a 24-point margin, Asian Americans felt Obama rather than Romney had positions on immigration closer to their own. More telling, another survey, this one from the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, found just 14 percent were convinced that Mitt Romney cared about the community, compared to 47 percent who expressed that view about President Obama.

While the attention of the commentariat has been understandably absorbed by working-class whites and Latinos in recent years, no community has undergone a more dramatic political transformation with less attention from analysts. As with Latinos, no single issue is responsible for Asian Americans’ movement away from the GOP and toward Democrats, making it very difficult for Republicans to reassert their primacy with this growing segment, as long as Democrats remain attentive to the community. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Democratic Whip in the House.