Political Animal


December 02, 2012 5:04 PM Why do Asian Americans vote so heavily Democratic? Political science research has some answers

By Kathleen Geier

One of the more surprising voting trends in American politics over the past two decades is the dramatic shift of Asian Americans toward the Democratic Party. Only 31% of the Asian American electorate voted for Bill Clinton in 1992, but 73% supported Barack Obama in 2012. What accounts for this change? Working with data from the National Asian American Survey, two political scientists, Karthick Ramakrishnan of the University of California, Riverside and Taeku Lee of the University of California, Berkeley, have some answers.

The professors reject a variety of explanations that have recently been offered. No, it’s apparently not because, as David Brooks proposed, Asian American voters are less individualistic or less antagonistic toward government than are other Americans. Nor is it, as Andrew Gelman hypothesized, because they are more likely to reside in blue states. Richard Posner’s argument that newer voting groups support incumbent parties is similarly dismissed, as is Charles Murray’s idea that Democratic economic policies have nothing to do with Asian Americans’ support.

Rather, say the professors, there are are cluster of “push and pull” factors that seem to be drawing Asian Americans towards the Democrats and away from the Republicans. Some of the pull factors: Asian Americans like President Obama’s policies on health care, education, and the Iraq War. They also appreciate that Obama has appointed a record number of Asian Americans to high office, including such nominations as Goodwin Liu for the U.S. Court of Appeals, Jim Yong Kim as head of the World Bank, and Steven Chu as Secretary of Energy. Those appointments have received a great deal of attention in Asian American media outlets.

As for the “push factors”: well, the Republican’s anti-immigrant bias and its alliance with the Christian right are not doing them any favors so far as Asian Americans are concerned.

Personally, I believe that the “push” factors may have gone deeper than we will ever know. During the past four years especially, Asian Americans, like every other nonwhite group in America, clearly received the overwhelming message from Republicans that: “You’re not welcome here. You don’t belong.” It stung. It’s worth noting that not a single prominent Republican ever stood up to Limbaugh and the other racist, xenophobic bullies in the party. The targets of those bullies’ wrath will never forget that. The Republican party will be spending the next decade or two at least repairing the damage.

Over at Josh Marshall’s blog, he’s recently published some fascinating emails he’s received from Asian Americans and others from immigrant backgrounds about why they so strongly support President Obama and have been so profoundly disgusted by the Republicans. I’ve pasted and copied one of them in full, which you can read after the jump. I strongly urge that you do so. It’s quite powerful.

