The Gathering Power Of The Asian American Vote

In every statistical analysis of Tuesday’s remarkable win by President Obama lies an important fact that gets amazingly little attention. He won 73% of the Asian American vote.

While Latinos and African-Americans have been given much credit as part of the winning coalition, Asian Americans get very little. The most remarkable aspect of this oversight is that this is the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States and Asians make up the largest proportion of new immigrants. According to a Pew Research Center study released last June, as the flow of undocumented Latinos slowed to a trickle, beginning in 2009, visas issued to well-educated Asians greatly increased due to the demand by employers for highly skilled workers. In 2010, 36% of all new immigrants were Asian, compared to 31% who were Latino.

Asian Americans now make up nearly 6% of the U.S. population. Of course, we Americans define as Asian an enormous area of the world and a vastly diverse group of people from China, The Philippines, East India, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, the South Seas, and all points in between. This diverse population is part of a sweeping transformation of America. Nowhere is this more true than in Arizona and Nevada, the sites of their greatest growth.

The trend of Asian Americans voting Democratic is a relatively new one. Twenty years ago, this group voted Republican by a margin of two to one. The change is due to interest in the issues. According to the Daily Democrat these new citizens care about education, health care, gender issues and the budget deficit, and they favored Obama’s positions on all but the deficit. Still, they don’t see slashing the budget and social programs as the total solution.

“A lot of Asian-Americans come from places with subsidized health care, where that’s an expectation, and it’s an important issue for them,” said Lisa Hasegawa, director of the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development. In addition, the fact that Obama had an immigrant parent appeals to Asian American voters. Senator-elect Mazie Hirono, a Hawaiian Democrat, thinks the affinity for Democrats is “because of the life experiences many of us have, because so many of us are close to the immigrant experience.” There’s a perception that the President cares because of this similarity in backgrounds, while Mitt Romney’s attacks on countries like China were perceived as threatening.

It’s startling to realize what newcomers to the country Asian Americans are. Many Asians were totally prohibited from immigrating to America, or severely limited in numbers by racially motivated legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The law totally stopped Chinese immigration for decades and prohibited the Chinese who were already here from becoming U.S. citizens. It wasn’t repealed until 1943, but even then Chinese immigration was limited to 105 people a year. (An excellent family narrative that elucidates the difficulties faced by Chinese immigrants is On Gold Mountain by Lisa See). It wasn’t until the Immigration Act of 1965–less than 50 years ago–that large numbers of Asians were accepted into the U.S.

The political parties have been slow to realize what a gold mine the Asian American vote is. The Los Angeles Times cited a poll of Asian Americans that showed 51% of them were never contacted to register to vote by any political entity. Of those who were, 55% had contact from Democrats and only 38% from Republicans. Nevertheless, Asian American candidates made amazing gains this year in Congress. Thirteen, and possibly fourteen, were elected or reelected last Tuesday, including Mazie Hirono as the first Asian American woman, the first Asian immigrant, and the first Buddhist to obtain a seat in the Senate. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, became the first Hindu elected to the House.

As Rep. Michael M. Honda, Democrat from California, said, “We are clearly an undeniable and unshakable political power. As the fastest-growing ethnic community in the country, we are the margin of victory.” They certainly showed their power in this election, and gave us all a glimpse of the changing face of the nation.

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