Are Asian-Americans An Untapped Voting Bloc?

Asian-Americans are one of the fastest growing minority groups in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A poll released Tuesday shows that a third identify as independents. Host Michel Martin explores whether this group is an untapped voting bloc. She speaks with a co-author of the poll, Mee Moua, and USC professor Jane Junn.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, we're going to step into the beauty shop where a panel of women commentators will talk about the news of the week, including the anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden. And, we're going to ask just who is making political hay out of this.

But first, this week is the start of Asian and Pacific American Heritage Month and you may know that Asian-Americans are one of the fastest growing racial groups in the United States. A new poll shows that a third of them describe themselves as independent or unaffiliated with any political party.

So, with the presidential election coming up, it looks as though Asian-Americans and Pacific islanders could be a source of swing votes. But, are political officials working hard to try to get them on their side? We wanted to make sense of this, so I'm joined by Mee Moua.

She is a co-author of the poll and the president of the Asian-American Justice Center. She's also the first Asian-American to serve in the Minnesota Senate, where she was part of the Democratic Farmer Labor Party. Congratulations on that.

MEE MOUA: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Also joining us, Jane Junn. She is a political science professor from the University of Southern California and she co-authored another study surveying Asian-American voting trends. Jane, welcome to you. Thank you so much for joining us also.

JANE JUNN: Thank you for having.

MARTIN: So, Mee, I'll start with you because your study is the one that just came out. When you say Asian-American who do you mean? Because some people think that's kind of a made up term like Latino and that people don't identify that way; they identify as, say, Japanese-American or Chinese-American, or so forth. So what does that mean?

MOUA: For the purpose of this polling Asian-Americans encompasses East Asian, Southeast Asians, south Asians, native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

MARTIN: And the poll shows that a majority of Asian-Americans surveyed lean Democratic, but that there's also a large swath of Asian-Americans who don't align with either political party. Why do you think that is?

MOUA: Historically, the Asian-American community has been ignored by, I think, political parties, as well as political candidates. And so for the ones who have been touched, I think that people tend - the Asian-American community tend to be very loyal to those who have spoken to their issues. And what's the most remarkable about this polling is that there's this 31 percent opportunity remaining for both the parties and political candidates to attend to.

MARTIN: Why do you think they lean Democratic, though, or have historically?

MOUA: Well, we could speculate. The poll doesn't survey that question, but I would think that historically different candidates may have done a better job of engaging that community.

MARTIN: Jane Junn, what about you? Does your reporting show the same trends?

JUNN: Yes, it does. In 2008, with several colleagues of mine, we conducted a large stuffy of more than 5,000 Asian-Americans in the United States that included not only voters, registered voters, but those who are not yet naturalized citizens and who are therefore not registered to vote.

We found similar trends with higher numbers of independent voters. To the question of what's happening to Asian-American voters over time, if you look at the data from, for example, the National Election Poll which is the exit poll data conducted after - at the polling places after Americans vote, you'll see that between 1992 and 2008 the proportion of Asian-Americans voting Democratic has basically doubled, from 31 percent in 1992 up until 62 percent voting for the Democratic candidate in 2008.

MARTIN: And why do you think that is?

JUNN: Well, I think there are a lot of factors for it. I mean, in particular, the Asian-American community is a relatively new community in the United States, and remember, and this is to your question earlier about what makes Asian-American a relevant category of analysis with respect to politics, one doesn't become Asian-American until they arrive in the United States.

And even after doing so, the United States government, for example, has not consistently classified Asian-Americans as Asian-Americans. Let me give you an example about Asian Indians. So people from the Indian subcontinent have, in the course of American history, been classified by the American government alternatively racially as Hindu, White, Other as well as Asian.

So throughout the 20th century if you were Asian Indian in the United States you would have been classified as Hindu early in the 20th century, White at other points, Other at other points, and finally Asian after the 1970s.

MARTIN: Hmm. That's interesting.

JUNN: So the issue - it is. I mean, the issue of who gets to be classified in this box, racially, is an important one that raises the issue of the extent to which and the circumstances which this group is a politically coherent whole. Having said that...

MARTIN: Jane, let me just interrupt just one second to say that if you're just tuning in you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm joined by Jane Junn. That's who was speaking just now. She's a professor of political science at the University of Southern California. We are talking about new information about the voting trends of Asian-Americans and we're also talking about whether political leaders are tapping into this growing voting group.

Also with us, Mee Moua. She's the president of the Asian-American Justice Center. Jane, forgive me, I interrupted you. I just wanted to pick up on something that we were just talking about. I don't want to be dismissive and say Asian-American is a made up category, but do you see divisions within that population where the voting trends are distinct?

Like, for example, among Latinos, Cuban-Americans tend to - or at least in the past have tended to vote Republican, whereas Mexican-Americans have tended to vote Democratic. So do we see within the Asian-American population similar divisions of note?