Josh’s blog posts recently from TPM readers JT, JB, and KE struck a nerve with me, especially the one from KE on being Asian-American and taking it personally when Republicans and conservatives attacked Obama. I am Indian-American, born and raised in Iowa (my childhood in Ames and Marshalltown and college years back to Ames) to immigrant parents. Obama’s heritage and identity as a racial minority is a big deal to me, no question, and was an attraction to me in 2007…he is the only Presidential candidate ever to get my money in a contested nomination fight, before he was the presumed nominee.
There is no question the Obama Presidency has exposed a lot of racism and xenophobia and religious bigotry among Republicans and conservatives, disturbingly more than I would’ve guessed. PPP was mocked early on in 2011 for their polls testing whether GOP primary voters in various states believed Obama was born in the U.S., whether he was a citizen, whether he was a Muslim…even whether he was the anti-Christ! At first I was dismissive of the some of the results because I’m well-aware that people are willing to give ridiculous answers to ridiculous questions. But then after one GOP Presidential primary debate, Frank Luntz on Fox News had a majority of Iowa GOP focus group members raise their hands in earnest when he asked, in earnest, whether they believed Obama was a Muslim. And as time went on, it became clear in other polling that PPP early on was on to more than just snarky telephone survey replies, there really is a disturbingly large percentage of Republicans who are openly hostile to Obama specifically because of his race, his national origin, and his partial religious ancestry. That GOP electeds from Boehner to McConnell to all the GOP Presidential candidates were unwilling to call out any of it just reinforced the point, since it established they were afraid because these people were a very large part of the GOP base. You don’t worry about calling out your own party’s cranks in public if they’re marginal figures whose votes you don’t need and don’t think you’ll lose because they have no other options…Republican candidates and electeds know that they can lose primaries for openly challenging racial and other bigoted hostility toward Obama. And all this is very personal to me. When I was a small child in Ames, Iowa, in my immigrant family, neighborhood teenagers assaulted our home regularly, pelting fruit and whatever else at our house. Several times my dad had the police come and lecture this group of kids. It was all about race, and these kids’ parents did nothing. So when Mitt Romney in a Michigan stump speech snarks that no one asked him for his birth certificate, and his GOP allies defend the racism as “just a joke,” when so many GOP federal and state electeds endorse or tacitly condone questioning of Obama’s citizenry and engage in other dog whistle racism, these are always personal attacks equally on me…if Obama is not an American and does not legitimately belong, then they’re saying the same about me. I imagine I’m not alone, that people of color across the board see what I see, and the election results confirm this. It’s striking to me, and IMO underreported, that Obama clearly lost great amounts of white support in Florida and indeed his 37% in the exit poll with Florida whites has always been disastrous…and yet he wins the state with an absolute majority. It’s striking to me that the national exit poll has not only people of color increasing to 28% of the total, but also that it has both Hispanics and Asians giving over 70% to Obama. These things tell me that people of color across the board see what I see, an appalling racism and xenophobia in the Republican Party that is enraging. Sadly, the early signs of the post-election period show only continued GOP hostility, even more bitterness and resentment than before. I do believe that Obama and Senate Democrats are going to play hardball these next few months on Senate rules and the most immediate legislative issues of the budget and taxes and debt ceiling, and it will make me happy. That will be necessary, because it appears that Congressional Republicans are remaining adamant in their unwillingness to deal with a black President as an equal to previous white Presidents. That might change out of necessity, but for the time being federal Democratic electeds will simply have to bring the hammer down. The next key test for Republicans will be immigration reform: will resentment and bitterness overwhelm their recent recognition of the need to try to bend toward the demands of immigrant communities? I actually suspect yes, it will. They’re bitter toward losing and now will become only more bitter and intransigent after getting forced into budget and tax legislation they hate, and getting steamrolled on Senate rules. My next big electoral hope is that more people of color wake up and realize the importance of voting in non-Presidential elections, meaning the federal midterms and in places like Virginia where I live the odd-year state-level elections. Outsized minority turnout in 2014 might still be needed to make national Republicans feel compelled to change their ways, as I’m not sure this election will ultimately be enough. Thanks for indulging my rant, this particular topic strikes a very personal nerve and these recent posts on TPM meant a lot to me.
Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • TCinLA on December 02, 2012 6:30 PM:

    The Republicans here in California set themselves on the road to their current position of Official Irrelevancy back in 1994 when they supported Proposition 187. They're doing the same thing now nationally with idiots like Limpdick and Steve King saying "ignore 'em!" regarding Latinos and such.

    Couldn't happen to a scummier bunch of scum. Tough luck, assholes.

  • Tyro on December 02, 2012 7:49 PM:

    In retrospect, claiming that a president with a foreign-born parent who had traveled extensively abroad and worked and struggled to get accepted to high prestige universities was not a "real American" was not going to endear Asian-Americans to Republicans. Who knew?

  • earthworx on December 02, 2012 7:58 PM:

    The abovementioned post from the TPM blog eloquently states my feelings on the republican party. I too found their treatment of Obama and Justice Sotomayor infuriating. A large portion of their base are racist/xenophobic/homophobic. They define themselves by their hatred, it started with blacks, gays and liberals and has come to spread to anyone who is not like themselves or shares their hatred. People of color must vote, every time and for every election, even if it is an election for city dogcatcher. Until we do, the republican party will never change its ways.

