Politicians predict 2012 will be the “tipping point” year for Asian-Americans, as this once-marginalized demographic overtakes Hispanics as the fastest-growing racial group in the United States, and offers a cache of independent votes for the taking.
“I think the time has come and we deserve a seat at the table,” said Manan Trivedi, an Indian-American physician and Iraq war veteran running as a Democrat in Pennsylvania’s 6th district.
Trivedi is just one of a record 25 Asian-American candidates running for Congress this year, hoping to capitalize on exploding immigration rates.
According to a Pew Research Center study released last week, Asian-Americans are now the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the country. With more than 18 million residents, Asian-Americas currently account for 5.8 percent of the total U.S. population.
Perhaps even more valuable to politicians is the ideological breakdown of the demographic. A recent Lake Research Partners study found that while 53 percent of Asian-Americans identify as Democrats and 16 percent as Republicans, a whopping 31 percent consider themselves independents.
According to Gloria Chan, president and CEO of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies, this represents a relatively untapped treasure trove of votes that could make a difference in congressional races across the country — and even the presidency.
The Asian-American community could be a “large swing bloc, potentially, especially in states like Virginia and Nevada,” Chan told The Hill. But she also expressed frustration that the media and political parties have been slow to focus on Asian-Americans, instead covering and courting Latino voters.
“People have this general stereotype of our community, rendering us invisible,” she said. “It’s not a matter of whether we’ve arrived, but who will be with us when we do so. Absolutely, it will be extremely important for both parties to reach out to our community.”
At the forefront of such outreach efforts is Japanese-American Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.). As vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and chairman emeritus of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, Honda has acted as a surrogate on key congressional races and has rallied the Asian-American community on behalf of Democratic candidates in the last three presidential races.
“I think we should pay attention to the demographics of Latino politics because it’s important, but I think that the other populations have to also say, ‘We too have the same issues,’ ” he said, noting unemployment and education were at the top of the list.
“Asian-Americans have, in the minds of the Democratic Party and Democratic candidates, gone from a marginalized community to the margin of victory,” Honda said, noting that the community’s vote has made the difference in some swing states in the past.
According to Honda, the DNC and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have significantly upped their efforts to court the Asian-American community, including reaching out through social media and sending out releases in multiple languages, including Vietnamese and Tagalog.
Honda has also worked to woo Asian-American voters on behalf of President Obama, visiting battleground states and collaborating with Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) for Obama.
“We want to make sure we’re engaging the community and bringing them into this campaign,” said an Obama campaign spokesman.
“It’s important, obviously, to make sure that folks who identify themselves as Democrats are going to come out and vote, whether it’s earlier or come Nov. 6,” the spokesman added. “It is as important to make sure we’re reaching independent voters.”
Those independent votes won’t go unchallenged, however, as GOP challenger Mitt Romney aims to target the demographic.
“Our campaign recognizes the importance of Asian-Americans, and we will make a strong push to reach out to this growing community,” wrote a campaign spokesman in an email. “Like all voters, Asian-Americans are concerned about our struggling economy and we will appeal to them by focusing on Gov. Romney’s pro-growth message and his plans to create jobs and return fiscal responsibility to Washington.”
Ricky Gill, one of the few Asian-American Republicans running for a seat in the House, is likewise hoping to turn some of those independent votes into GOP gold.
“I find a lot of AAPI voters are persuadable voters, meaning they don’t put the ideological blinders up,” said the first-generation Indian-American, who is running in California’s 9th district.
“These are voters that might self-select into the Democratic Party, but that doesn’t mean they’re not willing to split their tickets,” Gill added. “What they care about is economic opportunity, fiscal responsibility; they want government to be as accountable as they were, as individually responsible as they were.”
But Gill noted that if elected, he would be the only Asian-American Republican in the House after Filipino-American Rep. Steve Austria (R-Ohio) retires this year. The numbers for Asian-American Democrats in Congress aren’t much better.
Asian-Americans represent only 1.4 percent of the total membership of the 112th Congress.
“You need to have a set of messengers that reflect society,” Gill said. “People see some semblance of the American Dream in my story.”
Manan Trivedi agrees that his heritage has helped in his efforts to grab the Democratic nomination in his district.
“It’s a natural courtship; campaign 101 is ‘Start with people you know,’ ” he said of outreach to the Asian-American community that has spurred fundraising. But most of all Trivedi hopes that he and the two dozen other Asian-American congressional candidates in 2012 bring greater attention to their community as a whole come November.
“We are a growing, influential, successful group, but we don’t have the courtship or the representation in Congress,” he said. “We are a group that deserves recognition because we can be a very effective tool to help win elections and gain influence in the community.”
“ ‘Tipping point’ is the right [phrase]. The time is right and we just need to keep pushing forward,” Trivedi said.