By Thomas Chen, Princeton ‘09
At a gathering of 2000 Asian American leaders and activists in May, Obama personally phoned in to declare, “I am a Pacific Islander…I consider myself one of you,” placating many who still harbored resentments that Obama neglected to mention “Asians” in some of his stump speeches stressing racial unity. After Obama’s historic victory, blogs and forums of the Asian American community were abuzz with excitement. The San Francisco Chronicle published an article trumpeting Obama as the first “Asian American” president, and AsianWeek, a San Francisco-based newspaper serving the Asian/Pacific Islander American community, speculated about the prospect of the first real Asian American president in the near future. Inspired by Obama’s multi-racial background, childhood story, and his message of change, this year’s election has witnessed both increased political activism and support for the Democratic ticket among Asian Americans.
According to the Census Bureau, Asian Americans are defined as individuals with family origins from the Far East, Southeast Asia, and the Indian Subcontinent, ranging from recent Pakistani immigrants to former South Vietnamese refugees. With a small population—slightly over two percent of the U.S. voting population—the Asian American community’s diverse nature prevents it from forming one cohesive voting bloc.
However, many Asian Americans have recently left traditionally overrepresented states such as California and Hawaii and settled in battleground counties such as Fairfax County in Virginia and Clark County in Nevada. Asian Americans account for more than five percent of the population of Virginia and Nevada. Nationally, they are the fastest growing ethnic group, ballooning from a population of one million in 1960 to 15 million today.
Asian Americans have already made significant strides in flexing their collective political muscle. In the 2006 Senate election in Virginia, infuriated by incumbent Senator George Allen’s offensive “macaca” remark, Asian Americans’ votes may have tipped the control of the Senate to the Democrats; the race was decided by a razor-thin 9,329 votes. Exit polls conducted by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund showed that Asian Americans voted 76% to 21% for Allen’s opponent, Jim Webb. Numbering 160,000 and determined to hold the incumbent senator accountable, Virginia’s Asian American electorate helped decide that contentious race.
In 2008, political commentators concluded that both presidential tickets should focus on Asian Americans in battleground states such as Virginia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania where their votes could be the deciding factor for either party. When all the dust settled on November 4, final exit polls tallied that Obama won the Asian Americans vote 62% to 35%, compared to a 67% to 31% margin among Hispanics, and 90% to 10% among African Americans.
While Asian support for Obama falls short of the levels of other racial minorities, it is nonetheless a striking turn of events, as Asian Americans were once reliable Republican voters. In 1992, George H.W. Bush claimed 62% of Asian American votes while he garnered only 38% of the popular vote. Political scientists agree that the reason for this shift is that for decades, the Asian American voting bloc consisted largely of Vietnamese, Korean, and Chinese immigrants who fled communist regimes and thus favored candidates with a strong anti-communist stance.
In recent elections, Asian Americans have generally voted Democratic. The 2000 presidential election marked the first time that a majority of Asian Americans voted for a Democrat, and in 2004, George W. Bush lost the Asian American vote to John Kerry 56% to 44%. The Republican Party’s loss of support could be attributed to a change in the community’s religious makeup, with a marked decrease in the Christian population, reflecting recent immigrant composition. Moreover, Republican California Governor Pete Wilson’s anti-immigration initiatives alienated the more educated and politically engaged Asian Californian immigrants of the 1990s.
This pro-Democratic trend was accelerated after September 11th. According to Karthick Ramakrishnan, a co-author of the National Asian American Survey (NAAS), South Asian immigrants moved to abandon the GOP due to “discrimination they’ve experienced after the attacks.” Previously an anti-communist voting bloc, the community became a bastion of pro-immigration supporters.
During the 2006 midterm elections, Republicans faced formidable challenges courting Asian American votes. The Iraq War and the Republican Party’s anti-immigration rhetoric during the campaign season alienated Asian American voters. These factors pushed Asian Americans to vote 2-to-1 in favor of Democratic candidates. In the 2008 election, the 1.5 generation—Asian American immigrants’ children who make up the second most pro-Democrat group after young African Americans—played a crucial role in helping Obama secure his win over McCain.