  • Nancy Cadet on December 02, 2012 8:00 PM:

    And the GOP candidates' and surrogates' persistent downgrading of Barack & Michelle Obama's careers, intelligence and educational achievements (as well as that of Susan Rice, for example) are another instance of GOP overt racism. That doesn't go over well with people who put a high value on education as a route to social advancement and acceptance in mainstream, ie, white-/native-born society.
    So you or your kid graduates from Princeton or Harvard , and the rubes mock and jeer? Swell.

  • Don K on December 02, 2012 8:06 PM:

    As I've already mentioned on a couple of other forums, a few days after the election my partner had an appointment with a doctor who is from South Asia. Her opinion of the Republicans was, "It's really very simple. Republicans just really don't like brown-skinned people."

  • liam foote on December 02, 2012 8:09 PM:

    I spent most of my foreign service career in the ASEAN region, involved in programs for Vietnamese, Thai, Lao, Hmong, Cambodian, Burmese and others, and assisted in programs administered by ISEAS, the Institute for SE Asian Studies at the University of Singapore. A family friend, Dr. HM Giao, a Sino-Vietnamese naturalized US citizen to whom I refer as “uncle” offered to provide a general statement on results of the 2012 election on behalf of his friends and colleagues in the Asian community, as follows:

    As an Asian I am pleased to review statistics on US education and prosperity. Census data show that for educational level (percent of population with BA+) among the top-ranked 20 states, there are 15 Blue, 3 Red and 2 Swing. The lowest-ranked 20 states comprise 15 Red, 2 Blue and 3 Swing. Per capita income shows similar results, with most top-ranked Blue and most low-ranked Red. While such results can only be based upon aggregate data, the trends seem quite clear to many of us.

    I certainly cannot speak for all Asians, but I can assure readers that a great many of us prefer Blue states where we can find similar levels of education and prosperity, and not just on a statistical basis. Frankly, as is the case with minorities in general, Asians often tend to not feel as if they are being made particularly welcome in Red states, other than perhaps in university cities. We recognize the code words and phrases that denigrate every minority and insult the intelligence of all Americans. We will likely continue to inhabit Blue states and vote accordingly. Thank you.

  • g on December 02, 2012 8:22 PM:

  • CalGal on December 02, 2012 8:24 PM:

    It's definitely the "push" factor, at least for me. I'm Asian American and as long as the Republican Party keeps making me feel like some "other," instead of someone who was born here and is a contributing member to my community, then they're not ever getting my vote again.

    BTW, when I began voting back in 1986 I was a registered Republican. I saw what the Republicans did to GHW Bush when he did the right thing and raised taxes. I saw Newt Gingrich and the House Republicans shut down the federal government. I saw GW Bush started the war in Iraq after 9/11 on false pretenses. I heard Mitch McConnell say that his goal was to make President Obama a one term president and watched the Republicans in Congress do anything they could to keep the federal government and our economy from functioning. Just how dumb do Republicans have to be to think that people will just forget all the crap that they've pulled over the years?

    And, may be that's the crux of the matter. Asian Americans value education and fairness. When one of the political parties advocates ignorance, racism, and ideology, that's just going to rub many of us the wrong way.

  • Charles on December 02, 2012 9:25 PM:

    I've heard that Asian Americans are more likely to be particularly sensitive to the claims that Obama is not an American. One prejudice that's particularly acute with regards to Asian Americans is that no matter how long their families have been in this country, they're not *really* Americans, but instead Asians first. There's a default bigoted assumption that Asian Americans have a harder time, or may even be hostile to, assimilating into American society. This is especially the case when they haven't Anglicanized their names. Keisuke Kamihara can't possibly be American, or he'd be named Kevin, or something. It doesn't matter if his ancestors came to this country 170 years ago. He's not really an American.

    With the possible exception of Latinos, no other minority group faces this intense kind of bigotry, and this is exactly the kind of thing that Obama faces from the birthers.

