The myth of the ‘Asian vote’

With every approaching election, the political consulting class becomes enamored of a new “it” class of swing voters.

In the past, it was “Wal-Mart moms” and Christian evangelicals. In 2016, emphasis on demographic trends will likely put racial and ethnic groups in the spotlight — and Hispanic voters in particular.

But attention is also turning to Asians as a potentially potent political bloc.

{mosads}As demographer William Frey notes in his book, The Diversity Explosion, the Asian population has grown from 0.8 percent of the population in 1970 to nearly 5 percent in 2010. In fact, Frey writes, the Asian American population could soon reach 20 million “if Asians of mixed-race heritage are included.”

Asians have also tripled their share of the electorate in recent years, from just 1 percent of voters in 1992 to 3 percent in 2014. And while they’ve tilted Democratic in the last few presidential contests, Asians voted Republican in 2014 (50 percent to 49 percent), putting them firmly into “swing” territory and leading The Daily Beast’s Tim Mak to proclaim Asian-Americans “the new Florida.”

But while the ranks of Asians are swelling, is there really an “Asian vote” that campaigns can reliably court and an “Asian agenda” that candidates should pursue? Could Asians become another powerful interest group in the mold of labor or the religious right?

The answer might well be “no.”

Given their extreme diversity — ethnically, economically and ideologically — Asian voters simply aren’t a monolithic, formulaically winnable political constituency. In fact, they stand as testament to the limits of race-based, demographically driven politics.

For one thing, Asians are resistant to political pigeonholing because “Asian” covers vast geographic, ethnic and cultural territory, including 30 percent of the world’s landmass and nearly two-thirds of the world’s population.

From 2008 to 2010, according to demographer Frey, the top places of origin for new immigrants to the United States from Asia were China, India, the Philippines and Korea — literally oceans apart both geographically and culturally. But as Frey also notes, “Asians” in America also include significant numbers of Pakistanis, Hmong, Cambodians, Laotians, Thais, Bangladeshis, Indonesians, Burmese and Nepalese — what he calls a “kaleidoscope” of groups whose experience and history in the United States vary as greatly as the countries they come from.

Many Chinese-Americans and Japanese-Americans, for example, are third- or fourth-generation Americans who trace their roots to the first big waves of Asian immigration in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, spurred by the Gold Rush and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Other Asians, such as Koreans and Vietnamese, came to America in large numbers much later, when the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act eliminated quotas restricting immigration. Other Asian groups are newer still.

As a result, Asians’ cultural and ideological profiles don’t fit neatly into either the Democratic or Republican template. As the think tank Third Way points out, citing research by Pew, Asians aren’t even particularly ideological. In 2012, 37 percent of Asians thought of themselves as “moderate” (compared to 39 percent of the general population), while 24 percent identified as conservative, 31 percent as liberal and 8 percent as none of the above.

And despite their stereotype as the “model minority,” Asians are economically diverse as well. While Asians as a group do tend to be highly educated — half of all Asian adults have college degrees, says Frey — Koreans and Vietnamese actually have a higher poverty rate than the general population (16 percent versus 14.5 percent in 2013), and only 48 percent of Koreans and 55 percent of Asian Indians are homeowners (also below the national rate).

Given this level of diversity, treating Asian-Americans as the newest “it” swing group could be a red herring, slapping too narrow a label on too broad a group. Perhaps Asian-Americans “swung” in the last election because, well, the rest of America did too.

My own experience as a Korean-American voter shows how some campaigns are falling short, pandering to stereotypes rather than reality.

In 2012, I began to notice that an increasing number of the flyers, phone calls and visits aimed my way by canvassers, pollsters and campaign volunteers weren’t in English, but in Korean.

But these overtures fell hopelessly flat — because I don’t actually speak Korean. I was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Kansas City, Mo. I am embarrassingly monolingual.

So as well-intentioned as this outreach was, I couldn’t help but be a little offended: While it’s safe to assume that someone surnamed “Kim” is unlikely to be Irish and most likely Korean, who decided everyone named Kim would be fluent in the language? Seriously?

But more unfortunately for the candidates, their message was literally lost in the translation. I had no idea what the candidates were saying.

So perhaps this is that lesson: that our increasingly polyglot American electorate can’t readily be reduced into definable, homogenous groups susceptible to traditional interest group politics.

And perhaps the best way to appeal to Asian-American voters might be to treat them as Americans first.

Kim is editor of Republic 3.0, the centrist politics and policy site, and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.

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