WASHINGTON – Asian Americans aren’t the largest voting bloc, but a new group aligned with the Democratic Party says they could be a deciding factor in battleground states in November. But they need to increase their turnout.
The Asian American and Pacific Islander Victory Fund is focusing on registering and turning out Asian Americans living in six swing states on Election Day. Although this demographic may not have the numbers that other minority groups do, the fund’s founders say Asian Americans have large enough populations in the swing states that they could influence which party wins if the vote is close.
The fund has focused on Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia. As an example, Asian Americans comprise roughly 6 percent of the population in Virginia and just more than 4 percent of the eligible voters in the state. President Barack Obama beat Republican nominee Mitt Romney by 3.9 percent in the state in 2012.
“In states where the electorate margins are relatively narrow, the AAPI community is the swing,” said Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat.
Kaine pointed to his own race for lieutenant governor in 2002, which he won by roughly 2 percent—a margin smaller than the state’s Asian-American electorate. He said Virginia is “emblematic” of other swing states, having a similar Asian-American population to the states the fund is targeting.
Still, the population isn’t that large: Only about 4 million Asian Americans voted in 2012, compared with 11 million Latinos and 18 million blacks. Varun Nikore, who oversees strategy and operations for the new fund, said because Asian-Americans make up only a sliver of voters—only 3 percent in the last election, according to census data—campaigns don’t fight as hard for their votes.
“We tend to be almost dismissed,” he said. “We don’t feel campaigns are paying attention to us.”
It makes sense: Not only is the group small, but also Asian-Americans don’t turn out to vote as much as other racial groups, Nikore said. Only 47 percent turned out in 2012, compared to 66 percent of blacks and 48 percent of Hispanics.
But Nikore said if the fund can increase turnout, the group can exert more influence at the ballot box, potentially even swinging a close battleground state and turning it blue. And, maybe if it can do that, politicians will start courting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders more seriously.
The fund—which Nikore said will support the eventual Democratic nominee—also hopes to solidify gains made by the Democratic Party in the Asian community. According to a study by Lake Research Partners, a left-leaning polling firm, 53 percent of Asian Americans identify as Democrats, 16 percent identify as Republicans and 31 percent identify as independents or neither party.
But Asian Americans joining the Democratic coalition is a recent phenomenon: In 1992, Bill Clinton received only 31 percent of their votes. Since then, Democrats have steadily won a greater share of Asian Americans in each election cycle, according to data from Cornell University’s Roper Center, with Barack Obama’s 73 percent showing in 2012 being a high-water mark.
Asian Americans’ support for Democrats might stem in part from Republicans’ tougher positions on immigration. Cecilia Hyunjung Mo, who teaches political science at Vanderbilt University, researched how Asian-American voters react to politicians’ language.
“We found that even a slight, unintentional racial comment that could make them feel like a foreigner in their own country is enough to move that voter to support Democrats over Republicans,” she said. “If even subtle cues can do that, I would imagine that shift would be more profound when it’s not subtle at all.”
The current Republican primary is just that, Mo said: The language the GOP’s candidates use when discussing immigrants — particularly Donald Trump, but former candidate Jeb Bush drew heat for his use of “anchor babies” — could alienate potential supporters.
The Democratic Party, by contrast, has positioned itself as more inclusive and stronger on immigration reform, Mo said.
But Allen Fung, the Republican mayor of Cranston, Rhode Island, said he doesn’t think the candidates’ focus on immigration will hurt the Republicans’ eventual nominee in November.
“My parents came here through that system that was in place, through the legal system,” said Fung, the son of Chinese immigrants. “For many who went through that process, they see the debate that’s going on as bringing light to some old, festering issues about fairness. Why should it be fair for people to just pass into our country?”
Fung, who sits on an RNC committee charged with Asian-American outreach, said the GOP is making inroads with the group, pointing to 2014’s midterm elections. That November, Asian Americans’ votes in congressional races were narrowly divided between the two parties: Democrats received roughly 50 percent their votes, Republicans 49.
He blamed the party’s poor showing in 2012 on a lack of outreach. Fung said he’s traveled throughout the country to get the party’s message out to Asian-American voters ahead of November’s presidential election.
But the midterm numbers might not mean much: Because of lower turnout and smaller sample sizes in midterm election polling, Mo said the 2014 election isn’t the best indicator of what’s to come in November.
“Plus, we didn’t have the same type of rhetoric as is being espoused now,” she said. “This primary has really changed the nature of what’s acceptable when discussing immigrants.”