  • Alan in Boise on December 02, 2012 9:42 PM:

    I'm an old white guy who volunteered twice and voted twice for President Obama. I'm offended by the way the Republicans have treated our President; they wouldn't have treated a white guy that way. It reveals a level of overt racism and disrespect for other people that I thought we had gotten past in this country. I can only imagine how Americans of color must feel and I'm really glad we kicked their ----s in the election!

  • Fess on December 02, 2012 10:33 PM:

    Just wait until the Democrats run a woman for president. Think of all the ugliness that's been slung at Nancy Pelosi, Susan Rice, Sonia Sotomayor, and Sandra Fluke. Can you imagine the vicious sexist tirades that will be aimed at a woman who aspires to be president?

  • Citizen Alan on December 02, 2012 11:05 PM:

    There was an excellent comment over at Balloon Juice that sums this up perfectly. In relevant part:

    Barack and Michelle Obama are the EPITOME of the American Dream.

    They are what EVERYONE who wasn’t born RICH in this country, and can’t dribble some sort of athletic ball is told to do: Go to school. Excel. Work your ass off.

    Nobody is saying that you’ll become President.
    But, if you aren’t born rich, this is the way to middle-class success at the very least.

    The GOP continually disrespected this self-made man and his wife….but, the only people who noticed were Black folks, and we were told we were being ’ too sensitive’, and it was in ’ our imaginations’.

    The highest educated populace in this country is the Asian-American community. They value those pieces of paper like nobody’s business.

    You don’t think they noticed…

    That being President of the Harvard Law Review – is a spectacular achievement… Until Barack Obama won the Presidency of the Harvard Law Review.

    Graduating Magna Cum Laude used to be a spectacular achievement…Until Barack Obama graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard Law School…..which of course, means he got his degree in crayon at the ’ Black Entrance’.

    How PHI BETA KAPPA meant something…Until the PHI BETTA KAPPA from PRINCETON that also won the PRIZE FOR TOP STUDENT…was a LATINA...A LATINA judge that had more judicial experience than any other nominee for the Supreme Court in SEVENTY YEARS…Suddenly…she became an ’ Affirmative Action Pick’.

    Seriously…..you don’t think folks noticed that?

    You don’t think the Asian community noticed the disrespect from the Senate towards Dr. Steven Chu- not only a PhD, but a NOBEL LAUREATE?


  • jcricket on December 03, 2012 2:04 AM:

    A lot of folks from a lot of ethnic backgrounds, including Caucasian, noticed. A lot of folks from a lot of ethnic backgrounds were rubbed the wrong way.

    I'm hoping we are on a roll, and we can beat this xenophobia into the shadows where in the next generation or so, it will be a shameful bit of history.

    I've lived to see a someone other than a white man become president. I've lived to see Marriage Equality becoming the law of the land faster than I'd thought possible. I've even lived to see marijuana become legal as a recreational drug in my own state.

    I'm making it a point to live to see xenophobia put into the dustbin of history.

    Call me an optimist. But I'm a damned determined one.

  • bluestatedon on December 03, 2012 5:49 AM:

    So the political party whose base is dominated by people who believe that evolution and embryology are Satanic bunk, that climate change is a liberal conspiracy, and that Adam and Eve had vegetarian dinosaurs for neighbors in the Garden of Eden 5,000 years ago is shunned by ethnic and cultural segments of our citizenry who place a supreme importance on education, learning, fact, and science?

    Who could have guessed.

  • T-Rex on December 03, 2012 7:51 AM:

    An editorial in The New Republic back in 1994 called this absolutely correctly. Proposition 187, they predicted, was a political "disaster, turkey shoot, rout" for the GOP, and would go down in history as the event that alienated an important voting bloc that had been reliably Republican, alienating those voters for at least a generation. Count me as an income-tax-paying WASP who grew up in a Republican family and left the party for much the same reasons, especially the feminist-baiting and "family values" dog whistles against women from the Reagan era onward.

