vision 2020

The Asian-American Electorate Is Becoming a Force

Asian-Americans liked Hillary, and liked Democrats in 2018 even more. Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images

In many ways, 2018 was a banner year for Democrats. But one you don’t hear often enough is that the Donkey Party achieved record levels of support in America’s fastest-growing racial/ethnic demographic category. If you assumed that was Latinos, you’d be wrong.

Asian-Americans have been the fastest-growing minority group in the U.S. since 2010. They represent 5.6 percent of the population, a number that is expected to rise to 14 percent by 2065. Because the Asian-American population is relatively quite young, and also because of historically low levels of turnout, this demographic group has under-punched politically (they represent about 4 percent of the electorate). But that could be changing.

And that’s a big deal for Democrats. According to exit polls, in 2018 they carried an estimated 77 percent of the Asian-American vote. That’s up from 65 percent in 2016, and way up from 49 percent in 2014.

Vox’s Li Zhou plausibly suggests that the aggressively xenophobic Donald Trump has pushed Asian-Americans away from the GOP. But then again, Barack Obama won 71 percent of the group’s vote in 2012. While it’s often forgotten that Mitt Romney was more than a little nativist on immigration policy that year (his official policy was to encourage “self-deportation” by making life miserable for the undocumented), he wasn’t as obsessive about it as Trump. It’s plausible that Asian-Americans (who are unusually prone to register as independents) are attracted to other elements of the Democratic message and agenda as well, as Karthick Ramakrishnan observed in 2016:

Asian Americans are rewarding parties and candidates who share their views about issues such as health care, government spending, and gun control. The 2012 [National Asian-American Survey] shows that Asian Americans support increasing taxes to help reduce the federal deficit, and a Pew survey from early 2012 indicates that Asian Americans prefer a bigger government that provides more services to a smaller government providing fewer services (55 percent to 36 percent, respectively). That’s the opposite of what Pew found for the public as a whole (39 percent to 52 percent, respectively).

Democrats also seem to be belatedly focusing more resources on Asian-American voters, who already represent over 5 percent of the voting-age population in Alaska, California, Hawaii, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, and Washington, and just under 5 percent in Maryland and Virginia. Coincidentally or not, historically abysmal turnout levels among Asian-Americans (sometimes attributed to generally low rates of civic engagement) are finally improving: turnout rose from 26.9 percent in 2014 to 40.2 percent in 2018.

Asian-Americans (and the closely associated Pacific Islanders) are also gradually increasing their representation in Congress, with three senators and 14 House members currently serving. Tellingly, all 17 are Democrats.

Obviously, Asian-Americans vary significantly by national origin, religion, income, immigration status, and other variables. But while some subgroups like Koreans and Vietnamese have a reputation for leaning Republican, they, too, are trending Democratic:

So this is a segment of the electorate that will deserve more attention than ever in 2020 and beyond. With two Asian-Americans (Kamala Harris, whose mother is Indian-American and Andrew Yang) and one Pacific Islander (Tulsi Gabbard) running for president, they could become a significant factor in the Democratic primaries as well (most obviously in California with its March 3 primary). And there could soon be two-party competition: While Bobby Jindal’s pioneering 2016 presidential campaign came to well-deserved grief, fellow Indian-American Nikki Haley is a good prospect for a Republican national ticket once Trump and Pence are out of the way. Democrats will likely remain in the ascendancy among Asian-Americans for the time being, but a little more outreach and representation could make the margins really startling.

This piece has been corrected to reflect the consensus that Tulsi Gabbard is best identified as a Pacific Islander rather than an Asian-America.

Asian-American Electorate Becoming Important to Democrats