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The GOP’s Asian-American Fiasco

How Republicans alienated a once-allied bloc of voters
Korea Way

If you are trying to figure out why the Republicans lost this presidential election and why they will probably continue to lose more in the future, forget for a second Latino voters (well, only for a second) and think for a few minutes about Asian-American voters.

In fact, let’s think about them strategically. Say you are a Republican politico who is analyzing the economic status, social mobility, and cultural disposition of various demographic groups and the voting behavior of their members.

And here is this bloc of voters who, let’s see, tend to gravitate to the private sector with many of them creating and managing small businesses. Actually, some of them belong to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, and most are doing quite well in terms of income and job security. They also are very family-oriented and subscribe to more traditional values.

Based on these and other social and economic indications, Asian-Americans as an electoral bloc should be natural political ally of a Republican Party that is, after all, committed to the principles of the free market, supports the interests of small businesses, and celebrates hard work and family values, which is probably the way to describe what Asian-Americans are all about.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney wanted to demonstrate to voters that energizing the private sector — and not growing government — is the most effective way to provide Americans with an opportunity to advance their economic standing. He had to only point to Asian-Americans, whose median weekly earnings have been greater than those earned by whites during the last decade and whose unemployment rate has remained relatively low even during the recent recession.

According to a 2011 U.S. Labor Department report Asian-Americans are more likely than either whites or blacks to be employed in the private sector, with more than 8 out of 10 employed Asian-Americans working for private companies. It also reported that the number of Asian-owned businesses expanded at the rate of 40.4 percent, a rate that more than doubled the national average between 2002 and 2007. In short, you would probably find very few Asian-Americans among the ranks of the “47 percent.”

Moreover, that many Asian-Americans trace their roots to countries that have been and still are under the control of Communist regimes that had repressed their families should have been another reason for many of them to vote for the party of Ronald Reagan and the other Republican Presidents with impressive anti-Communist credentials.

And, indeed, during the post-1945 era the majority of Asian-Americans voters that included refugees from Communist-ruled China, Korea and Vietnam tended to identify with the conservative and anti-communist agenda of the Republican Party. The majority of Asian-American voters went for Reagan, a Republican president whose economic principles, social values and foreign policy seems to be in line with theirs, as was his commitment to the notion of America as a nation of immigrants, that “sunny” disposition that reflected the open and tolerant cultural outlook of California, the home of scores of immigrants from China, Vietnam, Korea and Japan, and a state that overlooks the Pacific Ocean.

Republican George H.W. Bush still received 55 percent of the Asian-American vote compared to 31 percent for Democrat Bill Clinton. But already in 2004 it was Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry who won the majority (56 percent) of Asian-American vote.

And a majority of 73 percent of Asian-Americans ended up voting for Obama this year, up from 62 percent in 2008. The percentage of Asian-Americans going for Obama was higher than that of Latinos who voted for the Democratic presidential candidate (71 percent) and another traditionally Democratic leaning bloc of Jewish voters (70 percent).

Yet Romney in his campaign spent more time courting Jewish voters, by hugging Bibi Netanyahu and pledging to bomb Iran (but maybe not on his first day in office…) and by making a few empty gestures to the Hispanics (for example, by considering Marco Rubio for the vice presidency) while paying no attention to Asian-American voters.

So why are Republicans losing the Asian-American vote that could actually play a critical role in presidential elections? Why do Asian-Americans now tend largely to identify themselves as Democrats, with Korean-Americans resisting the voting trend among Asian-Americans and continuing to lean Republican — not unlike Cuban-American voters who remain a faithful Republican voting bloc among the pro-Democratic Hispanic community?

There are an about 17.3 million people of Asian or Pacific Islander descent in the United States (a number that includes also immigrants from India and South Asian), comprising 5.6 percent of the population. Many of them are concentrated in key “swing” states, like Virginia, Nevada and Florida and close to 80 percent of these voters took part in the 2012 election.

The main reason for the growing support for Democrats among members of this electoral bloc is that that younger and more educated Asian-Americans are drifting by large numbers to Obama’s party, very much like younger and more educated white Americans.

According to the Labor Department study, 57.5 percent of employed Asian-Americans who are 25 or older have an academic degree, a proportion that is 60 percent higher than among whites and more than twice that of blacks.

Moreover, 7.8 percent of jobs in high-tech industries are going to Asian-American workers, making them overrepresented there compared with their overall presence in the labor force (5 percent). And Asian-Americans are similarly well represented in science, technology, engineering, and math occupations, accounting for more than 9 percent of jobs there.

That social-cultural affinities and not economic interests seem to determine voting behavior explains why younger and more educated Asian-Americans tend to fit into the demographic profile of the educated and middle class professionals, the so-called “creative class” who reside in areas like northern Virginia and who made it possible for Obama to win this important “swing” state two election in a row — mirroring the trend of less educated rural and blue-collar Americans voting for the Republicans.

What’s wrong in Kansas for the Democrats is the other side of the coin of what’s right for them in Fairfax County, Virginia, the Research Triangle in North Carolina, and the concentrations of educated professionals in the Pacific Northwest. The average Asian-American (or white) high-tech entrepreneur, software engineer, or graphic designer may have benefited professionally and economically from the free-market environment of the 1990’s. But he or she feels less comfortable with a political party perceived to be dominated by white politicians that many see as being intolerant toward minorities, gays, women and, yes, immigrants.

But Republican leaders and voters don’t really share xenophobic and anti-immigration attitudes. Republican politicians of Indian-American ancestry (who converted to Christianity) have been elected as governors of Louisiana and South Carolina. And when Republican politicians, like former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, embrace an election platform that is tolerant of minorities and immigrants, the majority of Asian-Americans are inclined to support them.

The obsession of so many Republicans and conservatives with birtherism and with the president’s alleged Muslim faith only helps to accentuate the notion that Republicans are hostile toward immigrants and toward Americans who are non-white and non-Christian. Romney, a politician whose natural inclination was probably to sound more like
Schwarzenegger and Reagan, ended up under the influence of the likes of Michele Bachmann sounding like the late Sen. Jesse Helms.

The Republicans are probably not going to win the support of the majority of African-American and Hispanic voters anytime soon. But Republicans are now in danger of losing the votes of another important demographic group that could have been its natural political ally. And the same kind of electoral strategy that could draw young, educated, and professional Asian-Americas into the GOP would also attract their counterparts in the African-American, Hispanic, and American-Jewish communities.

Leon Hadar, a Washington-based journalist and foreign policy analyst, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.



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