Asian American Politics

From Marginalized to Margin of Victory

[Adapted from remarks delivered as featured speaker for the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Symposium in celebration of APA Heritage Month, 13 May, Washington, DC.]

With every new election cycle, there is always some new buzz about a segment of the electorate that politicians and politicos believe will hold the key to the election. As my children might put, who are the voters that hold the one ring to rule them all?

Macomb County Democrats. Soccer Moms. The Religious Right. Millenials. Independents. Latinos. And so on with prized segments of the electorate. We have been around this roundabout many, many times.

But one group that is almost never in the mix is the Asian Pacific American community.

Why is that? Of course it is not for a lack of desire to see more voters. We want all Asian Americans to vote. We want all Americans to vote.

But politics is, as former Raiders owner Al Davis might say, follows the credo to “Just win, baby.” And when you focus just on winning elections, here are some typical reasons that we have heard about why Asian Pacific Americans are not the prize in any given election.

First, they are too small of a group. Worse yet, the APA community is comprised of too many different groups, each of them too small to matter in any given election. The numbers here, to give this point some emphasis, have been so small that until only recently exit polls have been unable to report out voting results separately for Asian Americans as a group. And they still do not have the numbers to do so for Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

Second, APAs don’t vote. And it is certainly true, when you look at Current Population Survey numbers, that Asian Americans (as a percentage of voter eligible citizens) vote at rates that fall substantially below whites and African Americans. The common corollary to this view is that this “under-participation” in elections is due to a lack of interest in American politics.

Third, we have all heard some version of something like an application of the stereotype of the “inscrutable Oriental.” That is, APAs are simply too hard to figure out as voters. They just don’t make sense.

Here is one example. The 2012 exit polls show Asian Americans to be a group that is overwhelmingly Democratic, voting for President Obama over GOP nominee Mitt Romney by nearly a 3 to 1 margin. But the 2014 exit polls show Asian Americans to be a group that is nearly perfectly split down the middle in their congressional voting, 49 to 50. Who on earth changes this dramatically over a two-year time span?

Of course, if you have been following Asian Americans Decisions polling, there is an important story about this apparent sea change in exit poll results, but the point here is that there are credible reasons why the APA vote might seem difficult to decipher. So if you are in the heat of a campaign and focused just on winning, you are not likely to expend precious time, effort, money, culturally appropriate messaging, and so on to target APA voters.

These are just three among a longer list of reasons why APA voters have been marginalized.

Why might this view be wrong? For at least three reasons.

First, the APA population is growing fast. Now, we all know this. In fact, we almost know it so well that we take it for granted. So let us revisit some of the key facts of this growth just to appreciate how dramatic it is.

Asian Americans used to be less than 1 million in number before the passage of immigration reform in the 1965 Hart-Cellar Act. Today, in a little over one long generation, they are well over 19 million. Sometime this year, perhaps even this very day, the 20 millionth Asian American in these United States will have been born or entered with papers through one of our airports or seaports.

20 million.

In fact, the population growth is so fast that it is literally outpacing Census Bureau predictions of that population growth. Here is an example. In 1999, the Census Bureau projected that the Asian American population pass the 18 million mark by 2020. As it turned out, the population exceeded that mark by 2012.

The pace of change is so rapid that Asian Americans are today the fastest growing racial/ethnic group in America. Between 2000 and 2010, the rate of growth for Asian Americans was 46 percent, outpacing Latinos, Pacific Islanders and any and all other groups.

Furthermore, since 2008, the largest feeder of population growth through legal immigration has Asia. For nearly as long as we have collected these data, the largest contributor had been the Mexico and Central America. But since 2008 more than 40 percent of total growth from in-migration has been of new Asian Americans.

The upshot of these growth rates is that sometime in the next few decades, Asian Americans will be 10% of the US population. One out of every ten Americans. Not just in Hawai’i. Not just in California. Not just in the New York / New Jersey area. In the entire United States of America, from Maine to Guam.