  • dd on December 03, 2012 10:01 AM:

    As an Asian I agree with everything the letter writer said. As a woman I have an added layer of hatred and contempt for the republicans. Barak Obama, is a highly educated man with an intelligent wife and is the true representation of the American dream. Yet, there is an entire news organization devoted to Obama hatred. A loving gesture is a "terrorist fist bump", Glen Beck and the "deep seated hatred of white people" comment and his constant fear mongering against the president. Shirly Sherod and Van Jones witch hunt, Rush and the "magic Negro" song, the constant reference to socialism and communism (without a clue as to what the terms actually mean), fictitious outrage over death panels, all because he wants to secure health insurance for millions of uninsured. Of course there is the birth certificate saga going on relentlessly for the last 4 yrs, with the ever offensive Donald Trump putting the icing on the cake with his demands for the president's transcripts. I could go on and on. A lot of it would not have mattered if republican leaders had come out strongly against this nonsense. But they chose not to speak out and many many times joined in. Peter King and the anti muslim crusade, Steve King and the anti immigrant hatred, Bob McDonnell, Tom Corbett with their forced ultrasounds and the anti woman crusade. Newt and the "food stamp president". Not to mention that they are anti-science, anti-environment, anti-poor and the openly mock knowledge and learning and label it elitist.
    And yet they wonder why Asians and other non-whites won't vote for them and think it's because Obama promised us "gifts".
    I would say one thing to the republicans and their propaganda channel. Asians, Latinos and African-Americans are not are not deaf or blind.

  • AgentS on December 03, 2012 10:45 AM:

    I think what really sealed the deal was those terrible ads in Michigan, run against Debbie Stabenow by Hoekstra. He calls her "Debbie spend-it-now" and is about Chinese outsourcing, but filmed in a Vietnam rice patty. You gotta see it to believe it- it's like a modern day Willie Horton ad.
    Unlike the Horton ad, this ad wrecked Hoekstra's campaign and pissed off Asians here and abroad.

    Expect the Repubs to try more of the same next time. They haven't learned their lesson. They're assholes; that's how they roll.

  • James M on December 03, 2012 11:14 AM:


    Congratulations! This might be the best post & comment thread I have seen on PA.

    I don't want to trivialize it, but watching Mitt Romney's campaign and the constant dog whistles of his surrogates (My favorite was "Taking America back") I was constantly reminded of a scene from the Deep Space Nine chapter of the Star Trek series. In a climatic scene, a rebel general from the planet Cardassia kills a close friend who can not accept working together with former enemies in Star Fleet against a new threat.

    He said, "He was my friend, but his Cardassia is dead, and it won't be coming back."

    Similarly, the GOP's America is also 'dead', and it won't be coming back.

  • Daniel Kim on December 03, 2012 1:58 PM:

    ". . . as David Brooks proposed, Asian American voters are less individualistic or less antagonistic toward government than are other Americans."

    Brooks definitely puts the 'anal' into "analysis," doesn't he?

    So those Asian-Americans are a bunch of deferential, group-compliant clones? Do tell . . .

  • Patricia Kayden on December 03, 2012 5:10 PM:

    That's a powerful letter. As a Black female (of Jamaican descent), I agree with its sentiments entirely. I actually don't care if the Republican party continues to wallow in xenophobia, homophobia and racism. That will continue the rise of the Democratic party for years to come.

    You would think that losing in 2012 so decisively would make Republicans change, but I doubt it. Perhaps a few more losses will get their attention and force them to tone it down.

  • Wally on December 03, 2012 5:19 PM:

    I agree with JamesM that this may be one of the best, certainly most informing, comment threads I have seen. I am a liberal white male professional in multi racial Nor Cal; while I do have non white colleagues and friends, we don't talk politics much. This thread has really hit me over the head that all the race baiting by the Republicans has in fact deeply offended 10s of millions.

    But let's not let Mitt off. He was for self deportation. He kept claiming Barack Obama did not think or act like an "American." He joked that he knew where his birth certificate was. He kept referring to Obama's respect for other cultures as "apologizing." Mitt bought in to the dog whistle racism and from what I can see here, it did him in.