Despite Asian Americans leaning Democratic over the past decade, Obama initially did not enjoy their firm support. On Super Tuesday, Obama lost to Hillary Clinton by a consistently large margin in exit polls of every state. In California, where Asian Americans make up 8% of the voting bloc, they voted 3-to-1 for Clinton. In New Jersey, the margin was also 3-to-1 and in New York—Clinton’s home state—almost 9-to-1.
Shortly thereafter, in a Time Magazine article entitled, “Does Obama Have an Asian Problem?,” Oliver Wang, a professor of sociology at California State University at Long Beach, suggested that “the image of African Americans…is not often positive” among Asian Americans. Prominent Asian politicians also endorsed Clinton during the primaries, including Governor Gary Locke of Washington and more surprisingly, Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii – Obama’s home state.
Many analysts believed that Asian Americans initially favored Clinton simply based on her name recognition within their community and home countries. However, by May, polls in California found that support for Obama already trumped Clinton’s: 56% to 33%. While Obama’s message was slowly gaining traction, the NAAS survey found that a quarter of Clinton’s supporters and a third of all Asian Americans remained undecided voters by October.
Many Asian Americans did not immediately support Obama as they were unsure of the meaning of his message of “change.” Initial support for Obama mainly stemmed from his anti-Iraq War stance. Results from an NAAS survey found that 70% of voters support a withdrawal of American troops from Iraq “as soon as possible,” which was Obama’s stance during the campaign.
Yet the real shift towards Obama occurred when, according to Professor Wang, Asian Americans began to realize that Obama is a “different kind of African American.” Many of Clinton’s Asian America supporters switched sides once they learned about his diverse background through Asian media outlets: Obama was born and raised in Hawaii by his white Kansan mother and later spent eight years of schooling in Jakarta. His stepfather, Lolo Soetro, was Indonesian. His half Asian sister, Maya Soetro-Ng, married a Chinese Canadian, Conrad Ng, who worked to convince Asian American community leaders that Obama personally understands the issues that are most important to them.
Chris Lu, the Obama transition team’s Executive Director and White House Cabinet Secretary-designate, revealed in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle that all immigrants could identify with Obama’s struggles with his own identity and integration of his values into mainstream America. Obama’s Hawaiian and Indonesian story resonates strongly with Asian Americans from all backgrounds and provides them with a strong personal connection to American politics. As the first Asian American to speak at the Democratic National Convention, Maya Soetro-Ng mentioned that Obama’s presidency would bring a “colorful palette” to the White House. Mike Fonda and John Chiang of California, both prominent Asian American politicians, also highlighted Obama’s multi-cultural experience at the Convention.
Professor Don Nakanishi of UCLA said in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle that young Asian Americans formed a core group of strong Obama supporters that helped persuade others in the community to vote for Obama. The 2008 election saw record numbers of Asian American campaign volunteers serving as crucial ground troops for the Get-Out-The-Vote efforts in immigrant communities in California, New York, and Virginia. A survey of Filipino Americans in California—the second largest Asian American ethnic group and traditionally Republican voters—found that aggressive canvassing efforts, mass emails and internet blogging by Filipino youth leaders led to a significant last-minute shift towards Obama, resulting in the group’s first-time voting for a Democratic ticket. Many similar anecdotes about young Thai, Korean, and Chinese Americans convincing their families to vote for a Democratic candidate for the first time appeared on blogs.
The historic nature of this year’s election has finally brought a long neglected voting bloc into the national spotlight. Articles headlined “Asian Americans may Flip Virginia into Obama’s column,” and “Asian Americans Feeling the Power” underscore the Asian American community as an increasingly potent political force, and a “sleeping [electoral] giant” ready to be awakened. Obama seems to have responded to the Asian American electorate by appointing three Asian Americans on his White House transition team, and so far two to his Cabinet. Asian Americans, like African and Latino Americans, can finally rejoice because, for the first time in history, they were a driving force behind the successful election of the President.
Contributing author Thomas Chen originally published this article in Progressive Nation.