A closer look at how this demographic voted reveals why state-by-state differences matter.
by EUGENE YI
The story of the 2012 election, as it has been written thus far, is one of an ascendant coalition of minorities lifting President Barack Obama to a second term. Asian Americans were a part of that coalition, and much ink has been spilled over this newfound political relevance. National exit polls indicated 73 percent of Asian Americans voted for Barack Obama, while only 26 percent went for Mitt Romney, a stunningly one-sided total.
Nationwide polls gloss over state-by-state differences, of course. But with a community as diverse as Asian America, these differences matter. Whereas a community in one state can be dominated by one or two groups, another can have a more diverse mix. These differences are crucial to understanding the political leanings of the group at large.
Going by party affiliation, most Hmong, Indian and Korean voters identified themselves as Democrats, while Filipino and Vietnamese people favored Republicans. Almost a third of Asian Americans were registered independents, though, ranging from about a quarter of Samoans to 68 percent of Cambodians.
Further muddying the results, Edison Research, the firm that supplied the exit poll data for most mainstream news outlets (including the 73/26 numbers cited earlier), conducts its interviews only in English and Spanish. Any inclusion of Asian American voters would favor the native-born and the English-proficient.
The wide reporting of Edison’s numbers have caused some consternation for Karthick Ramakrishnan, who directs the National Asian American Survey, the most exhaustive study of the political proclivities of the group.
“It’s weird. You don’t know how the sauce is made. Who knows how [Edison Research] weight[s] their data,” he said. “They clearly are missing a big chunk of the electorate by not doing it in-language.”
In general, polling in-language tends to reveal even deeper support for Obama, he said. This can vary by group, of course, and the specific demographic makeup of a region can affect the direction of this in-language effect. In addition to the national figures, Edison supplied Asian American exit polling for three states: Virginia, Nevada and California.
California illustrates some of these questions about English-language polling. The state went for Obama, 60 to 38 percent, according to unofficial figures from the state’s board of election (complete tallies were not available as of this writing). Edison found Asian Americans went for Obama 79 to 21 percent. Since California is such a blue state, it’s not surprising the result is even more in favor of Obama than the national figures. But since Edison’s polling favors the English-proficient, it’s difficult to tell how representative the numbers are without more specific breakdowns.
“You’re more likely to sample certain nationalities, especially Indians, Filipinos and Japanese, who we know have high levels of English proficiency,” Ramakrishnan said. “You might have enough Indians to counterbalance the Filipinos to arrive at that middle figure that we think the middle of the Asian American vote is. But certainly when it comes to groups like Korean Americans and Chinese Americans, you’d be missing out on big chunks for their voting population.”
In Virginia, Obama won by about 150,000 votes, 51 to 47 percent, according to the state’s unofficial results. According to Edison, Asian Americans went for Obama, 66 to 32 percent, and made up 3 percent of the electorate. But with Asian Americans making up about 6 percent of the state’s population, that would assume a turnout of about 50 percent. This is striking, particularly because the Asian population in Virginia jumped 71 percent from 2000 to 2010, and the vast majority are not naturalized citizens.
“That would be a classic case of those exit poll numbers probably being wrong,” said Ramakrishnan. “Because then you’re probably talking about true turnout rate among the voting-eligible population of something like 80 percent—there’s no way.” Turnout numbers based on exit polling for small populations are generally unreliable, he added, though he does expect Asian American turnout to be higher in Virginia than the numbers nationwide. The key is to compare Virginia to other states with recent jumps in Asian American populations that did not receive as much attention from the campaigns, like Georgia.
In Nevada, Edison found that the Asian American vote went for Obama by a much slimmer margin: 50 to 47, according to the state’s unofficial results. This would buck the general trend of Asian Americans being overwhelmingly in Obama’s camp, and comes close to the state’s split, 52 to 46 for Obama. But the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund’s exit polling found that about 81 percent of Nevadan Asian Americans went for Obama. This discrepancy can be accounted for by the fact that AALDEF conducted interviews in other languages, while Edison only polled in English, according to Glenn Magpantay, a staff attorney for AALDEF.
The effect is larger than one would expect from just the language explanation, though, according to Taeku Lee, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the co-author of the National Asian American Survey.
“It’s rarely that big,” Lee said. “I also wouldn’t be surprised in Nevada if the Asian American vote wasn’t as solidly Democratic as it was in the rest of the country.”
Some of that, said Lee, has to do with Nevada’s reasonably sizable Filipino population, which is considered the most conservative Asian American ethnicity, according to his and Ramakrishnan’s survey.
The importance of emphasizing the Asian American subgroup is certainly in line with anecdotal experience, and it makes national figures less useful than they might seem.
Still, it’s clear that this election cycle was something of a coming-out party for the Asian American electorate. Given that Asian Americans experienced some of their most rapid growth in swing states like Nevada and Virginia, which states could continued population growth put into play in 2016? North Carolina’s Asian American population almost doubled from 2000 to 2010, now making up about 5 percent of the state. The state went for Obama in 2008, and for Romney in 2012. A small change in the population could have a dramatic effect. Florida is perennially close, and the Asian American population has grown quite rapidly there as well.
This will likely lead to more stories about the Asian American electorate, especially as the GOP, with prominent people of color like Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio jostling for the 2016 presidential nomination, attempts to redefine what Republican inclusivity will look like. Perhaps it’s feasible that in the future, the Asian American vote will be spoken of in the same way the Latino vote is, where there’s at least an understanding of the differing voting habits of a Cuban and a Mexican. This would certainly be a step in the right direction.
This article was published in the December 2012 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the December issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only.)