So while we all know the population is growing, it is important first to take not of the magnitude and pace of that growth.

A second reason why it might be wrong to ignore the Asian American vote is that the magnitude and pace of population growth has electoral implications. As a share of voters, AAs have been the fastest growing electorate since 1996—growing at a rate of 128% when counted in the Asian American “alone” bucket and at a rate of 149% when counted in the “alone or in combination” (with other racial groups) category.

In numbers, that is a jump from 1.7% of the electorate to 2.9% between 1996 and 2012, or from 1.7M voters to 3.9M voters.

What do these numbers look like when we drill down into specific jurisdictions in which the APA vote might be the margin of victory?

2008 to 2012 American Community Survey estimates show that, as a share of the voting age population, Asian Americans are 5-10 percent in 5 states, 40 counties, 58 congressional districts. They are 10-25 percent in 25 counties and 35 congressional districts. And they are more than 25 percent of the VAP in 8 counties and 10 congressional districts.

So, in 2012, there were 183 jurisdictions in which if you ignore APA voters, you increasingly do so at your own peril. And that is a number that will keep growing.

Take for instance, the 2014 Virginia Senate race. Virginia is a state where Asian American population just a hair above 5 percent of the electorate. Yet here is a state where Asian American voters were the margin of victory.

Here are the basic elements of that margin of victory. We know that Mark Warner edged out Ed Gillespie by only about 18,000 votes. We also know that according to the Asian American Decisions Election Eve poll, Warner won the Virginia Asian American vote by a nearly 40% differential over Gillespie, 68% to 29%. Add to these two facts some reasonable assumptions about drop-offs in turnout between 2012 and the 2014 mid-terms, and my estimate is that the Dem-Rep margin among Asian American voters in Virginia in the 2014 senate race is somewhere between 26,000 and 32,000.

Well above the 18,000 vote actual margin of victory. The bottom line is that if all Asian Americans in Virginia stayed at home last November, the election results would have favored Ed Gillespie.

And looking ahead into future elections, there are many other potential Virginias, where the path to victory or defeat will depend on successfully wooing and winning the Asian Pacific American vote.

Take politically prized states like Nevada and Florida, for instance. They already have sizeable Asian American populations (roughly a quarter million in Nevada; nearly 600,000 in Florida), these numbers are growing dramatically (between 2000 and 2010, 116% growth in Nevada and 72% in Florida), and both states have large numbers of unregistered voter eligible citizens (more than 37,000 in Nevada, about 200,000 in Florida).

One important way of summarizing how pivotal Asian American voters are becoming is well summarized by presidential hopeful and former Florida governor Jeb Bush. Speaking at an event on immigration reform at the Bipartisan Policy Center in 2013, Bush argued,

“Here is a group that has higher intact families, more entrepreneurial, higher than average incomes, higher college graduation rates … Asian Americans are actually the canary in the coal mine.”

The canary is the coal mine analogy is used here to make drive home the point that how the Republican Party does vis-a-vis Asian American voters is a diagnostic on how the party is doing as a whole.

A similar point might be raised about Asian Americans and the Democratic Party. Here is a group that supports the Affordable Care Act, comprehensive immigration reform, minimum wage laws, where even Asian Americans who earn over $250K a year are willing to support higher taxes for the rich to tamp down the federal budget deficit.

Yet as a group, majority of Asian Americans identify neither as Democrats nor Republicans. When asked the standard party identification question, the majority pick “Independent” or say they don’t know how to answer that question.

So, in a crucial sense, the health and long-term survival of BOTH parties depends on their ability to persuade Asian American voters to carry their partisan flag, something neither party has yet done convincingly.

Thus far, I have argued that today we avoid the APA vote at our own peril based on population growth and the political implications of that growth. To these points, a skeptic might say, “Well and good. But how do we do it?”

