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Asian Americans Voted Democrat: We Should Not Be Surprised

- November 29, 2012

We are delighted to welcome the following guest post by Karthick Ramakrishnan, associate professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside and director of the National Asian American Survey, and  Taeku Lee, professor of political science and law at the University of California, Berkeley and co-principal investigator of the National Asian American Survey.


The 2012 Presidential election did not have much in the way of surprises: Barack Obama won the popular vote and the Electoral College by margins that were close to those predicted by the likes of Nate Silver, Sam Wang, and Simon Jackman.  Also unsurprising was the fact that Obama would repeat his performance among racial and ethnic groups in 2012 as he did in 2008: losing the white vote and yet, still winning the overall vote based on strong support among African Americans and Latinos.  Various polls by news organizations and groups such as Latino Decisions had predicted these racial disparities in support months before Election Day.

What seems to have caught some pundits by surprise was the finding by the National Election Pool that 73% of Asian Americans voted for Obama, second only to African Americans (93%), and slightly higher than Latino support at 71%.  This high level of Asian American support for Obama on Election Day should not have come as much of a surprise, if those same observers had been paying attention to our 2012 National Asian American Survey or even the exit poll results from 2008.

In mid-October, our final pre-election survey report showed that Obama enjoyed a 50%-19% advantage over Romney, with 30% undecided.  While many of the undecided could have broken disproportionately to one candidate over the other, our two-way split (72%) was remarkably consistent with the National Election Pool results, an election eve poll conducted in 3 Asian languages that pegged the Obama vote at 72%, and a post-election poll that our organization will release next week in conjunction with APIA Vote and Asian American Justice Center (with Obama support at 71%).

[Incidentally, the National Election Pool surveys have received the most attention, but they are less representative of the national Asian American population than these other Asian American surveys.  For example, they exclude Hawaii, which accounts for 6% of the Asian American electorate, and have disproportionately smaller number of respondents in states such as Texas and Washington.  They are also conducted only in English and Spanish, while ours covered 10 Asian languages, with nearly 44% of likely voters preferring to take the survey in an Asian language.]

Once the exit poll numbers on Asian Americans began to percolate, a new set of questions cropped up: Why are Asian Americans so Democratic, and why aren’t we seeing more Republicans, especially among the millions of Asian Americans who are high earners?

We provided some answers in a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, where we largely draw attention to actions by the Clinton administration in the 1990s that appealed to Asian American voters, and subsequent “push” factors by a vocal set of Republican officials that portrayed a party as exclusionary on religion and strictly conservative on immigration.  We also show, relying on our 2008 and 2012 data, that the Obama administration enacted policies on issues such as health care, education, and the Iraq War that had overwhelming support among Asian Americans.  He also appointed a record number of Asian Americans, from Cabinet positions to the World Bank, and even his judicial nominations of people like Goodwin Liu received widespread attention and support among Asian American organizations and news media.  Thus, a variety of “push” and “pull” factors on the Republican and Democratic sides, respectively, help explain the dramatic shift in Asian American voters over the last 20 years.

Others have offered different answers to why Asian Americans have shunned the Republican Party.  Some, like David Brooks, have reached for cultural explanations, with Asian Americans coming from countries having decidedly less support for individualism  and less aversion to government.  Others, like Andrew Gelman, have pointed to geographic factors in the United States as potentially explanatory, with Asian Americans highly concentrated in deep-blue states such as California, New York, New Jersey, and Hawaii.

One basic limitation to both of these explanations is that they cannot account for the dramatic shift in Asian American voting behavior, from voting 31% for Clinton in 1992 to 73% for Obama in 2012.  On the geographic explanation, the Asian American electorate was more heavily concentrated in blue states a decade or two ago than today, and so geography-based explanations cannot account much for the 40-point shift in Asian American voter support for the Democratic candidate.  If the notion of culture, particularly tied to one’s homeland, has any resonance, it cannot shift so dramatically in 20 years.  In addition to failing to adequately explaining this over-time change, there are other limitations to these cultural and geographic explanations, which we will explore in future work.

We found two other recent explanations of these Asian American voting patterns that come closer to our own analysis, but fall short for various reasons.  Richard Posner, writing in Slate, brings a variety of hypotheses for why Asian Americans are voting so heavily Democratic: they might favor the incumbent since they are a new electoral group, they are not acting instrumentally (i.e., on the basis of self-interest or group interest), but rather expressively, recoiling at the sight Republicans who they perceive to be hostile to minorities.  While Posner’s argument about the Republican Party resonates with our “push” arguments, his hypothesis about new electorates favoring the incumbent party do not account for why Asian American support for Bush declined from 2000 to 2004.  And Posner’s argument that Asian Americans are not acting instrumentally flies in the face of the evidence we find from 2008 and 2012, where Asian Americans do indeed seem to be rewarding parties and candidates that adopt their favored positions on issues such as health care.

Finally, Charles Murray, writing for AEI, argues that Asian Americans, like many other groups that voted for Obama, see Republicans as “the party of Bible-thumping, anti-gay, anti-abortion creationists,” and thus cannot bring themselves to support Republican candidates.  This assertion, like Posner’s, is in line with our argument regarding “push factors” associated with a vocal set of Republican leaders.  However, Murray is inaccurate in his assertion that Asian Americans would otherwise align with the Republican Party with their support for fiscal conservatism.  Our 2012 survey shows that Asian Americans support increasing taxes to help reduce the federal deficit, and a Pew survey from early 2012 indicated that Asian Americans prefer a bigger government that provides more services to a smaller government providing fewer services (55% to 36%, respectively), almost the mirror opposite to the U.S. average (39% vs. 52%, respectively).

Much remains to be learned about the Asian American electorate, and we are excited to see more interest in the topic within academic and beyond.  To those interested in getting up to speed on what we already know about Asian American political behavior, we would recommend the following books: Asian American Political Participation, The Politics of Asian Americans, Democracy’s Promise, Why Americans Don’t Join the Party, Democracy in Immigrant America; articles by Wendy Tam Cho, Janelle Wong, Pei-te Lien, and Christian Collet; and public datasets such as the 2001 Pilot National Asian American Political Survey and the 2008 National Asian American Survey.

Note: post was updated with graphics a few minutes after initial posting