The Republicans’ Asian Problem

Garry South

January 6, 2013


“It’s probably only a matter of time before some nativist, anti-immigrant GOP yahoo refers to it as the ‘yellow peril.'”

Much has been made, both before and after last November’s election, of the serious problems Republicans have with Latino voters. GOP nominee Mitt Romney received only a pathetic 29 percent of the Latino vote, compared with President Obama’s 71 percent. The good news, I guess, is that Republicans are now publicly pondering what to do about their lack of appeal to this fast-growing minority group.

The bad news? As we head into the next election cycle, Latinos are only the third-worst minority group for Republicans. They got nearly shut out with African Americans, of course, but the GOP has even bigger problems than among Latinos with the fastest-growing minority group of all, Asian Americans. According to national exit polls, Obama received 73 percent of the Asian vote, higher than among Latinos. (In the interests of full disclosure, I admit to having a personal interest in this particular subject as the father of a half-Chinese son.)

Anyone who has been watching and measuring shifting Asian voter preferences over the past 20 years shouldn’t be surprised by this development. Although in 1992 Bill Clinton received only 31 percent of the Asian vote, the percentage favoring the Democratic nominee has grown every election since. A 2007 Politico story was headlined, “Asian-American youth trend Democratic,” and noted a Harvard Institute of Politics survey that showed among 18-24-year-old Asian Americans, 47 percent self-identified as Democrats, while only 15 percent called themselves Republicans.

A national survey conducted last April by Lake Research Partners, found an almost shocking affinity for the Democratic Party by Asian American voters. Among all Asian voters, the Democratic Party was favored over the Republicans by a margin of 53-16. But in some separate Asian communities, the disparities were even greater. Voters of Chinese ancestry, for example, preferred Democrats 56-14. And while Republicans like to trot out the first Asian Indian Govs. Bobby Jindal and Nicki Haley as trophies, the generally well-off Asian Indian community was actually the most lopsidedly Democratic of all – ” 65-6.

A pre-election poll last year by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the National Coalition for Asian America Community Development showed 72 percent of Asian Americans backing Obama – only 1 point off the final margin – with 73 percent supporting Democrats in congressional races.

In California, with the largest Asian population by far, Asian American voters provided Obama a whopping 79-21 margin – larger even than his 72-27 win among Latinos. In fact, going back to 1994, the average percentage of the Asian vote received by every Republican presidential and gubernatorial nominee in California has been just 37.7 percent. Asian American voters even voted against the successful recall of Gov. Gray Davis in 2003.

And Asians are now not only the second-largest minority group in the Golden State, 13 percent of the population as of the 2010 census, but also growing faster than Latinos in the past decade, 31 percent versus 28 percent. In some swing states, the growth in Asians was even more dramatic. In Nevada, the Asian population grew by 71.4 percent between 2000 and 2010. In Virginia and North Carolina, it was 55.3 and 71.4 percent, respectively. Even in whitewashed Iowa, Asians grew by 53.8 percent during that decade. Clearly, this is another ethnic time bomb waiting to explode under the Republicans.

Why the meltdown in support for the GOP among Asian Americans? A lot of reasons, but at the top of the list is the same one that has turned off Latino voters: The insensitive language (“self-deportation,” anyone?) minorities hear from Republican presidential candidates, and their backers like Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Most Asian Americans got here through immigration at some time or another – two of three are foreign-born. So even though Republicans may have brown faces wading across the Rio Grande in mind when they bash immigrants, it also does not set well with Asians, either.

In addition, some GOP candidates have engaged in stupid, mocking racial stereotyping of Asians. Failed Michigan U.S. Senate candidate Pete Hoekstra, for example, ran an ad during the Super Bowl last year that showed an Asian woman on a bicycle purportedly in some faraway rice field, thanking Hoekstra’s opponent, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, in broken English for weakening the U.S. economy so “ours get stronger.” The ad was designated one of the worst ads of 2012 by The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, and caused a major backlash among Asian groups. Even the American actress who was used in the ad publicly apologized for allowing herself to be used in such a fashion.

Also, unlike Latinos, who are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, with many of those who are not Catholic joining evangelical denominations, other than Filipinos (who are overwhelmingly Catholic), most Asians do not come from Christian countries, but rather places dominated by Buddhism, Hinduism, Daoism, Shintoism, Sikhism, Islam and other non-Western faiths. Hence, the GOP emphasis on the United States being a “Christian country” and talking about “Christian roots” and “our Christian forefathers” sounds exclusionary and biased to a lot of Asian ears. Keep God on our currency, as Romney promised? There is no god in Buddhism, Shintoism or Daoism, and although Sikhs are monotheistic, the amorphous deity they revere would not be recognizable to any Christian.

But perhaps the most underrated reason is that the Republican mantra of no-new-taxes, cut-government-to-the-bone simply doesn’t resonate with many Asians. A majority of them, or their families, came from Asian countries with strong central governments, including in some cases Communist dictatorships, military rulers and one-party states.

While some immigrants may have seen their particular form or quality of government as a reason to leave their country of origin, the notion that all government at all levels is bad, that all taxes are bad, and that hands-off, lassez faire policies are always better than government oversight, is simply not a notion they buy into. Here in California in November, for example, 65 percent of Asians voted for the successful tax-increase measure, Proposition 30, placed on the ballot by Gov. Jerry Brown – a much higher percentage than whites or even Latinos.

Obama may have been helped among Asian voters by being the first American president to have lived and attended school in Asia (Indonesia), to have a half-Asian sister and to have had an Asian stepfather. But Democrats scored some other notable successes on Election Day that added to their pantheon of Asian American firsts. Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii is the first Asian American woman in the Senate, along with the first practicing Buddhist. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is the first Samoan and Hindu in the Congress, while Illinois Rep. Tammy Duckworth is the first Thai American. Rep. Ami Bera from California is only the third Asian Indian elected to Congress (the first also was from California), and California Rep. Mark Takano, the first openly gay Asian member.

So while the Republican pooh-bahs wring their hands and cogitate over how to appeal to and reverse their disastrous performance with Latinos, they have another simmering ethnic crisis on their hands among Asian Americans. They will ignore it at their own peril.

And it’s probably only a matter of time before some nativist, anti-immigrant GOP yahoo refers to it as the “yellow peril.”

Garry South is a long-time Democratic strategist and commentator living in Los Angeles.