Could the Republican Party Win Asian-American Votes?

The impulse of Republican politicians such as Jeb Bush to try rescue the party from the barbarians now running it is understandable. I might even find it laudable if the goals of the quasi-civilized Republicans were less thoroughly plutocratic.

And Bush is surely right to stress that the GOP’s catastrophic 2012 performance among Asian-Americans is a very, very bad prognostic; if the Republicans can’t win a highly family-oriented, educated, and affluent demographic that also happens to be rapidly growing in its share of the electorate, they’re going to be a world of hurt. (Note that the heavily Democratic tilt of the Asian vote – stronger than the Democratic tilt of the Latino vote last year – destroys the “moocher” theory so beloved of Mitt Romney and his fans.)

But what is it that has driven Asian-Americans – who favored GHWB over Dukakis in 1988 – away from the Republicans? Their current combination of SES profile and voting habits makes you (especially if you’re Jewish) think of Jews: who, it is said, combine the income level of Episcopalians with the electoral tastes of Puerto Ricans.

There’s no Asian-American equivalent of some of the forces that made Jews enthusiastic Democrats: the influx of Jewish social democrats after the 1848 revolutions in Europe and the impacts of Zionism (which used to be a socialist movement), the labor movement (especially the ILGWU) and the urban political machines. But there are important parallels: most Asian-Americans (except for Koreans and Philipinos) aren’t Christians; they’re historic targets of intolerance; and (again with exceptions) they share a Confucian tradition that puts as high a value on learning as the Talmudic tradition. So it’s possible that the religious and ethnic bigotry of the Republicans, even if not specifically directed at Asian-Americans, still scares them off. And Republican obscurantism may be the big deal-breaker; Ed Koch utterly stunned me by endorsing Obama in 2008, but that choice made more sense when he gave Sarah Palin’s history of book-banning as his reason.

I think these parallels might be worth pursuing with data. To the extent that I’m right, Jeb & Co. have a tough row to hoe: making the GOP more attractive to Asians would mean making it less attractive to its base (in both senses) voters.

When Caroline Bingley proposes that a ball featuring conversation rather than dancing would be a more rational entertainment, her brother Charles replies “Much more rational, my dear Caroline, I dare say, but it would not be near so much like a ball.” A Republican Party that could win Asian-American votes would be far more electable, but it would be far less like the Republican Party we know and hate.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.