The Untapped Potential of the Asian Voter

Asian Americans are the Democrats’ fastest-growing constituency, but the party has failed to mobilize them. That’s a major missed opportunity.

A few weeks before Donald Trump’s inauguration, while most Democrats were still reeling from the 2016 election, David Reid was preparing to run for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. It was his first foray into politics. The district had gone for Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama before her, but the Republican incumbent had kept his seat since 2009.

Reid, a defense contractor and retired U.S. Navy officer, was born into poverty in the mountains of western Virginia. But he had come a long way since then. Virginia House District 32 sits in Loudoun County, a sprawling Washington, D.C., exurb that for the past ten years has had the highest median income in the nation. When Reid looked around at the district he sought to represent, a few things stood out. One was nightmarish traffic, the result of a recent population boom. (Transportation would feature prominently among Reid’s campaign issues.) Another was a stunning demographic shift. Loudoun County’s growth over the past three decades has been driven in part by Asian Americans, who have flocked there to work for AOL and other tech companies that have set up shop in the area. Today 18 percent of the district’s residents are Asian American. Nearly half of those are Indian American; between 1990 and 2010, the number of Indian Americans in the county grew by a factor of fifty. Drive past a park on a summer evening, and you’ll see cricket matches under way—the Loudoun County Cricket League has forty-eight teams and more than 1,200 players.

Reid realized that he would need to win over Asian American voters to carry the district—as he eventually did, part of a 2017 blue wave that was bolstered by higher-than-expected Asian turnout statewide. He visited the local Sikh gurdwara, ate iftar dinner at the mosque, and had an Indian friend join him canvassing Asian American households. During this time, he started noticing a strange pattern: an unusual number of these voters were former Republicans. “Going door to door,” he said, “I met an Indian woman who said, ‘I used to vote Republican, but I can’t anymore. I’m voting for you.’ And then I went two or three doors down and, talking to a Pakistani gentleman, he told me almost the same thing.”

More than a quarter of Asian American Republicans have abandoned the GOP since 2011, by far the largest shift of any demographic group. At the same time, the Asian American share of the population has doubled since 1990 to 6 percent overall.

Reid had stumbled upon one of the most overlooked transformations in American politics: the overwhelming leftward shift of Asian American voters. In 1992, the first year that exit polls specifically tracked Asian Americans—an umbrella term referring to anyone with ancestry from East Asia, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent—55 percent of them supported George H. W. Bush over Bill Clinton. Eight years later, Al Gore became the first Democrat to win a majority of Asian American votes, and by 2012, the group favored Obama over Mitt Romney by almost 75 to 25. And the trend seems to be accelerating. More than a quarter of Asian American Republicans have abandoned the GOP since 2011, by far the largest shift of any demographic group. At the same time, the Asian American share of the population has doubled since 1990 to 6 percent overall.

The GOP’s increased nativism after 9/11 has long been a turnoff for Asian Americans, even before Donald Trump descended the escalator in Trump Tower in June 2015. Trump has spent the better part of three years fear-mongering about undocumented immigrants—one out of six of whom is Asian. Asian Americans are the biggest beneficiaries of family reunification policies, which Trump and other prominent Republicans have taken to bashing as “chain migration.” (Family reunification is how nearly all Vietnamese and Bangladeshi immigrants have come to America.) Asian Americans might not be the direct target of Trump’s disdain as often as Hispanics, but the modern Republican Party’s increasingly overt hostility to nonwhite immigration can’t help but push them away.

All of which is good news for Democrats. But here’s the problem: Asian Americans have among the lowest voting rates of any racial group in America—49 percent of eligible voters, in 2016, compared to 65 percent among white people and 60 percent among black people. Not coincidentally, they also are less likely to be contacted by parties and campaigns. “Democrats are leaving a lot of votes on the table,” said Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and an expert in political demography. “They don’t need 100 percent Asian turnout, but if Asians could come close to what whites vote at, or even blacks, it could have a big difference.”

True, Asian Americans still make up only 4 percent of eligible voters. But they are the fastest-growing racial group in the country and increasingly vote as a Democratic bloc. In other words, Democrats’ failure to mobilize them has been a major missed opportunity for the party. As the Asian American population booms, and as state and national elections continue to be decided by the slimmest of margins, correcting that failure will only become more urgent.

