As Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio’s campaign faces a lagging delegate count, one of Rubio’s top policy advisers, Lanhee Chen, remains bullish on his candidate and hopeful that his party can win back Asian-American voters, who have swung increasingly toward the Democratic Party since the early '90s.
Last fall, it was deemed a coup for the Rubio campaign when Chen, Mitt Romney’s chief policy adviser in 2012, signed on to the Florida senator's team. He had been part of four previous presidential elections as an adviser to Republican candidates.
Chen has had a seemingly gilded professional life. In 2012, a National Journal profile described him as a “prodigy.” Last year, Chen made the “Politico 50” list of influencers “transforming American politics.”
“...both parties have taken the Asian-American vote for granted. It’s not just the Republican party.”
He’s also one of the most prominent and visible Asian-American advisers and strategists in the national political scene, as well as within the Republican establishment.
At age 37, Chen, a married father of two, has a resume and bio that the vast majority of immigrant parents would hold up to their kids, including the requisite Ivy League diplomas. Chen’s parents immigrated from Taiwan in the '70s, and Chen grew up in the San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles.
He has four degrees from Harvard University, including a law degree and doctorate in political science.
It’s hard not to label the man an overachiever. By last count, he's held four jobs: practicing attorney, research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and member of the public policy faculty at Stanford. That’s in addition to being an unpaid policy adviser to Sen. Rubio’s campaign and commuting regularly from his home in the San Francisco Bay Area to campaign headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Chen told NBC News he joined the campaign because of Rubio’s impressive grasp of domestic and foreign policy ideas and details. Still, Chen is swimming against a demographic tide among Asian Americans increasingly shifting toward Democratic presidential candidates.
In 1992, Bill Clinton received 31 percent of the Asian-American vote. That number steadily climbed in the past two decades, and by 2012, President Obama captured 73 percent of the vote.
While Chen admits it’s a “troubling trend,” he believes his party can call Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders back “home” by improving their outreach at the community level and more clearly articulating core Republican values.
“There was a time and place when the vast majority of Asian Americans voted Republican, and they voted Republican because they saw the party of Reagan, and the party of Bush 41, and the party of the second President Bush, which was a party of opportunity and a party that welcomed people who were seeking opportunity,” Chen said.
While he offers a loyalist’s critique of his own party’s failings at courting the Asian-American vote, he noted that “both parties have taken the Asian-American vote for granted. It’s not just the Republican party.”
“I’m hopeful that those trends can turn around," he added. "I really am. And I think this election can be a starting point for that.”
Whether Chen’s predictions hold up when the November exit poll data is released, Asian-American voters are likely to be courted more aggressively by both political parties in future election cycles. According to a 2015 study by the University of California, Los Angeles, the number of Asian-American voters is expected to double by 2040. As the study points out, in tight races and swing states, this voting block could affect regional and national races through increased mobilization and turnout.