Research News

Trends indicate Asian Americans should be turning Republican – but they’re not

Rising income among other factors indicate that Asian Americans should be a natural fit for the Republican Party, yet they have flocked to the other side at a stunning pace.

In the 2012 presidential election, Democratic President Obama garnered 73 percent of the Asian American vote, and Asian Americans have been steadily moving to the Democratic Party over the last two decades, say three academics who are studying the issue.

“It’s puzzling because in political science, it is well-documented that income is positively correlated with the Republican Party,” said Cecilia Mo, assistant professor of political science at Vanderbilt University and one of three authors of the paper, “Why do Asian Americans Identify as Democrats? Testing Theories of Social Exclusion and Intergroup Solidarity.”

“Yet here is this group (Asian Americans) going against this trend that we’ve noticed for decades. Moreover, wealthy Asian Americans are even more likely to vote for Democrats than poorer Asian Americans.”

The behavior of Asian American voters is going to be of increasing interest to both parties as time goes by, Mo said.

“Asian Americans are now at 4 percent of the population and they are the fastest-growing ethnic group in this country. They are projected to be 9 percent of the U.S. population by 2050.”

Asian Americans have not always been supporters of the Democratic Party. In 1992, Bill Clinton captured just 36 percent of the Asian American vote. And when studying the occupations, education levels, marital status and values of Asian Americans, many political commentators have viewed Asians as a natural Republican constituency.

In the paper, it’s noted that the median Asian American household ($65,429) is wealthier than the median white household ($51,863), and much wealthier than the median African American household ($32,584) and Hispanic household ($38,039).

Mo, with Alexander Kuo, assistant professor of government at Cornell University, and Neil Malhotra, associate professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, hypothesized that one reason Asian Americans have turned away from the Republican Party could be that they associate feelings of social exclusion based on their ethnic background with the GOP.

“We were sensing that the Republican Party was becoming whiter and more Christian as the rhetoric around minority groups shifted after 9/11 and the Tea Party movement gained ground,” Mo said. “We thought there was something about how Asian Americans are reacting to anti-minority rhetoric and associating that with the Republican Party in a much more concrete way than ever before.”

Cecilia Mo (Vanderbilt)

In one part of the study, test subjects were brought in to fill out a survey. But first, some of both the Asian American and white subjects were asked by a research assistant: “Are you a U.S. citizen? I can’t tell.”

Whites had no visible reaction to the question, except to answer it. Asian Americans were often clearly disturbed by the question and some took pains to explain to the research assistant why it was offensive. This seemingly innocuous question carried the implied message that Asian Americans are not true Americans, and can be called a racial microaggression. Mo notes: “Statements like ‘Where are you really from?’ and ‘Your English is so good’ are commonly heard by people of color, even when they share that they were born in the United States, and can be perceived as racial slights by racial minorities in a world where overt prejudice is seldom tolerated.”

“The Asian American participants who were asked this question prior to the survey were more likely to be critical of the Republican Party (in the survey),” Mo said. “They were more likely to view the Republican Party as ‘ignorant’ and ‘closed minded,’ and less likely to view the Republican Party as a party that represents their interests.”

While 76 percent of Asian Americans who weren’t asked the question tended to identify with the Democratic Party, 87 percent of those who were asked the racial microaggression identified with the Democratic Party.

There are wedge issues like immigration and affirmative action that the GOP can leverage to gain support from Asian Americans and pit them against other minority groups, Mo said. Republicans could emphasize that Asian Americans are not like other minority groups, and have competing interests with groups such as Hispanics.

However, the GOP would run the risk of alienating Hispanics if they tried such a maneuver, making them vulnerable on another front.