    Thank you posters for the comments.

  • Terry on December 03, 2012 7:29 PM:

    I'm of Asian-American descent, upper income, with an advanced degree in science. The letter posted in the article rang very true for me, too. I tend to be fiscally conservative, which makes me seem like a natural Republican. But the GOP has made it clear they don't want anything to do with my ilk -- i.e., anyone who's not White and Christian. As a college student, decades ago, I voted Republican. But since then, the GOP has made me feel like an unmentionable, someone they'd never allow into their country clubs.

    Because of the GOP's attitude, I've chosen to open my wallet to the Democratic party. I've given generously and often. I (and many other Asians) identify with the trials and tribulations of Barack Obama. We respect his education and his struggles as a minority. We may not agree with all his policies, but in his face, we see ourselves.

    If the GOP continues to exclude and insult Asian Americans, it will never see our votes or our donations. They've decided anyone who's not white is not a real American; now they can deal with the consequences.

  • imamerican on December 04, 2012 2:45 AM:

    It's hypocritical and wrong for Asians to wag their fingers and shout xenophobia at Americans given how restrictive immigration is in their ancestral countries and how foreigners who don't look like them no matter how long they've been there are always considered foreign. But that's something they don't want to hear. It's supposed to be a fact of life and we need to get used to it. The ONLY reason Asians are for "fairness" in this country is because it benefits them. In their ancestral homelands they want nothing of fairness.

  • terry on December 04, 2012 7:40 AM:

    Imamerican, guess what? I'M an AMERICAN, too. My family's been here three generations, my dad was an American GI in Germany in WWII, and my ancestral country IS the United States of America. So don't you dare tell me I should look to my "home country" and feel grateful. This IS my home country.

    As for wanting fairness because it "benefits me," how about just plain fairness? Or are you saying that "fairness" is wrong in your eyes?

  • RichS on December 05, 2012 2:50 PM:

    To: Alan in Boise

    I'm Chinese American and so glad to here you say that. My dad serviced in WW II & as a result the family arrived in USA afterwards. Few people know or can imagine the prejudices that was shown to us. Btw I also served during the Vietnam Era(didn't go there). The Republicans are NOT an inclusive party. When I watch Fox News it makes me uncomfortable. Let's face it the party has been taken over by the extreme right-wingers,... Tea party & who knows what other groups.
    If they don't move to the center they will win again. I also believe if Hillary runs she will win.

  • RichS on December 05, 2012 2:57 PM:

    To: Alan in Boise

    I meant also to that I thought that very old & white person was anti-Obama. Unfortunately I see this in my church.

    I totally empathize with the Indian American who grew up in mid-west. There is no doubt there is less prejudice today then it was in 1950-60s its seem it is there hiding.

  • RichS on December 05, 2012 3:12 PM:

    To: Alan in Boise

    I meant also to say that I thought that very old & white person was anti-Obama. Unfortunately I see this in my church. They like me but sometimes I do wonder?

    I totally empathize with the Indian American who grew up in mid-west. There is no doubt there is less prejudice today then it was in 1950-60s its seem it is there hiding.

  • KE on December 05, 2012 6:13 PM:

    To: "imamerican"

    If you are speaking as a white person, you are a discredit to your race.

    You may think that as a white Anglo, you are the star of this show called America. I have something tell you however. The rest of us --- we will not be your sidekicks, we not be your supporting cast, we will not be the magic negroes or the magic Asians or the spiritual natives or comic relief. We are not here to serve quietly in the background to make yourself feel better about yourself, to make your life more interesting with a wider variety of restaurants, or to ply our skills to improve your bottom line.

    This is our country as much as yours. We will take the power that belongs to us, thank you. You can work with us, and you can work for us. We will take the leadership positions economically and politically that are due us and the respect that is due us as human beings and as Americans. You have no more time for excuses. Welcome to real America.