When the GOP took 50 percent of Asian-American voters in the November 4 elections, according to exit polling, versus 49 percent of Democrats, the result came as a surprise to political observers. President Obama once dominated among Asian-American voters, getting 62 percent of the vote in 2008 and 73 percent in 2012. Even in another recent Republican wave year, 2010, the GOP earned only 40 percent of the Asian vote.
If this year’s exit poll pegged the percentages correctly, the GOP managed an impressive swing among Asian-American voters at a time when the group’s population is growing rapidly.
But this may not be as big an opportunity as it might sound. It’s not clear Republicans do have strong appeal to Asian voters as they’re composed today, or that that’s even a missed political opportunity.
For starters, the exit polling could be off by a good margin. The national poll, conducted by Edison Research for a consortium of media outlets, included over 14,000 respondents. However, only 304 of those respondents were Asian–American, meaning the margin of error would be around ten percentage points. While exit polling can detect broad trends and changes within the electorate, its findings are less precise among small groups of voters. Furthermore, most exit polling is conducted in English, likely excluding more recent immigrants to the United States. Other exit polls and traditional surveys found a less dramatic swing toward Republicans among Asian-American voters.
But there’s a deeper problem: We shouldn’t make too much of the Asian-American vote because it probably can’t sustain, or even substantially contribute to, a winning Republican coalition. After all, the exit polling that shows Republicans winning the Asian-American vote also shows those same voters constituting only 3 percent of the national electorate — and that vote is concentrated in urban and safely Democratic areas.
California sticks out. The Golden State is home to over 5.5 million Asian Americans. On Election Day, Democrats retained control of state government, from Governor Jerry Brown down to both chambers of the legislature. At least one exit poll indicates Brown underperformed among Asian-American voters, but his landslide win overall, by almost 18 points, overshadows that small victory for Republicans.
Republicans may find their best chances for growth among specific national groups within the Asian-American electorate. Vietnamese Americans traditionally exhibit the strongest support for Republican candidates (generally, it is believed, because of their anti-Communist leanings). Many of these voters are clustered in communities along the Gulf of Mexico and can help Republicans maintain their recent dominance in several southern states.
In Texas, Republican senator John Cornyn launched an unprecedented media and field campaign targeting Vietnamese-American voters during his reelection bid, in which he sailed to victory. While exit polling is not available in the Senate race, in the state’s gubernatorial contest Republican Greg Abbott took 52 percent of the Asian-American vote.
And in Louisiana, Vietnamese-American voters may play an important role in the last race of 2014. Asian-American voters are swing constituency in the December runoff between Democratic senator Mary Landrieu and Republican representative Bill Cassidy . Only 2 percent of the state’s residents are Asian-American, but Republican operatives believe that Vietnamese-American voters may go for Cassidy by large margins. With an unprecedented RNC field operation in Louisiana, the party has sufficient resources and staffers on the ground to test its theory.
That nuanced approach, the party says, has been typical. “We didn’t treat Asian Americans like one big monolith,” says Jason Chung, the RNC’s Field and Communications Director for Asian Americans, of the party’s 2014 strategy. “We campaigned in each community distinctly and tried our very best to bring each community together as well.”
Maryland provides the most striking example. After former Republican governor Bob Ehrlich suffered a stinging defeat in 2010, it appeared that the GOP’s chances in Maryland had evaporated for the foreseeable future. But on Election Day, Republican Larry Hogan won an upset victory with 52 percent of the vote.
Asian-American voters likely contributed to the win.
An exit poll found Hogan earned 45 percent of the Asian-American vote in his race, outperforming past Republicans. Hogan’s wife, Yumi Hogan, is a first-generation Korean American and provided him a strong entry point to that community. But there may be a real limit for Republicans when it comes to taking a big chunk of the Asian vote.
“I’m pretty convinced from looking at different sources of mass-survey data on Asian Americans’ political attitudes that Asian Americans favor a bigger government with more services,” says Janelle Wong, the director of the Asian-American Studies Program at the University of Maryland. “The role of government is really a critical point of disagreement between Democrats and Republicans. The GOP will have a hard time winning a majority of Asian Americans if this issue continues to be a core one for Asian Americans.”
This ideological mismatch may prove Republican successes in 2014 to have been an outlier rather than a trend. Hogan had a unique connection to the Korean American community in Maryland through his spouse; for other Republicans, retaining the support of even friendly Asian-American voters can be difficult.
Referring to a large pre-election survey of likely Asian-American voters, Wong says “even among those groups who consistently identify as Republican and even say they favor the Republicans, a majority said they planned to vote for the Democratic candidate or were undecided right up to the 2014 election.”
In 2014, undecided voters overall broke for Republican candidates, but Asians apparently did so in dramatic fashion. But the list of victories where Asian Americans mattered was a short one, and the party faces a long-term mismatch in priorities. In other words, 2016 may see a return to form for Asian voters.
— Daniel Surman is a recent graduate of Macalester College. He blogs about electoral politics at Red Racing Horses.