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Nearly 40 percent of Asian-American voters don't favor a party. Can the DNC change that?

While there has been a leftward shift among Asian-Americans registered voters, nearly 2 in 5 didn’t identify as either a Democrat or Republican.
by Chris Fuchs /

Hiring field organizers fluent in a community’s language. Getting state parties more involved. Registering millennials on or near college campuses to vote.

Those are some of the strategies Democratic National Committee (DNC) vice chair Grace Meng, a congresswoman from New York, said were deployed in the wake of a stunning 2016 election upset that sent President Donald Trump to the White House — and the DNC scrambling to figure out how to recover.

“There are no more off years,” Meng said.

Image: Grace Meng
Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY), enters the stage, for a panel discussion at the 2018 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference, at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., on March 5, 2018.Cheriss May / NurPhoto via Getty Images

The DNC, according to Meng, isn’t taking any chances when it comes to Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) voters, who account for around 4 percent of the electorate.

The Republican Party has previously declared victory in the fight for AAPI voters. In the 2014 midterm elections, 50 percent of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who responded to the National Election Pool exit poll voted for a Republican house candidate, compared to 49 percent who voted for a Democratic house candidate.

In the 2016 presidential election, both parties pursued this voting bloc, which is part of the fastest growing racial group, according to the Pew Research Center, and is expected to double by 2040, according to researchers.

“The Republican Party in the past has been active in wooing AAPI voters, and so that reminds our party that we need to do a better job,” Meng said.

Battleground voters

In this year’s midterm elections, Nevada and Southern California could be important battlegrounds in congressional races for Asian-American votes, according to Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder and director of AAPI Data and a public policy professor at the University of California, Riverside.

Ramakrishnan also mentioned senate races in Texas, Florida, New Jersey and Nevada where Asian-American and Pacific Islander voters could affect the outcome.

Democrats need to seize 24 seats in total from Republicans to gain control of the House and two to take the Senate.

“We have flipped 42 seats since Trump got elected, so I would say that’s a great start,” Meng said, referring to state legislative, gubernatorial, Senate and House seats, a tally compiled by the DNC.

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Ramakrishnan said Republicans seemed to make gains in 2014 because of more investment by the GOP and more enthusiasm among Republican voters, including Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

"Generally speaking, when you have a party out of power for a considerable period of time, like Republicans were, you'll have more enthusiasm among the base in terms of trying to regain power," he said.

For Democrats, Ramakrishnan said there was disappointment because of a lack of progress on comprehensive immigration reform and other issues.

"They weren't as enthusiastic because they didn't see progress from the Obama White House," he said.

US-VOTE-2012-ELECTION
Voters cast ballots in Los Angeles County in California on November 6, 2012.FREDERIC J. BROWN / AFP/Getty Images

Shekar Narasimhan, chairman of the AAPI Victory Fund, a super PAC that raises money for progressive Asian-American and Pacific Islander candidates, praised the DNC for doing “a very good job of being subtle” in supporting state and county parties and in doing organizing work.

But he was also critical of the amount of resources they’ve invested in the community.

“The most important thing to pay attention to is not the hype about 'we’re doing these great things and we’re here,'” he said. “It’s whether they’re putting their money where their mouth is.”

Both the DNC and Republican National Committee (RNC) did not comment on how much money they’ve spent on Asian American and Pacific Islander outreach.

The Republican Party in the past has been active in wooing AAPI voters, and so that reminds our party that we need to do a better job.

The Republican Party in the past has been active in wooing AAPI voters, and so that reminds our party that we need to do a better job.

Vedant Patel, the DNC’s director of AAPI media, said in an email that the party in 2017 made an “unprecedented commitment” to Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in Virginia, New Jersey, Washington and elsewhere.

“Democrats know that when we invest and engage with the AAPI community, we can elect more Democrats across the country,” he wrote in part.

Miki Carver, the RNC’s Asian Pacific American press secretary, said the Republican Party is committed to Asian American and Pacific Islander communities from California to New York.

“Our team is on the ground in these communities and we are seeing an enthusiasm from our AAPI neighbors like never before,” she wrote in part in an email.

'Unprecedented efforts'

Meng, in a recent interview, cited a number of DNC strategies set in motion following Trump’s win in 2016.

In last year’s special election for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, for instance, Meng said the DNC hired diverse field organizers, some of them Asian American. That was one of the first times the DNC invested in such on-the-ground staff for an election, according to Meng.

