Mark Mellman: The rising US Asian electorate

Mark Mellman: The rising US Asian electorate
© Getty Images

Even casual observers of American politics recognize that whites comprise a declining share of the electorate. Most of the ink spilled over this phenomenon has focused on Hispanics and African-Americans, who are critical elements of this segment but not the whole of it. 

After the 2012 elections, I drew attention here to another growing — and in some ways puzzling — group of non-whites: Asian-Americans, who remain too little studied.


Not a particularly large segment of the electorate, they make up about 6 percent of the U.S. population and about 3 percent of the 2012 vote.

Those relatively small numbers mask considerable and continuing growth. The Asian-American proportion of the electorate grew more than 80 percent between 1996 and 2012, rising in each cycle.

Of course, the population is somewhat concentrated (this renders exit polling somewhat problematic, but we will ignore that for now). Asian-Americans already constitute more than 10 percent of the citizen voting-age population in two states, 33 counties and 45 congressional districts. 

More remarkable is the huge shift in Asian-American voting patterns in recent years. No other group measured by exit polls has changed its political allegiance more dramatically. 

In 1992, only 31 percent of Asian-Americans told exit pollsters they cast a ballot for Democrat Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonMellman: White working-class politics Judge rejects Biden request for delay in Trump environmental rollback case Considering impeachment's future MORE. By 2012, 73 percent were voting for Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump and Obama: The odd couple who broke 'extended deterrence' for the Indo-Pacific The US is ripe for climate-friendly diets Obama says he once broke a classmate's nose for calling him a racial slur MORE

That growth is not just a reflection of Obama’s appeal. It has been steady. In 2000, 54 percent supported Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreAl Jazeera launching conservative media platform Exclusive 'Lucky' excerpt: Vow of Black woman on Supreme Court was Biden turning point Paris Agreement: Biden's chance to restore international standing MORE, in 2004 it was 58 percent for John KerryJohn KerryRecapturing the spirit of Bretton Woods The Iran deal is fragile — here's what the Biden administration can do Republican senators take aim at Paris agreement with new legislation MORE and in 2008 Obama garnered 62 percent of the Asian-American vote. 

On its face, that unique increase in support for Democrats is surprising. 

In general, higher-income people are more likely to vote Republican. Not so with Asian-Americans, whose median household incomes ($65,469) are higher than those of whites ($51,863), Latinos ($38,039) and African-Americans ($32,584). 

Even within the community, wealthier Asian-Americans are not any more likely to vote Republican than poorer Asian-Americans.

So why have Asian-Americans shifted so strongly to the Democrats — more than doubling support for the party’s presidential candidates since 1992?

Professors Alexander Kuo, Neil Malhotra and Cecilia Hyunjung Mo posit two possibilities: racial prejudice and identification with other minorities. 

The three find Republicans are twice as likely as Democrats to see Asian-Americans as less trustworthy than whites, suggesting higher levels of anti-Asian prejudice in the GOP. Moreover, those Asian-Americans who report being victims of prejudice and those who feel Asian-Americans have more in common with other minorities than with whites are more likely to identify as Democrats.

Experiments they conducted revealed that subjecting Asian-Americans to relatively small doses of prejudice or to information suggesting Hispanics and Asians had common goals also heightened negative feeling about Republicans.

These are all important findings. But we are trying to explain huge growth in Democratic Party support and there is no particular reason to believe that prejudice against Asian-Americans is more prevalent than it was in the 1990s or that solidarity with other minorities has increased significantly. 

What has changed is the GOP focus on immigration. In 1994, California Gov. Pete Wilson began the attack on immigrants, deploying his infamous anti-Hispanic Prop 187 in his state, home to large Hispanic and Asian populations. The big growth in Asian-American votes for Democrats began to emerge the very next cycle.

From there, Republicans took the issue national, campaigning against immigrants with ever increasing virulence. 

With nearly three-quarters of Asian-American adults having been born outside the U.S., this is importantly an immigrant community. Nativist attacks on immigrants and immigration are assaults on Asian-Americans, on their Americanism and evidence prejudice. 

By positioning itself as anti-immigrant and anti-immigration, Republicans have alienated not just Hispanics but Asian Americans and others as well.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the minority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.