Jeb's Asian American "canary" votes might not fly: What the GOP gets wrong about this potentially powerful voting bloc

Bush has said Asian American GOP votes will signal rising minority support, but it could all backfire spectacularly

Published October 29, 2015 4:44PM (EDT)

  (AP/Gene J. Puskar)
(AP/Gene J. Puskar)

Are Asian American voters really starting to lean Republican? Thanks to targeted efforts by the GOP, Asian-American candidates have not only won local and regional seats in states such as California, but also Ohio, Arizona, and especially Virginia. Now the Republican Party is hoping to take the trend to the national level, focusing on outreach programs focused on attracting Asian-American voters. This past summer, the RNC launched the Republican Leadership Initiative, which hopes to recruit “Asian Pacific American grassroots leadership.”

Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) may only represent 3 percent of the electorate, yet back in 2013, Jeb Bush called the Asian-American vote the “canary in the coal mine”--i.e. a predictor of larger trends inside the party and harbinger of its future political health. Bush explained: “Here is a group that has higher intact families, more entrepreneurial, higher than average incomes, higher college graduation rates," and therefore ought to be a naturally ally of the GOP. Yet until 2014, Asian-Americans had been fleeing the party in droves, a clear warning that it was losing the ability to appeal to ethnic minorities in general.

Bush’s caution, however, might well be heeded by Democrats as well. For the past two decades, the Asian American vote has indeed been trending away from the Republican Party, but its support for Democrats is “squishy,” comments Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of public policy and political science at the University of California-Riverside, whose research focuses on the voting patterns of AAPI communities. In a conversation with me via phone, he observes that Asian Americans now lean Democrat by a 2-1 ratio, yet “there is room for persuasion,” — not a lot, mind you, but room for Republican hope nonetheless — partly due to the fact that immigrants and first generations tend to have weak levels of party attachment.

The local success of Asian-American Republican candidates gives some credence to his measured view. But perhaps more importantly, the political victories of Asian-American Republicans (who are, perhaps even more interestingly, also women), such as Arizona state Senator Kimberly Yee or California Assemblywoman Young Kim, are also consistent with a wider, under-reported picture: Republicans have been doing much better on the local, municipal, and state levels in general than casual observers might want to believe, given the national coverage of Republican meltdowns summed up by one word: “Benghazi.” And yet, as Matthew Yglesias reported for Vox, the vast majority of government offices are held by Republicans, who have control of “70 percent of state legislatures, more than 60 percent of governors, 55 percent of attorneys general and secretaries of state,” and both Chambers of Congress. Obama may have won a second term in the White House, Yglesias observed, but Republicans ended up with “overwhelming” dominance of state legislatures in the wake of the 2014 elections.

Exit polls from those 2014 elections showed Asian-Americans split evenly between parties. Ramakrishnan cautions that these results are somewhat misleading, explaining here that Asian-American voter turnout for midterm elections tends to be unusually low, and that the polls look quite different when AAPI voters are polled in their native languages. But the consistent success of Republicans at the state and local level is a reminder that Democrats should not take the Asian-American vote for granted. Currently, they are, and it is.

Jenny Nguyen is Associate Editor at NEBRASKAland Magazine, and is an Independent who leans conservative. She is one of several Asian-American conservatives of my acquaintance, but unlike my dad and others of his generation, Jenny is a millennial. In an email to me, she explains why she not only fled California for the Midwest but has no love for the Democrats: “No amount of government regulation from bought politicians will ever level the playing field,” she explains. “Many may tell you so just to take your vote and your money. I’m a first generation American and so far, I have done well. I am around other conservatives every day and have never had any issues, as much as liberals want to convince me that I should have a cow. I’m conservative because it’s better company. Why would I want to hang out with people who keep telling me that I’m a charity case?” Active and entrepreneurial, in her spare time she co-runs a popular blog, “Food for Hunters,” and wrote an excellent wild game field guide/cookbook. Her bottom line: “I love my country and still believe in the American Dream. And I still think that people are mostly kind, as long as you let them and stop yourself from shoving your politics down their throats before you get to know them.”