“They spoke the language, they were able to knock on doors, they were able to make phone calls and register voters,” the congresswoman said.

Image: Members of the New York police guard an entrance at a polling station as voting opened for the New York primary elections in the Manhattan borough of New York City
File photo of a polling station in New York City, April 19, 2016.ANDREW KELLY / Reuters

In Virginia’s gubernatorial and local state races, the DNC worked with state parties and did outreach through ethnic media, according to Meng. The party has also been mobilizing on the state level in places that Meng noted might not be thought of as having AAPI populations, like Arkansas and Arizona.

“One of the goals is for the state parties to have their members and their leaders be more active, so they’re able to reach out to communities on the ground,” she said.

The DNC has also prioritized its millennial outreach, Meng noted, an area that Democrats were criticized for in the 2016 presidential election.

“The most important thing to pay attention to is not the hype about we’re doing these great things and we’re here. It’s whether they’re putting their money where their mouth is.”

“The most important thing to pay attention to is not the hype about we’re doing these great things and we’re here. It’s whether they’re putting their money where their mouth is.”

But while Asian Americans voted in higher numbers in the last midterm election (recording a 9 percent increase compared to 2010, according to Census data), the proportion of citizens who voted actually declined, from 30.8 percent of totally population in 2010 to 27.1 percent in 2014.

While turnout for Asians was less than for blacks and whites, it was slightly higher than for Hispanics, according to the Pew Research Center, a point that community advocates say underscores the need for voter outreach.

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Meng said the conventional wisdom of almost any campaign is to target voters who have participated in the last one to three elections. But for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, she added, outreach has to extend beyond that.

“There may be a voter who has no voting history in the last 10 years, let’s say, but for the purposes of making sure we’re mobilizing them, we want to reach out to them too,” Meng explained.

This year, the DNC launched a campaign called “I Will Vote,” which Meng said intends to reach out to and register new voters, among them Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The website can be translated in part into Spanish, and the DNC is hoping to do more outreach in various Asian American and Pacific Islander languages, Meng said.

A bloc up for grabs

The untapped pool of potential Asian American and Pacific Islander voters has indeed garnered interest from both major parties as a bloc up for grabs.

Figures from the last presidential race show why: a combined 44 percent of Asian Americans either said they weren’t registered to vote or had no response to that question, according to the Census.

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And while there has been a leftward shift since 2012 among Asian Americans who are registered voters, nearly 2 in 5 still didn’t identify as either a Democrat or Republican, according to findings from a Spring 2016 report released by nonprofits APIAVote and Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, along with AAPI Data.

To be sure, available data show that Clinton prevailed over Trump with Asian American and Pacific Islander voters. But Ramakrishnan said Democrats may have lost support for their nominee among one group — Chinese Americans.

Obama got 69 percent of their vote in 2012, but Clinton took in just 61 percent in 2016, according to the National Asian American Survey.

This is important, Ramakrishnan said, because Chinese Americans make up the largest segment of the Asian-American vote.

“There’s two ways to look at it, and the results are a little bit different,” he said. “It’s either, is the GOP making inroads or are the Democrats losing support?”

It’s too early to tell if or how this might affect local, state and federal elections.

In recent years, some Chinese-American voters, many of them recent immigrants, have been rallying around issues like ending affirmative action and opposing state laws that require data on education and healthcare to be broken down by race or ethnicity.

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Ramakrishnan said WeChat, a popular Chinese-language social media app, has proven especially effective at spreading these messages. It was the tool of choice for Chinese Americans for Trump, a group that used WeChat to coalesce support around the president.

“If you look at discourse on WeChat, conservatives are winning the messaging game,” Ramakrishnan said.

Republicans once enjoyed strong support from Asian Americans, when 55 percent voted for former President George H.W. Bush in the 1992 election. But since then, that support has waned.

Still, Shekar of the AAPI Victory Fund said he believes the DNC isn’t doing enough to combat GOP messaging of wedge issues in both the Chinese- and Indian-American community. In the latter, he said, schisms are being drawn between Hindus and Muslims.

Shekar added that the DNC needs to counter with positive messaging and spend time and resources on social media like WeChat and WhatsApp, in addition to in-language media, for Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.

“Just because they have voted in ’08 or ’12 or ’16 overwhelmingly Democratic doesn’t mean they will continue to do so,” he said.

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