A man casts his vote at a polling station in California, a state that has a large enough Asian-American population that their votes could be decisive in a tight election. Photo: AFP
A man casts his vote at a polling station in California, a state that has a large enough Asian-American population that their votes could be decisive in a tight election. Photo: AFP

For the past 20 years, Asian-Americans have been the most rapidly growing racial group in the United States. However, it is not yet clear that they are politically engaged enough to match their significant demographic bulk with representation in political office.

In last week’s midterm elections, the Asian-American populations had enough numbers in 11 states that, according to AAPI data, they could have ended up swinging 27 congressional races. Moreover, California, Nevada, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Virginia and elsewhere have large enough Asian-American populations that their votes could be decisive in close calls.

However, “Asian-American” encompasses a broad spectrum of backgrounds, beliefs and outlooks. The six biggest Asian American groups in the United States are, in descending order, Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese-Americans. As a Pew Research report shows, these subgroups lean in different directions on different issues.

This presents a problem for the parties. To court the Asian-American vote, Democrats and Republicans need to adjust their platforms to speak to the various subgroups, rather than the unified whole.

Moreover, the Asian-American community’s voter turnout has customarily been miserable. For example, in the 2014 midterms, according to the census, only 27% of Asian-Americans voted – far below the rates of more politically engaged Caucasian and African-American voters.

As a result, AAPI data confirms that thus far, the Asian-American voting bloc has not been contacted by the Democratic and Republic parties. Still, with Asian-Americans registering greater overall excitement to vote in 2018, how has that shaped the midterms?

Who, and what, did Asian-Americans favor and disfavor?

A clear favorite emerged: According to the AAPI survey, Asian-Americans favor Democrats (58%) over Republicans (34%) in this election cycle.

Overall, 60% of Asian-American registered voters disapproved of Donald Trump as president. Vietnamese-Americans are the only Asia-American group who give President Donald Donald Trump a net approval rating.

On an issue that might be considered central to communities that still see significant immigrant movement, 64% of Asian-Americans supported, and 20% opposed, a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Gun control has strong and consistent support among Asian-Americans. By a nearly a 7-to-1 ratio, Asian-American registered voters favor stricter gun laws in the United States.

A chart by AAPI sums up how Asian-Americans leaned on key political issues in this election cycle.

Korean-Americans land Congressional seats with both parties

A significant proportion of all Asian-Americans live in California (5.6 million according to the US Census). One of the tightest races in the midterms was California’s 39th House District. With the Republican incumbent, Ed Royce, retiring, South Korean immigrant Young Kim replaced him as the Republican candidate. She ran for a seat in Orange County, California, against Gil Cisneros from the Democratic Party and came out leading by just 1.6% percentage points, or 2,672 votes. That made Kim the first Korean-American woman ever in Congress – and also the first Korean-American member of Congress since 1999

She may have another Korean-American joining her – albeit on the other side of the House. In New Jersey, Korean-American candidate Andy Kim fought a hard battle against GOP incumbent Tom MacArthur. Kim, 36, had never run for elected office before but took a sizable lead and declared an early victory on Twitter.

Vietnamese-Americans stay right

Vietnamese-Americans were expected to cast decisive votes in several key congressional races in Orange County. Historically, Vietnamese-Americans have leaned towards the right at rates higher than other Asian-American groups.

Kathleen Moazed, a Vietnamese-American Capitol Hill veteran who used to be chief of staff to the House Committee on International Relations, told the Asia Times, “I know from my own mother’s friends that nearly all Vietnamese from her generation up to those who were born here after immigrating were largely Republican because they were anti-communist, having fled from a communist country.”

Moazed – herself a Democrat – was critical of efforts to lure Vietnamese-American voters. “Honestly, I don’t know that the Democratic Party, writ large, made much of an effort to bring Vietnamese into the fold. I think they lumped them in with a lot of other immigrants, not always bothering to distinguish among them and tailoring an appeal to Vietnamese in particular. I do think the Republicans made more of an outreach to like-minded conservative immigrant groups like the Vietnamese and the Cubans.”

Little Saigon was a key Congressional battleground in this election. In the US House District 45 in Orange County, incumbent Mimi Walter held a 1 percentage point lead over her Democratic challenger Katie Porter. In California’s 34th District in Los Angeles, incumbent Republican Janet Nyugen held her seat against Democratic candidate Tom Umbert.