Until not too long ago, Asian Americans were a negligible slice of the electorate that both parties could ignore with virtually no electoral consequences. Chinese laborers flocked to California in the mid-1800s for grueling, low-wage jobs laying down railroad tracks. These migrants were scapegoated for a souring economy—seventeen Chinese Americans were shot and lynched in Los Angeles in 1871—and in 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the country’s first restriction on immigration. Eighty years later, Asians were just half of 1 percent of all Americans.

Then, as the civil rights movement surged, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, ending long-standing immigration quotas that had favored Europeans and severely limited the number of Asian immigrants. In the 1960s, the number of Asian Americans shot past one million. Today, there are more than twenty-one million.

Most of these immigrants initially flocked to the coasts. In 1990, 60 percent of Asian Americans lived in just three states: California, New York, and Hawaii. But this extreme geographic clustering is changing. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of Asian Americans grew by 72 percent, far more than any other racial group, and the areas with the fastest growth are also some of the most important battleground states for Democrats. The three states with the fastest-growing Asian American populations are Nevada, Arizona, and North Carolina, swing states that are trending Democratic, with urban and suburban congressional districts ripe for Democrats to pick up on the way to a House majority. Georgia, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Florida have all seen their Asian American populations grow by more than 80 percent since 2010.

Of course, it’s crucial for Democrats to turn out Latinos, especially in places like Florida and Arizona. But while there are far more Latinos nationwide, Asian Americans nearly match them in a number of swing states—Michigan and Ohio, for example—and reddish-purple states like Missouri and Georgia. There were hardly any Asian Americans in Cincinnati when my parents, Indian immigrants, settled there in 1991. But in 2016, bolstered by a strong community of Asian Americans, a young lawyer of Tibetan and Indian descent named Aftab Pureval became the first Democratic clerk of Hamilton County in more than 100 years. Now he’s running a promising campaign to unseat U.S. Representative Steve Chabot, the Republican incumbent.

Still, Asian Americans’ democratic participation badly lags behind their rising demographic presence. In North Carolina, for example, the number of Asian Americans registered to vote increased 130 percent between 2006 and 2014. But in the 2014 midterms, just 27 percent of those registered Asian Americans voted. The problem of low Asian voter turnout is deeply entrenched. Since voting-eligible Asian Americans are disproportionately immigrants, they tend to be less tuned in to American politics than your average voter and less plugged in to the broader community. For some new citizens who fled countries with an unsavory authoritarian past, voting and democracy itself can be foreign.

Good karma: A few weeks before his 2017 gubernatorial victory, candidate Ralph Northam
celebrates Diwali, the Hindu celebration of the triumph of good over evil, in Virginia.

Compounding the problem is the fact that campaigns generally aren’t doing the work to engage with Asian voters. According to a survey following the 2016 campaign, only 29 percent of Asian Americans said that they had been contacted by a political party, compared to 44 percent of whites. This is not illogical—campaigns must devote resources to people who are more likely to reward them by actually voting—but it sacrifices long-term party building for short-term success. “If you’re not on the voter rolls, and you’ve never participated before, you don’t even get a door knock,” said Shekar Narasimhan, an Indian immigrant and the founder of the AAPI Victory Fund, the first Super PAC for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. “Asian Americans rarely are approached.” And while Asian Americans lean left overall, a Democratic campaign will still be apprehensive about engaging with individuals who don’t have a voting history. (The very last thing a campaign wants is to activate someone who ultimately supports the opponent.) The end result is a vicious cycle in which non-voting Asian Americans rarely receive the nudge that could push them to the ballot box on election day. Low voting rates beget low voting rates.

Engaging with Asian Americans is bound to be more logistically complicated than for other groups. A third of Asian American voters have limited English proficiency, a major barrier to voting and engagement. And while no racial group is monolithic, the category “Asian American” is absurdly broad. There are eleven countries in Southeast Asia alone, and dozens more across East and South Asia. Asian Americans speak at least forty different languages. As a whole, they are the wealthiest and most highly educated racial group, but that masks jarring differences. While 70 percent of Indian Americans hold a bachelor’s degree, for example, Cambodians and Laotians have lower high school graduation rates than African Americans and Latinos. Any term that applies equally to someone from Seoul or Islamabad is going to paper over major differences.

