Why you should care
Because this demographic could swing the U.S. Congress blue.
The gray February morning is suddenly thick with smoke. The pavement echoes with the staccato battery of thousands of Wolf Pack firecrackers lighting up at once, living up to the “Super Loud” and “Maximum Power” promises on their packaging. Drumbeats crescendo the event as two dragon heads emerge from the smoke, swaying with each flashing crack, led by dancers who entertain the clapping crowd and children who giggle while feeding dollar bills into their gaping maws.
It’s a Lunar New Year festival, taking place not in China, Vietnam or Singapore, but in Fairfax, a western suburb of Washington, D.C. The event celebrating the Year of the Dog is hosted by Eden Center, a shopping outlet with a Paifang arch and more than 125 stores. It’s a home away from home for many in the burgeoning Vietnamese community, and the restaurant owners and market purveyors are more than just an emerging economic influence in Northern Virginia — they are a burgeoning political force to be reckoned with.
The suburbs, home to the majority of the electorate and a number of the most competitive races, are set to play a decisive role in determining which party controls Congress and key states after the 2018 elections. And it’s Asian-American residents, such as those of Vietnamese origin in Fairfax, who are the X factor in those areas. “Asians are kind of kicking ass, relatively speaking,” says Chapman University demographer Joel Kotkin, noting higher average incomes, levels of education and upward mobility. Traditionally, that group has struggled to show up at the polls, a reflection of cultural and language difficulties, as well as a lack of engagement aimed at them.
I’ve never seen [this] level of activism.
Christine Chen, Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote
But that’s changing, says Christine Chen, executive director of the outreach nonprofit Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote. There were 18 AAPI in the 115th Congress, elected in 2016, a record particularly driven by insurgent female candidates. That included the first Thai-American elected to the Senate (Tammy Duckworth in Illinois), the first Vietnamese-American woman to Congress (Rep. Stephanie Murphy in Florida) and the first Indian-American women elected to both the House and Senate (Pramila Jayapal, Washington; Kamala Harris, California). At a time when more than 2,100 people have filed paperwork to run for Congress — almost twice as many candidates as in 2015, according to a study of Federal Election Commission data by The Washington Post — Asian-Americans have been especially optimistic about being able to win races, and especially motivated by concerns over immigration rhetoric and anti-Muslim violence that ticked up nationwide following the election of Donald Trump. “I’ve never seen [this] level of activism,” says Chen. “It’s just a different atmosphere.”
Asian-Americans still only make up about 6 percent of the U.S. population. However, they are more concentrated outside of city centers. Kotkin points out that 18 of the 20 most heavily Asian communities are suburban, and their presence is growing there about five times as fast as in the cities. Strong schools, affordable housing and family-friendly neighborhoods are all considerable draws. Their packed influence should allow them to punch far above their weight when they hit the ballot box this November. And already, the effects are being felt in battleground districts from Northern Virginia to Orange County in Southern California to the Detroit area to Gwinnett and Cobb counties outside Atlanta.
For decades, Asian-Americans have been a closely contested group, politically speaking. Republican George H.W. Bush earned 55 percent of the Asian-American vote in his (failed) reelection bid in 1992. His son, George W. Bush, twice won around 43 percent of their vote. Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both overwhelmingly won the backing of the Asian community in their presidential races. But in 2016, Trump outperformed Mitt Romney’s record with Asian-Americans by 11 points in Nevada (winning 29 percent) and by 3 points in Pennsylvania (12 percent), according to exit polls from the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), despite his anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Those small signs of growth in pivotal swing states have boosted the hopes of Republicans trying to reach Asian-Americans, even as Latinos and Blacks have increasingly become harder to win over. And the GOP hasn’t forgotten their importance. Even in longtime safely red Texas, the state party scheduled over 77 outreach events and recruited 120 “surrogates” to take messaging efforts to their communities in 2016, mostly in the suburbs of Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Asian-Americans share values with Republicans on “ideas of entrepreneurship, the primacy of family in society and the importance of education,” argues Stephen Wong, the Texas GOP deputy political director. Ryan Mahoney, a Republican strategist in Georgia, sent out a memo to clients on New Year’s Eve with a dire warning: Be prepared, or risk losing office. “Even if you hold a reliably safe GOP seat, take nothing for granted in 2018,” he wrote. One of his clients, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is running for governor, scheduled an Asian media day — which attracted representatives from 22 outlets, according to Mahoney. “They are plugged in: They want someone who will support small business but who will also be open and honest about how government works,” he says.
— AAPI Civic Fund (@aapifund) November 9, 2016
Yet, on the whole, Asian-Americans still lean left. Roughly two-thirds of Asian-Americans who identify with a party do so as Democrats, according to polls conducted by APIAVote. Growing up, Sam Park and his first-generation Korean-immigrant parents settled in the suburbs of Atlanta — and into the type of conservatism that seemed only right for a family trying to join their Southern neighbors in the middle class. “When I was 9 or 10, I asked my dad, ‘Why are we Republicans?’ His response was, ‘Because we’re Christian,’” Park remembers now. But fast-forward two decades, and the landscape has changed. His mother, once the most committed of conservatives, has flipped the script. “My mom has become a staunch Democrat. Because of Trump. She really, really does not like Trump,” Park says. “And I think a lot of moms feel the same way.”
