In the 2014 midterm elections, 49 percent of Asian American voters backed a Democratic House candidate, according to exit polls. In 2018, that number shot up to 77 percent.
It was a massive surge — and it’s a trend that’s been building for some time: As the Republican Party has moved to the right, especially on issues like immigration, Asian American voters are increasingly aligning themselves with Democrats. Since 2016, Trump’s presidency has only amplified this shift, with the White House’s focus on anti-immigrant policy putting voters off even more.
Efforts to restrict H-1B visas, ongoing attacks on undocumented immigrants (roughly 1.7 million of whom are Asian) and attempts to add a citizenship question to the US census are just a few of the administration’s policies that have hurt Republicans’ standing with Asian American voters, according to Columbia University sociology professor Van Tran.
While far from all Asian Americans feel this way — there’s a contingent that continues to back both Donald Trump and the GOP — a majority disapprove of his presidency.
“All signs point to a heightened level of interest in politics and a pushback against the Trump administration among Asian Americans,” says Karthick Ramakrishnan, a UC Riverside political science professor who runs a survey on Asian American voters. In addition to the policies Trump has proposed, “there’s the rhetoric that ranges from racially insensitive to outright racist that Trump has employed,” Ramakrishnan notes.
One of the fastest-growing racial groups in the US, comprising about 4 percent of the electorate and more than 15 ethnicities, Asian Americans are no monolithic voting bloc. In a 2018 study by APIA Vote and AAPI Data, for example, 48 percent of Filipino and Vietnamese Americans said they had a favorable perception of the Republican Party, compared to just 14 percent of Japanese Americans.
On the whole, however, Asian Americans’ affinity toward Democrats has grown more prominent.
The dynamic could have major implications for the 2020 election, when Asian Americans could play a pivotal role in picking a Democratic nominee and solidifying congressional majorities. For that to happen, though, candidates must make a concerted effort to target these voters, and acknowledge their power.
Anti-immigration rhetoric by Republicans has pushed Asian American voters to the left for decades. Trump took it further.
Asian American voters have been steadily moving toward the Democratic Party in the past two decades: In 1992, the first year broader data was collected about Asian American voting patterns, 55 percent went for George H.W. Bush instead of Bill Clinton. That’s in stark contrast with the 2016 election, when 65 percent chose Hillary Clinton over Trump.
As Ramakrishnan has written alongside UC Berkeley political science professor Taeku Lee, this trend is the result of both the Republican Party “pushing” voters away with increasingly hardline immigration rhetoric and Democrats “pulling” voters in with more inclusive policies and greater representation among lawmakers.
“It’s really difficult to be a moderate Republican these days especially on issues like immigration,” Ramakrishnan notes. “We have seen evidence of a firming up of party identification of voters over time.”
Recent elections, including Trump’s, have only bolstered this trend.
“What we saw in 2016 and 2018 is what we call a crystallization of partisanship among Asian American Democrats,” Ramakrishnan says.
And even though a sizable fraction — almost 40 percent — of Asian American voters still don’t identify with either party, Trump’s presidency helped convince more of those in the middle to vote Democratic, at least in the recent midterms.
“I believe the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Trump has struck a nerve among Asian American voters who are moderate-leaning or swing voters,” James Lai, an ethnic studies professor at Santa Clara University, told Vox.
Immigration, though not necessarily voters’ top issue compared to subjects like health care and economic policy, is one that’s long served as a key flashpoint for Asian Americans, many of whom are immigrants themselves.
“Since 1996, when Gov. Wilson enacted anti-immigration laws, that’s when we saw a shift of Asian American voters from Republicans to Democrats,” says Christine Chen, the executive director of APIAVote, an advocacy group dedicated to Asian voter outreach.
That year, California Gov. Pete Wilson signed a statewide executive order that prevented undocumented immigrants from accessing publicly funded services like housing assistance, a move he had previously championed via a ballot initiative called Proposition 187.
As a chart from Pew Research shows, the proportion of Asian American voters who are registered Democrats has continued to climb while the proportion of registered Republicans has declined in the years since.
Asian American voters played a key role during the midterms, though both parties still have a lot of work to do when it comes to outreach
Asian American support for Democrats could have massive implications for 2020: Not only are they one of the fastest-growing voter demographics, they’re also an increasingly pivotal one in battleground states like Virginia, Nevada, and Arizona.
According to AAPI Data, Asian American voters already make up more than 10 percent of the eligible voting population in California and Hawaii, and more than 5 percent in a slew of other states including Nevada, New Jersey, and New York. In 2018, their support proved crucial for a number of races, and in 2020, that could well be the case again.
“They were often the swing voters in key battleground/purple states just like the 2016 elections,” Lai says. “These states include Nevada and Virginia, two states with large [Asian American] growth.”