Yet despite that cultural heterogeneity, what is most politically striking about Asian American subgroups is their similarity to each other. South Asians—Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis—lean more Democratic than East and Southeast Asians, but, in 2016, every Asian American subgroup preferred Clinton to Trump. (Pacific Islanders, another demographic that often gets grouped with Asian Americans, also lean Democratic. There are about 1.3 million Pacific Islanders in the U.S.) On the issues, Asian Americans are especially united behind liberal economic positions such as tax increases for the rich and a more activist government. Even Vietnamese Americans, who were once bound to the GOP by a shared anticommunism, now favor the Democrats.

The three states with the fastest-growing Asian American populations are Nevada, Arizona, and North Carolina, swing states that are trending Democratic. And Georgia, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Florida have all seen their Asian American populations grow by more than 80 percent since 2010.

Democrats are belatedly realizing the importance of Asian American voters. Hillary Clinton’s campaign had dedicated political directors focused on engaging with Asian Americans. In Las Vegas, the campaign brought in celebrities like actress Constance Wu and comedian Margaret Cho to help register voters. Clinton won the Asian vote by nearly as wide of a margin as Obama did in 2012, even as blacks and Latinos peeled away from the Democratic coalition in 2016. Nine members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, the first time a group of Asian American elected officials spoke at a party’s national convention.

Ahead of 2018, the Democratic National Committee has a team of staffers focused on engaging with Asian Americans, and New York Congresswoman Grace Meng, a party vice chair, is leading efforts to beef up get-out-the-vote initiatives in key states. In last year’s elections in Virginia and New Jersey, the DNC hired organizers who specifically targeted potential Asian American voters. “The plan now is to scale that, and to ramp up our engagement efforts everywhere,” said Vedant Patel, a DNC spokesman.

Outside organizations are also pitching in. The nonprofit Asian Pacific Islander American Vote, or APIAVote, has twenty regional trainings planned across the country to teach volunteers and community leaders how to engage with Asian Americans. “We teach everything from voter registration to get-out-the-vote to electoral protections,” said Christine Chen, the group’s executive director. “Basically, how to engage an AAPI voter—it’s different for Hmong voters in Minnesota versus Filipinos in Nevada.”

Democrats hoping to increase the rate of Asian American turnout would be wise to pay attention to the one state that seems to have it figured out. Nevada and Virginia are the two battleground states with enough Asian Americans to have already gotten politicians’ attention. But while just 44 percent of eligible Asian voters turned out in Nevada in 2016, a full 70 percent voted in Virginia, by far the most nationwide, and double the rate in New York.

Between 2008 and 2015, the number of eligible Asian American and Pacific Islander voters in Virginia grew by 176 percent, helping drive the state’s leftward shift. These voters are clustered in the northern part of Virginia, in D.C. suburbs like Loudoun County—where David Reid won his state house race in November—and bordering Fairfax County, where a third of the state’s Asian Americans live.

The effort to turn out Asian American progressives in Virginia ultimately comes back to one group: the Democratic Asian Americans of Virginia (DAAV). “We focus on three things,” said Dewita Soeharjono, the organization’s chair. “Educating Asian voters about the political process, empowering them to run for office, and electing Democrats.”

Democratic campaigns provide DAAV, which became an arm of the Virginia Democratic Party in 2013, with lists of eligible Asian American voters. Then the group, with a phalanx of hundreds of volunteers speaking a variety of languages, targets those voters by phone banking and campaigning door to door. “One of my friends who tags along with me speaks Vietnamese, but doesn’t like to door-knock himself,” said Soeharjono, who immigrated from Indonesia. “There are times when he has to speak. It’s much easier to connect with someone who can speak your language.”

Northern Virginia, where DAAV focuses its efforts, has a substantial number of older voters with limited English proficiency. So the group prepares sample ballots and pamphlets in multiple languages, and has volunteers pass them out at community festivals, such as the annual Korean festival each autumn in Chantilly, Virginia, which attracted 30,000 people last year. Weeks before the November 2017 election, DAAV organized a Diwali celebration for gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam, and helped him court voters by writing op-eds in Asian American newspapers. Northam would go on to win in a landslide, buoyed by higher-than-expected turnout among minorities, including Asians.