Filipino-Americans fall short

Over 4 million Filipino Americans live in the United States, according to US Census data, with more than 1.6 million in California. While the community makes up 1% of the US population, it has been historically underrepresented: according to the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, only one person of Filipino descent has a seat in Congress – Bobby Scott, a Democrat – in Virginia. This year, five Filipino-Americans ran for Congress.

Filipino-American Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones took on Republican Will Hurd in Texas’s 23rd Congressional District. It was a razor-tight fight, and the issue is not yet decided: Hurd looks to be ahead by a whisker, but Ortiz Jones’ team are hoping for a recount, and she has senior Democrats backing her up.

However, elsewhere, Filipino-Americans fell shorter.

Filipino-American TJ Cox of the Democratic Party in California’s 21st Congressional District lost to David Valado, 53.8% to 46.5%. Filipino-American Kenneth Mejia of the Green Party lost in California’s 34th Congressional District to Democrat Jimmy Gomez, 74% – 26%). A big political name – Cristina Osmeña, the great-granddaughter of former Philippine president Sergio Osmeña – represented the Republicans in California’s 14th Congressional District, but lost to Democrat Jackie Speier, 76.7% – 23.3%. And the Democrats’ Jennifer Zimmerman, in Florida’s 1st Congressional District, lost to Republican Matt Gaetz, who took a 67.1% majority.

Why the poor results? An August 2018 study in the journal Politics, Groups and Identities offered a few reasons. The group tends not to contribute financially or volunteer for political campaigns. The authors of the study also suggested that some survey respondents may prioritize spending money on their families as opposed to politics.

Still, there is one upside. Filipino-American voters are more politically active than the Asian-American community on average. According to AAPI data, 59% of Filipinos were registered to vote and 50% of them voted in the 2016 election.

Asian-Americans make history in New York

New York City alone is home to a larger Asian-American community than any other US city, with over 1 million Asian-Americans. Two Democrats made history as the first Asian-Americans to be elected to the New York State Senate. Democrat John Lui, who was born in Taiwan, won District 11’s State Senate seat over three challengers. And Kevin Thomas, an Indian-American attorney, captured the District 6 seat from Republican incumbent Kemp Hannon.

Liu encouraged greater awareness and outreach within the Asian-American community. “As with all people, the more Asian-Americans understand the impact people have on government and the impact government has on people, such as in matters of education, healthcare, and economic opportunity, the more Asian-Americans will engage in this democracy that America is about,” Liu said in an interview with the Huffington Post.

The road ahead

Participation in US politics by Asian-Americans has been historically low for several reasons, which suggest the community – or rather, communities – need to learn how to exercise their power. “I think what helps the most is Asians seeing other Asians elected to office, speaking out on CNN and MSNBC and leading more political organizations,” Vietnamese-American Moazed said.

She also outlined several challenges Asian-American communities face.

  • Many Asian-Americans come from countries where democracy is not the norm– or where, if elections are held, they are seen as corrupt.  So what’s the point, they think, in participating in a corrupt practice? Similarly: Those who come from corrupt countries don’t see any value in their votes, so they don’t bother.
  • Many come from countries with political oppression, where sticking your head up and speaking out carries a strong risk of persecution or attack.
  • Many, especially new immigrants, are more preoccupied with getting by – getting a job, getting an education, paying the rent – to concern themselves with elections.
  • Many want their children to focus their studies on fields that promise jobs with secure futures – doctors, lawyers, engineers – as opposed to political science or working in Congress, for example.
  • Lastly, many continue to feel like the “other” and that voting and elections are not for them. This is vague but it subtly pervades the thinking of many who came to this country as adults and do not feel very assimilated.

According to Moazed, there is a strong generational divide. Older Asian-Americans hold onto conservative views while younger ones who grew up in the US tend to vote the same way as the Latino and African-American communities — which is to say, Democrat.

So, for the future: If and when Asian-American communities turn out to vote in numbers, it seems likely that the Democrats will be the beneficiary, especially because the Republican Party has become so closely tied to Trump and his anti-immigrant views.

But whether the party will effectively reach out to woo Asia-Americans  is another matter.