In both states, as well as in places like suburban New Jersey and Southern California, Asian American voters comprise a sizable segment of the population that’s only expected to keep on growing.
Members of the community, however, say Democrats cannot count on consistent levels of support unless the party builds on its outreach efforts.
“In general, our community is very much up for grabs, in terms of party outreach,” says APIA Vote’s Jennifer Baik.
As Vox’s Ella Nilsen reported last fall, Asian American voter turnout has historically been low, and because of this, there’s long been a self-fulfilling feedback loop: Campaigns don’t reach out because they expect low returns, and Asian American voters don’t turn out because of limited political outreach.
In 2018, however, given how competitive many House races were, outreach — especially by Democrats — improved.
And that paid off: An Asian American Decisions study conducted around the 2018 midterms found that 52 percent of Asian voters thought the Democratic Party was doing an effective job reaching out to voters, while just 23 percent felt the same about the Republican Party. (Still, the survey suggests that almost half of the Asian American voters polled did not think that either party was doing a positive job.)
Such outreach was likely reflected in the outcome last year as well. In California’s Orange County, for example, Asian Americans voters helped make the difference in closely contested districts that flipped from Republican to Democrat. And Asian American voter turnout was up 13 percent that year compared to 2014, one of the biggest jumps among any demographic group.
“What we saw in the 2018 midterms was that Asian Americans were more likely to live in competitive districts because the battleground districts expanded significantly in 2018,” Ramakrishnan says. “We saw improvements between our 2014 data and our 2018 data in terms of the extent to where there’s outreach and a lot of that was driven by this competitive outreach.”
APIA Vote’s Chen says she’s observed comparable efforts taking place on a statewide level. “Especially the last three presidential cycles, we’ve seen a lot more attention on Asian American voters in Nevada and Virginia because they were purple, toss-up states,” she said.
Two 2018 House races offer a road map for Democratic candidates courting Asian-American voters
Outreach to Asian American voters will be vital to maintain backing for Democratic congressional candidates in 2020 — and for Democratic presidential candidates as they compete for the party’s nomination.
When it comes to the primary, Asian American voters comprise sizable blocs in both California and Nevada, two of the early Democratic primary states, and could help play a deciding role in who the nominee winds up being.
“California is going to be a big state to show the power of Asian American voters. It’s moved up in the primary calendar to March and one out of every six voters in California is Asian American,” Ramakrishnan says.
A few House races in 2018 could also offer blueprints for candidates trying to connect with a wide-ranging Asian American audience. The lesson, Baik says, is targeted outreach.
That, in part, was how first-term Rep. Gil Cisneros won California’s 39th Congressional District, beating out California Assembly member Young Kim by a very narrow margin. Roughly a third of voters in the district are Asian American, representing a diverse array of backgrounds, and his campaign was able to successfully turn out a high number of them.
“You have Chinese, you have Taiwanese, you have Filipino, you have Korean American. And each of those communities have their own issues they would grapple with,” says Cisneros’s former campaign manager and now chief of staff, Nic Jordan.
Jordan helped build a strategy that would target each of these voting groups, which relied heavily on developing campaign materials in different languages, while using key social media platforms that are popular with Chinese and Korean Americans such as WeChat and KakaoTalk. The campaign also took out ads in publications that are well-known among members of the Asian community, including World Journal, a Chinese-language newspaper.
“We had a physical staffer who could talk to each of those communities,” he said. “I think the biggest barrier is that you need someone who is fluent and can write. It’s all in-language.”
Several states away, Sri Kulkarni’s campaign was using similar methods to reach out to members of Texas’s 22nd Congressional District. These efforts were inspired by the campaign’s diverse volunteer network and staff, says staffer Ali Hasanali. Kulkarni’s campaign wound up reaching constituents in 16 languages.
Both saw marked results.
In Kulkarni’s case, 28 percent of Asian voters participated in the Democratic primary in 2018, compared to just 6 percent in 2014.
Both Jordan and Hasanali offered similar advice for candidates seeking to mobilize Asian American voters in 2020: put in the time to connect with the community in the places and platforms that they frequented most.
“A top-down approach to something like this is very difficult because every local community is different,” Hasanali says.
“Don’t take them for granted,” Jordan says. “Spend the money on translations, hire a diverse staff that could talk to them, make the investments like any campaign.”
The two campaigns both brought in more voters who may have been less engaged in elections in the past, and sought out potential swing voters. As Allen Chen, Cisneros’s director of Asian American outreach, told the Los Angeles Times, the campaign’s outreach was the first time many voters had ever heard directly from a political candidate.
Replicating those efforts across the country in 2020 could lead to gains for Democrats, a key win from an electoral perspective — and it could mean more Asian American involvement in politics as a whole, a major victory from a civic one.