“In the beginning, Democrats in Virginia didn’t really care about Asian voters,” Soeharjono said. “But then, as the demographics have changed, they see it now. We really have power to mobilize the community.”

The biggest mistake Democrats can make, as Asian Americans shift to the left, is to take them for granted. Their partisan attachment is still precarious. Seven in ten Asian Americans voted for Hillary Clinton, but just 36 percent identify as Democrats, compared to 70 percent of blacks and 47 percent of Latinos.

“Democrats have worked for women, for blacks, for Hispanics,” said Shien Biau Woo, the former Democratic lieutenant governor of Delaware. Woo, who immigrated from China in the 1950s, has made a habit of talking bluntly of the need for Asians to vote as a bloc. “But Democrats have never worked for Asian Americans.” They may come to regret it. The Republican National Committee has a group of staffers across the country focused on targeting Asian Americans and has hosted training sessions in battleground states. Republicans have been eager to weaponize the “model minority” stereotype to win over Asian voters on wedge issues like affirmative action. In California, a bill to end the state’s affirmative action ban was scrapped after conservatives joined forces with riled-up Asian American activists, who see affirmative action as anti-Asian discrimination. The announcement by Jeff Sessions’s Justice Department last year that it would investigate Harvard’s use of race in admissions could be similarly calculated to curry favor with Asian voters.

Meanwhile, a crop of new Republican groups is hoping to draw Asian Americans back to the party. A few weeks before the presidential election, Trump headed to Edison, New Jersey, for a rally with Indian Americans hosted by the Republican Hindu Coalition, a group founded by GOP mega-donor Shalabh Kumar and chaired by Newt Gingrich. The event featured B-list Bollywood actors performing a dance in which they mimed being attacked by jihadis and saved by Navy SEALs. It culminated with Trump—perhaps intoxicated by the wafting aroma of samosas—gleefully announcing that he’s “a big fan of Hindu.”

The reason to invest in Asian American turnout isn’t just for electoral gains in 2018 (or even 2020). The Democratic Party desperately needs to be thinking beyond the prospect of unseating Trump, to building the type of durable coalition that will deliver victories a decade or even a generation from now.

Examples like this suggest that the Asian American vote is Democrats’ to lose. And they could see the results of cultivating it as early as this November. “Midterms have not been great for Asian American turnout,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a public policy professor at UC Riverside who studies the political preferences of Asian Americans. “If Democrats are banking on higher-than-usual turnout, they’re going to have to invest more in these communities.” Nowhere is this clearer than in California, where any viable path for Democrats to win the House must begin. The seat of retiring Congressman Ed Royce, in Orange County—the historical hotbed of genteel West Coast conservatism—has been dominated by Republicans for decades. The district, 30 percent Asian American, is a prime target for Democrats. Congresswoman Mimi Walters’s nearby district is a quarter Asian American, while Dana Rohrabacher’s is nearly 20 percent. Both are highly vulnerable. Even in Georgia, Karen Handel, who edged Democrat Jon Ossoff in a special election last June, is in the hot seat again this fall, and her constituency is more than 10 percent Asian American. Asian turnout could also prove critical in Senate races in Nevada, Arizona, and Texas, where Democrats’ long-shot battle to steal back control of the Senate will likely be decided.

The reason to invest in Asian American turnout isn’t just for electoral gains in 2018 (or even 2020). The Democratic Party desperately needs to be thinking beyond the prospect of unseating Trump, to building the type of durable coalition that will deliver victories a decade or even a generation from now. In Virginia, Asian Americans will make up 15 percent of the state’s eligible voters when today’s high school freshmen reach middle age. Peek at the social science and you’ll quickly learn that voting is habit-forming—vote once, and you’re about 50 percent more likely to vote again. And voters’ partisan allegiance tends to cement in early adulthood. It’s easy to ignore Asian Americans—they’re still a relatively small part of the electorate and can be hard to reach—but the work that Democrats put in now to turn nonvoting Asian Americans into a reliable part of the Democratic coalition could pay dividends for decades.

“If Democrats show up, and Asian Americans get to know the party and have contacts with the party, that’ll pay off over the longer run for sure,” said Ruy Teixeira, the political scientist. “But you can’t reap that harvest unless you’re there at the beginning of the growing season.”

Saahil Desai

Saahil Desai is an assistant editor at The Atlantic. He was previously digital editor of Washington Monthly.