First, let’s recognize what the challenge is. Asian Americans represent a 4.3 million vote political opportunity gap. By Current Population Study figures, 3.9 million Asian Americans voted in 2012 and that is impressive and represents a substantial increase in voting numbers. But there were still 4.3 million Asian American adult citizens who sat out the 2012 elections. That is the challenge.

Now, on the “how,” there are at least three fundamentals to closing this political opportunity gap.

The first is to get more APAs registered.

One kind of retort is that Asian Americans under-participate because they are the heavily most foreign-born population in the US. And it is true that 2 out of every 3 Asian Americans are foreign-born; more than 3 out of 4 Asian American adults are foreign-born.

But we also know that Asian Americans, as a group, naturalize faster than most other immigrant groups when they are eligible for citizenship and that when registered, they tend to vote at nearly comparable rates to largely native-born groups like Whites and African Americans.

The major bottleneck is in getting APAs who naturalize as citizens to register to vote. Only 56% of Asian Americans and 58% of NHPIs who are citizens register to vote. That’s much lower than for Whites and African Americans. And so even if 85% of APAs who are registered turnout to vote, than means less than 1 in 2 APA citizens are voting.

A second fundamental is the reminder that becoming politically active does not happen on its own.

Decades of political science research have found time and again that there are three bedrocks to political participation:

  • Motivation: you’ve got to want to do it.
  • Means: you’ve got to be able to do it. You need basic political knowledge to vote, you need money to contribute, you need civic skills to organize your communities, and so on.
  • And last but not least, One of the surest ways of getting someone to register to vote and to turnout once registered is to ask.

As it turns out, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are generally asked less often to get involved in politics than whites, blacks, and even Latinos.

In targeted polls and field experimental studies of Asian Americans, that “ask” has demonstrable effects. APAs are more likely to register to vote, more likely to turnout, less likely to be uncertain about their likely vote choice, and so on.

To further reinforce a point that has already been made. This is not just about building more strength in numbers in states with already powerful APA constituencies like Hawaii, California, and New York. Increasingly, the numbers of Asian Americans who are not registered in states like Texas, Florida, Georgia, Arizona, Virginia, Colorado, Michigan, Pennsylvania are surging. According to 2012 Current Population Survey figures, there were 3.6 million voter eligible Asian Americans who were not registered to vote.

A third fundamental on Asian American political empowerment is language. Asian Americans remain a population with very high rates of limited English proficiency, especially in some communities like Chinese, Koreans, and various Southeast Asian groups.

Among Asian Americans aged 5 and over according to Census data, 77% report speaking English at home and 47% report speaking English less than “very well.” These numbers translate into language barriers to political participation. For example, Asian Americans are more likely than any other group to report language issues as a major barrier to vote registration.

Moreover, access to in-language voter registration and voting materials remains a big problem. Surveys show that this is a problem even in electoral jurisdictions that have Section 203 coverage for language access. Among Asian Americans in covered jurisdictions who showed up at their precincts to vote, 45% reported having no language assistance. Perhaps even worse, among Asian Americans in covered jurisdictions who asked for a mail ballot and mailed-in their vote, 31 percent reported having no in-language materials.

So reaching out to Asian Americans, polling their views, printing their ballots in multiple languages is exceedingly important.

The main point here is obvious, but worth repeating. In 2015, you ignore Asian American voters at your own peril. This is a group that is 20M and rising.

In more and more districts, APA voters remain a largely untapped electorate. And they could be your key margin of victory.

Finally, tapping this pool of potential voters is not rocket science. There are 4.3 million potential Asian American voters who are waiting to be registered, waiting to be asked to get involved in elections, waiting for access to in-language election materials.

The APA electorate has been marginalized for far too long. It is time to bring this pivotal electorate out of the shadows and into the limelight. And what better time to commit to doing it than APA Heritage Month.

[See presentation deck HERE.]


Taeku Lee is Managing Director of Asian American Decisions, and Professor of Political Science and Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. He is a renowned expert on racial and ethnic politics, Asian American politics and policy, opinion polling and survey research, and election law and political participation.