Like a lot of rural conservatives, she finds liberals annoying, but her social views are fairly flexible. Hence, she is Independent, no more likely to vote for Hillary than for Trump. This is that “weak party identification” that Ramakrishnan emphasizes; though the Asian-American vote is trending Democrat, there are few strong party loyalists. Under the umbrella of “Asian-America” falls Vietnamese, Koreans, Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Filipinos, Indians, Tibetans, Pacific Islanders, and so on. It is a large and varied group. According to data collected by Pew, for example, 65 percent of Indian Americans lean Democrat and show the strongest support of all Asian-American groups. By contrast, Vietnamese-Americans are the least enthusiastic for both parties, and their dyspepsia is evenly split: 36 percent lean Democrat, and 35 percent lean Republican. Yet on the aggregate, as Ramakrishnan affirms, there is “more commonality among Asian-Americans in their politics than in their language, food, religion or culture.” This is precisely why the Asian-American vote is both enticing and vexing. Asian-America is not a unified voting bloc. But it could be.

Asian-Americans are now the fastest growing ethnic group in the U.S. The crucial unknown is which political direction Asian-Americans will lean. Yes, the Republican Party is becoming more diverse, and Democrats say racist things too. But on the whole, the Democrat Party has successfully positioned itself as the friendlier home for those who think discrimination against ethnic minorities is a problem. (The banner heading of is: “We are and always will be a nation of immigrants.”  The heading of is: “We believe in America.” And, somewhat stiffly: “Asian Pacific Americans are welcome in the Republican Party.”) In 2012, Leon Harder concluded that one of the reasons why Mitt Romney lost the presidency was because he failed to court Asian Americans, even as the continuing “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.”

It does not help the Republican party's attempts to dispel that unfavorable notion when most of the “Asians” in its newly formed “Asian Republican Coalition” turned out to be white businessmen in Hong Kong, and three presidential candidates have managed to make disparaging remarks about actual Asians: Jeb Bush dumped on "Asian people" for practicing “birth tourism,” Donald Trump has made numerous xenophobic comments about “the Chinese” (not to mention Korean-American student Joe Choe), and then there was Mike Huckabee’s painfully oblivious tweet about North Koreans and dog meat.

Thanks to a pattern of bigoted comments falling out of the mouths of its leaders, Republicans still give the impression that their efforts at Asian-American outreach is kabuki theater tokenism. But if Asian-Americans get offended by racist insults, here is the thing: in and of themselves, insults won’t sway the needle either for or against. Read Phil Chung’s hilarious 2011 Halloween tale, “Why ‘American Horror Story’ Would Be a Lot More Believable with an Asian-American Family,” to understand what it takes to scare off an immigrant tiger mom from staying put once she’s decided to stake her claim. Get past the rhetoric, and it still comes down to the issues: as a group, Asian Americans are far more strongly environmentalist than the rest of the U.S. population, very strongly supportive of initiatives fostering racial diversity, and solidly in favor of a path to immigration.

To help see these priorities realized, Asian Americans are becoming newly politically engaged. In Boston, for example, a pilot program spearheaded by Diana Hwang is getting Asian-American women into internships in the State House, spurred by statistics showing that Asian Americans have the lowest numbers of registered voters among all ethnic groups in Massachusetts. What would happen if more Asian-Americans across the U.S. starting voting? In Canada, Harper’s conservative policies ended up waking “a sleeping giant” by angering the First Nations. The results were broken election records and Liberal Justin Trudeau being swept into office. This outcome is what Jeb Bush fears: if the political canary dies under their watch, Republicans will be looking at their very own Asian-American horror story in 2016 and beyond. Right now, however, that canary is starting to figure out that people listen when it sings. It remains to be seen who will benefit from its song.

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By Paula Young Lee

Paula Young Lee is the author of "Deer Hunting in Paris," winner of the 2014 Lowell Thomas "Best Book" award of the Society of American Travel Writers. She is currently writing outdoor adventure books for middle grade and young adults. Follow her on Twitter @paulayounglee

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