JUNN: There are similar divisions, and particularly with respect to Vietnamese-Americans, who traditionally, and as with Cuban-Americans - now less so, identified as Republican and supported Republican candidates. One could suggest that one of the explanations for this is similar to the experiences of a country that, during the time of the immigrants coming from either Cuba or Vietnam, were fleeing a Communist regime and had the perception that Republican candidates and the Republican party were much more sympathetic to their cause.

So within the context of Asian-American voters at large, Vietnamese-Americans are the most likely to identify as Republicans and to vote Republican. But for the most part, as Mee suggested, Asian-American voters today are much more Democratic.

MARTIN: Mee, you were talking about the fact that the political parties don't seem to have reached out to these voters in a very direct way in the past. You know, the Asian populations are growing in places like Florida, Virginia, Georgia, Nevada. A lot of these could be tight races in this election. What's your theory about why, perhaps, political leaders have not reached out in a focused way towards these groups?

I mean, is language an issue? Is it that targeting materials to different language groups is expensive? What's your theory on this?

MOUA: I think that for these populations in these pockets, it's not that there's an intentional lack of action towards this population; I think that people are just not thinking that this population is significant in their political engagement work. To a large extent, I think the Asian-American, when it comes to the democratic process, have been largely ignored and dismissed.

And what this polling is indicating is that there's a tremendous opportunity here for some short-term engagement that could result in some long-term impact.

MARTIN: And are you speaking nationally? Because I think it would be impossible to ignore or dismiss Asian-American voters in some places, like where - that have been traditional population centers like, you know, San Francisco or Los Angeles. Is that true there as well? Or are you speaking more in terms of national campaigns?

MOUA: I would think that on the coast we have seen that in areas or geographies where there are large Asian-American populations, where there are Asian-American candidates who engage in political office, I think that candidates from that community to a large extent has really modeled how you could have an impact.

In Minnesota, for example, for as long as - for the 10 years that I was in office, except for my campaign, who's really made it a part of my core strategy to do outreach to the different communities of color, I have yet to see very few candidates - mainstream candidates - willing to do that, despite the fact of the demographic reality of the communities who live in those congressional or political districts.

MARTIN: Jane Junn, what's your perspective on that - on Mee's point that these voters have, in many cases, been ignored? What's your - do you agree with that assessment and why do you think that is?

JUNN: I think that most of the data will show that, with respect to mobilization efforts on the part of political parties and candidates, and less so to the extent with respect to community-based organizations and other advocacy groups.

But the main reason for that is not necessarily because they're Asian-American. It's because of the fact that Asian-American voters are, relatively speaking, rare. Right? I mean, 80 percent of the adult U.S. population who is Asian-American is foreign born and, therefore, not automatically a voting citizen, which - this does not mean that you ought to let the parties off the hook, but the point is that if there's a structural reason for the parties ignoring, relatively speaking, Asian-American voters compared to African-American voters or non-Hispanic whites, for example.

At the same time, it's important to look at trends in locations, as you just noted, with high Asian-American populations, such as California, and longstanding populations. Thirteen percent of the population of California is Asian-American. That's almost three times the size of the African-American population in the state.

Having said that, mobilization efforts, while stronger in places like California with high populations, are nevertheless modest compared to other groups. I'll give you the example of the 2010 governor's election in California, which pitted Jerry Brown, the Democrat, against Meg Whitman, who spent reportedly over $150 million attempting to mobilize voters.

In that campaign, the Republican candidate, as opposed to the Democratic candidate, engaged in language - attempts at recruiting Asian-American voters, Chinese-Americans, Vietnamese-Americans, for example, under the perception - and I think rightly so - that Asian-American voters could be swung. In the end, it didn't work out for Meg Whitman, the Republican, despite the amount of money she spent. But mobilization efforts by Republicans were undertaken in that election.

MARTIN: Mee, I'm going to give you the last word here, particularly as a successful candidate yourself. Do you - I don't know if you're in the advise giving business at this juncture, but do you have some for the candidates about targeting Asian-American voters?

MOUA: I think that the political candidates and the parties need to really just hone in on the 30 percent opportunity of the Independents, as well as the swing voters or the unattended-to voters that this poll reveals.

The other piece of it is that what this poll is indicating is that, actually, the Vietnamese-American community is also tending Democrat in how - in what we have found.

You know, there's the community that - what the poll shows is that, once you are able to get them to the poll and get them voting, they're fairly loyal and so I think it behooves the parties and candidates to tend to them.

MARTIN: We're going to keep an eye on this. Thank you for opening the door. Mee Moua is the co-author of a new poll from the civic mobilization group, Asia-Pacific Islander American Vote. She joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Jane Junn is a professor of political science at the University of Southern California. She co-authored a different study called the National Asian-American Survey, which followed Asian civic engagement, and she was with us from member station KPCC in Pasadena, California.

Ladies, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

JUNN: Thank you, Michel.

MOUA: Thank you.

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