Younger Vietnamese-origin voters were galvanized by the Obama years, says Genie Nguyen, a Virginia real estate agent and founder of the nonprofit Voice of Vietnamese Americans. Her organization hosts a national radio show and advocates for expanded language options and access to voting resources. In her experience, millennial Vietnamese voters are interested in more affordable education, health care and protecting the environment, and they are especially aware of immigration issues. “We’ve worked our way up,” Nguyen says, “and our children have gone to school with a lot of Latino Americans: They are the friends of Dreamers.”
In the 2016 presidential elections, the tilt was particularly pronounced, according to an exit poll by the AALDEF that concluded that 84 percent of voters of Indian, Cambodian and Korean ethnicities voted for Clinton, and only 14 percent for Trump. Clinton did best with Pakistani- and Bangladeshi-origin voters — winning 96 percent of their votes. Trump did best with Vietnamese-origin voters — and there too managed only 32 percent of votes. In all, 79 percent of Asian-American voters sampled in the survey chose Clinton, and only 19 percent picked Trump.
Still, the Asian-American vote is hardly monolithic, divided both by age and cultural background. Filipino Catholics often remain conservative. In 1975, millions of South Vietnamese who had worked for and supported American troops were trapped when Communists took over the country — and today, many older Vietnamese Americans still blame antiwar Democrats, including then-Senator Joe Biden, for refusing to accept refugees. They feel “very bitter we were betrayed,” says Nguyen, and they are also worried about U.S. policy around the South China Sea, where Beijing and Hanoi have overlapping maritime claims.
And though voters from countries like India and Sri Lanka may not feel as threatened by anti-immigrant rhetoric as immigrants from Latin American or Muslim nations, Republicans have rushed to assuage their concerns — especially when the president has slipped up. In February 2017, U.S. Representative Kevin Yoder from Kansas wrote on Twitter that he had reached out to the White House asking Trump to condemn the shooting of two Indian immigrants in a bar by a man who had yelled at them to “get out” of the country. Trump, who stayed silent for days after the shooting, finally condemned the attack while addressing Congress in late February.
Asian-Americans’ votes are also too rich to ignore politically now. According to 2015 U.S. Census Bureau statistics, Asian-American households have a median income of $74,235 — the highest among the broad race, ethnicity and region-based groupings for which data was collected. That makes them important donors to tap, a reality even Republicans backing Trump know well. One of Trump’s biggest individual donors in 2016 was Chicago-based Indian-American businessman Shalabh Kumar, who, with his wife, doled out almost $900,000.
Growing up in the South Jersey burbs of Philadelphia, Andy Kim remembers a district full of farmland and cranberry bogs. The area has grown up, though, as have communities of color, from Koreans like himself to Chinese, Thai and Filipino transplants. It’s one of the most competitive regions in the country, over the years backing George W. Bush, John Kerry, Obama and Trump. Last fall, around Thanksgiving, when Kim was speaking at the First Korean United Methodist Church for the ChuSeok Festival, he remembers feeling like he had come full circle — delivering a speech as a congressional candidate just down the street from his childhood home. “Minority populations writ large understand the importance of diversity of voices in leadership,” he says.
The increase in political interest has led to more Asian-Americans running for office, from Min and Kim to Park, who in 2016 became the first Asian-American Democrat elected to the Georgia statehouse. The AAPIVote director, Chen, says get-out-the-vote efforts are increasingly becoming feeder systems for first-time candidates, launching the political candidacies of former nonprofit directors such as Stephanie Chang in Detroit and Helen Gym in Philly. None of them take for granted the support of their community, in part because many Asian-Americans are staunchly independent, Chen says, preferring to identify more closely with local issues than party politics.
There’s no one way to reach out to Asian-American voters, suggests Dave Min, a former aide to Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer who is now running for Congress in Orange County. Reaching South Asian voters has taken different tactics than the church circuit one might use when courting Koreans. “The best way to reach Indians and Pakistanis is through tea parties, chai parties,” Min says.
Or, as Trump tried, through a Bollywood-themed bash. In October 2016, weeks before the election that brought him to power, he addressed hundreds of Indian Americans in the suburban New Jersey town of Edison. The event was organized by the Republican Hindu Coalition led by Kumar, Trump’s Indian American donor. Popular singers flown over from India belted out Bollywood songs on stage. “I’m a big fan of Hindu, and I’m a big fan of India,” Trump declared.
There are many reasons that support for certain issues would seem to signal Asian-American support for conservatism, from their entrepreneurial mind-set to a focus on faith and family, argues Kotkin, the demographer. But the shift blue is part of a larger trend across diverse communities in the age of Trump. “This goes beyond Asian-Americans to middle-class Hispanics to a large part of white middle-class voters, who in many ways have much reason to be suspicious of the Democrats but are viscerally turned off by the Republicans,” says Kotkin. “In very tight races, it could cost Republicans several seats.”