Why do Asian Americans vote so heavily Democratic? Political science research has some answers

One of the more surprising voting trends in American politics over the past two decades is the dramatic shift of Asian Americans toward the Democratic Party. Only 31% of the Asian American electorate voted for Bill Clinton in 1992, but 73% supported Barack Obama in 2012. What accounts for this change? Working with data from the National Asian American Survey, two political scientists, Karthick Ramakrishnan of the University of California, Riverside and Taeku Lee of the University of California, Berkeley, have some answers.

The professors reject a variety of explanations that have recently been offered. No, it’s apparently not because, as David Brooks proposed, Asian American voters are less individualistic or less antagonistic toward government than are other Americans. Nor is it, as Andrew Gelman hypothesized, because they are more likely to reside in blue states. Richard Posner’s argument that newer voting groups support incumbent parties is similarly dismissed, as is Charles Murray’s idea that Democratic economic policies have nothing to do with Asian Americans’ support.

Rather, say the professors, there are are cluster of “push and pull” factors that seem to be drawing Asian Americans towards the Democrats and away from the Republicans. Some of the pull factors: Asian Americans like President Obama’s policies on health care, education, and the Iraq War. They also appreciate that Obama has appointed a record number of Asian Americans to high office, including such nominations as Goodwin Liu for the U.S. Court of Appeals, Jim Yong Kim as head of the World Bank, and Steven Chu as Secretary of Energy. Those appointments have received a great deal of attention in Asian American media outlets.

As for the “push factors”: well, the Republican’s anti-immigrant bias and its alliance with the Christian right are not doing them any favors so far as Asian Americans are concerned.

Personally, I believe that the “push” factors may have gone deeper than we will ever know. During the past four years especially, Asian Americans, like every other nonwhite group in America, clearly received the overwhelming message from Republicans that: “You’re not welcome here. You don’t belong.” It stung. It’s worth noting that not a single prominent Republican ever stood up to Limbaugh and the other racist, xenophobic bullies in the party. The targets of those bullies’ wrath will never forget that. The Republican party will be spending the next decade or two at least repairing the damage.

Over at Josh Marshall’s blog, he’s recently published some fascinating emails he’s received from Asian Americans and others from immigrant backgrounds about why they so strongly support President Obama and have been so profoundly disgusted by the Republicans. I’ve pasted and copied one of them in full, which you can read after the jump. I strongly urge that you do so. It’s quite powerful.

Josh’s blog posts recently from TPM readers JT, JB, and KE struck a nerve with me, especially the one from KE on being Asian-American and taking it personally when Republicans and conservatives attacked Obama. I am Indian-American, born and raised in Iowa (my childhood in Ames and Marshalltown and college years back to Ames) to immigrant parents. Obama’s heritage and identity as a racial minority is a big deal to me, no question, and was an attraction to me in 2007…he is the only Presidential candidate ever to get my money in a contested nomination fight, before he was the presumed nominee.

There is no question the Obama Presidency has exposed a lot of racism and xenophobia and religious bigotry among Republicans and conservatives, disturbingly more than I would’ve guessed. PPP was mocked early on in 2011 for their polls testing whether GOP primary voters in various states believed Obama was born in the U.S., whether he was a citizen, whether he was a Muslim…even whether he was the anti-Christ! At first I was dismissive of the some of the results because I’m well-aware that people are willing to give ridiculous answers to ridiculous questions. But then after one GOP Presidential primary debate, Frank Luntz on Fox News had a majority of Iowa GOP focus group members raise their hands in earnest when he asked, in earnest, whether they believed Obama was a Muslim. And as time went on, it became clear in other polling that PPP early on was on to more than just snarky telephone survey replies, there really is a disturbingly large percentage of Republicans who are openly hostile to Obama specifically because of his race, his national origin, and his partial religious ancestry. That GOP electeds from Boehner to McConnell to all the GOP Presidential candidates were unwilling to call out any of it just reinforced the point, since it established they were afraid because these people were a very large part of the GOP base. You don’t worry about calling out your own party’s cranks in public if they’re marginal figures whose votes you don’t need and don’t think you’ll lose because they have no other options…Republican candidates and electeds know that they can lose primaries for openly challenging racial and other bigoted hostility toward Obama. And all this is very personal to me. When I was a small child in Ames, Iowa, in my immigrant family, neighborhood teenagers assaulted our home regularly, pelting fruit and whatever else at our house. Several times my dad had the police come and lecture this group of kids. It was all about race, and these kids’ parents did nothing. So when Mitt Romney in a Michigan stump speech snarks that no one asked him for his birth certificate, and his GOP allies defend the racism as “just a joke,” when so many GOP federal and state electeds endorse or tacitly condone questioning of Obama’s citizenry and engage in other dog whistle racism, these are always personal attacks equally on me…if Obama is not an American and does not legitimately belong, then they’re saying the same about me. I imagine I’m not alone, that people of color across the board see what I see, and the election results confirm this. It’s striking to me, and IMO underreported, that Obama clearly lost great amounts of white support in Florida and indeed his 37% in the exit poll with Florida whites has always been disastrous…and yet he wins the state with an absolute majority. It’s striking to me that the national exit poll has not only people of color increasing to 28% of the total, but also that it has both Hispanics and Asians giving over 70% to Obama. These things tell me that people of color across the board see what I see, an appalling racism and xenophobia in the Republican Party that is enraging. Sadly, the early signs of the post-election period show only continued GOP hostility, even more bitterness and resentment than before. I do believe that Obama and Senate Democrats are going to play hardball these next few months on Senate rules and the most immediate legislative issues of the budget and taxes and debt ceiling, and it will make me happy. That will be necessary, because it appears that Congressional Republicans are remaining adamant in their unwillingness to deal with a black President as an equal to previous white Presidents. That might change out of necessity, but for the time being federal Democratic electeds will simply have to bring the hammer down. The next key test for Republicans will be immigration reform: will resentment and bitterness overwhelm their recent recognition of the need to try to bend toward the demands of immigrant communities? I actually suspect yes, it will. They’re bitter toward losing and now will become only more bitter and intransigent after getting forced into budget and tax legislation they hate, and getting steamrolled on Senate rules. My next big electoral hope is that more people of color wake up and realize the importance of voting in non-Presidential elections, meaning the federal midterms and in places like Virginia where I live the odd-year state-level elections. Outsized minority turnout in 2014 might still be needed to make national Republicans feel compelled to change their ways, as I’m not sure this election will ultimately be enough. Thanks for indulging my rant, this particular topic strikes a very personal nerve and these recent posts on TPM meant a lot to me.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee