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Chinese American Voters: A Curiously Overlooked Demographic

Apr 01, 2016

The 2016 presidential primary races have once again highlighted the effect that race has had on political outcomes in the United States. Nonwhite voters have made Hillary Clinton the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party, delivering more primary delegates thus far than Senator Bernie Sanders’ largely white base. An “autopsy report” of the 2012 election, commissioned by the Republican National Committee, found that the party needed significant minority voter outreach to compete with Democrats. As candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz double down on xenophobia, the prognosis for 2016 is even worse.

Though both contests have put the spotlight on race in America, Asian Americans have gone strangely overlooked. While African Americans and Hispanics still represent the largest minority groups in the United States, there are 18 million Asian Americans and their numbers are increasing faster than those of any demographic. Though America’s Asians hail from dozens of different countries and a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, the nearly five million Chinese-Americans have become a major population in their own right.

One reason for the massive growth seen in the Asian American population is immigration. Pew Research Center reports that over 70 percent of Asian Americans aged 18 and up are foreign born, and mainly from China. Foreign origins might typically mean that a demographic is up for grabs, or at least open to the ideas of either major political party. Pew reports that Asian Americans emphasize family values and working hard to get ahead, which are two predictably conservative talking points. Asian American voting behavior has become overwhelmingly liberal, however, and if Republicans know why, they haven’t done anything about it.

Exit polls point to a leftward shift in Asian American voting patterns over the last six presidential election cycles. In 1992, only 31 percent of Asian American voters supported Bill Clinton, edging out even white voters as the single most conservative bloc in the election. The pattern was turned upside down in only twenty years; 71 percent of Asian Americans voted for Barack Obama in 2012, making them the second-most racial group after African Americans.

Though Asian American support for Democrats has been noted in media coverage, journalists and politicians have referenced the group in monolithic terms. Political strategists have collected ample data to analyze the differences in voting patterns between sub-demographics like Cuban Americans and Mexican Americans, but the nuances of Asian American voting behavior remain curiously unstudied. According to Pew, more than half of Asian Americans identify strongly with their family’s country of origin, and that could complicate things as political candidates wade into the discussion of Asia policy on the campaign trail.

Mentions of China during the 2016 presidential race have been both numerous and unsubstantive. Though some former candidates like Dr. Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina called for cooperation with China in conducting North Korean diplomacy, the majority of Republican rhetoric this year has been antagonistic. It’s unclear how much Chinese American voters care about Donald Trump’s proposal for tariffs on Chinese goods, but they bristled at the Republicans’ more xenophobic messaging: Jeb Bush’s claim that anchor babies are mostly Asian drew the ire of Asian American politicians and media. It should be noted that while Republicans have been by and large more overtly anti-China than Democrats, Bernie Sanders has cited a trade imbalance and echoed 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney in accusing China of currency manipulation.

Asian Americans are still too small a group to exert significant influence on the outcomes of national political contests. Several states with rapidly growing Asian American populations could become more predictably liberal during the 2020s — Nevada, New Hampshire, and even Texas are already showing signs of bluing in some areas. In most cases, Asian Americans represent only a marginal edge for Democrats in general elections, and hardly enough of one to shape campaign strategy. But the geographic distribution of Asian American voters — and Chinese Americans in particular — will begin to shape Democratic primary elections in the next few years.

The United States’ largest concentrations of Chinese Americans can be found in California and New York, by far the two largest contests among Democratic presidential primaries. In New York, Asian Americans already account for nearly nine percent of the population, and Chinese Americans comprise the lion’s share. In California, Asian Americans are already the second-largest racial minority group after Hispanics; Chinese Americans alone are approaching parity with the state’s African American population.

California and New York award 548 and 281 Democratic delegates, respectively. Democratic presidential candidates can and have been decided on the support of voters from those states, and their Chinese American voters will only continue to gain strategic importance,  particularly during prolonged races like the one between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Assuming racial voter representation proportional to population, the Asian Americans of New York and California command a larger slice of primary delegates than the whole state of Colorado — Chinese Americans are the largest subset of that group.

Political strategists may not yet fully grasp the significance Chinese American voters will have in coming elections. Vote for vote, they may be the most under-analyzed bloc in American politics. China-related messaging from both parties has been scattered, providing limited examples and talking points for economic and foreign policy discussions and rarely ever drawing connections to Chinese American voters. Republicans will continue to lose the Asian American vote if they don’t reshape their stances on immigration, trade policy and defense. Democrats can expect to keep the Asian American vote in general elections, but candidates for internal races will perform better if they court Asian Americans for the party coalition. To do so, Democratic politicians will have to develop a deeper understanding of various Asian American groups, and Chinese Americans chiefly among them.

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