The Magazine

Why Romney Lost the ‘Asian Vote’

Drill down into the numbers, and it’s not a surprise.

Dec 3, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 12 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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Falls Church, Va.
Turning off U.S. 50 at a chaotic six-way intersection onto Wilson Boulevard, you can just see the red roof of the clock tower at Eden Center. A replica of the Ben Thanh market in old Saigon, the clock tower peeks out above the shops of this Asian shopping mall seven miles west of Washington, D.C. Buildings here go by names like “Saigon East,” “Saigon West,” and “Saigon Gardens.”

Why Romney Lost the Asian Vote

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The colorful and ornate Imperial-style gate entrance into the parking lot is impressive. Two stone lions maintain sentry posts beneath the pagoda-like tiled roofs of the entryway. Flanking the lions are two flags, American and South Vietnamese. A few weeks ago, I pulled into Eden Center for a banh mi sandwich and noticed about 20 Romney-Ryan yard signs lining the driveway just past the gate. Minh Duong, 57 and a proud Republican, says she put the signs there.

“Everybody loved it,” Minh says, adding that most in the Vietnamese community in Northern Virginia supported Mitt Romney. “I asked an old [person] that retired already,” she reports. “And she just said, ‘I have to vote for Romney.’ She can’t even speak ‘Romney’!”

Minh owns a cosmetics store, Eden Skin Care, inside Eden Center’s original pedestrian mall. It doesn’t take much prompting to get her to talk about why she’s a Republican.

“We work hard,” she says. “The first time, we got help from government. But later on, we have to go step by step. We’ve got to work! But some people, sometimes, they’re just lazy. It’s easy money. Go on welfare or whatever. They get money from us. We work hard. We pay tax. I work seven days a week. I don’t take off. Sometimes, I want to take off, but I can’t because if I take off, we lose [money]. I can’t afford it.”

Most days, Minh’s American-born 21-year-old son, Jonathan, works in the store, too. Jonathan, who like his mother votes Republican, agrees with her assessment of heavy Romney support in the community. “Everybody around here, in this area, is a small-business owner,” Jonathan says. “And lately, the past four years, business has been pretty slow. It’s affecting everybody, so we just wanted to see a difference.”

That goes for 48-year-old Hung Hoang, who owns two barbershops at Eden Center with his family. He says he votes GOP because he believes lower taxes will help his businesses. “We think about the economy,” Hung says.

Any support for Romney in liberal Northern Virginia is notable—Barack Obama won Fairfax County by just under 20 points. But among Asian Americans specifically? That’s unusual. According to the 2012 national exit polls, Obama won 73 percent of U.S. Asians, an 11-point improvement from his performance in 2008. That was the largest swing in any direction among any racial group. Obama won a higher proportion of Asian Americans than he did Hispanics, 71 percent of whom voted to reelect the president. The swing was pronounced enough to garner media attention in the wake of the election.

“Asian-American voters show growing clout, leftward turn,” read one headline in the San Jose Mercury News. “The GOP’s Asian erosion,” read another at Politico. “Erosion” has it about right. In 1992, George H. W. Bush actually won a majority of Asian Americans at 55 percent, and as recently as 1996, Republicans were pulling a plurality of the Asian vote (48 percent for Bob Dole to 43 percent for Bill Clinton). But that reversed sharply in 2000, when Al Gore won 54 percent of the Asian vote to George W. Bush’s 41 percent. The Democratic share of the Asian vote has increased since then: 56 percent in 2004, 62 percent in 2008, to 73 percent this year. It’s true U.S. Asians are a small portion of the electorate, accounting for only 3 percent of the overall voting population in 2012. But Asians are now the fastest-growing immigrant group, after supplanting Hispanics in 2009. All that has Republicans wondering exactly what happened.

The Pew Research Center’s June study, titled “The Rise of Asian Americans,” may contain some answers. According to Pew, 50 percent of U.S. Asians either identify as or lean Democratic, compared with only 28 percent who identify as or lean Republican. Asian Americans are more liberal than the general public (31 percent to 24 percent conservative) and say they prefer a bigger government with more services to a small government with fewer services (55 percent to 36 percent). On social issues, U.S. Asians are more or less aligned with their fellow Americans: 53 percent believe homosexuality “should be accepted” by society (compared with 58 percent of the general public), and 54 percent believe abortion should be “legal in all or most cases” (compared with 53 percent of the general public).

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