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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The National Asian American Survey, released in September, shows U.S. Asian voters identified more with Obama than Romney on several issues, including women’s rights, health care, education, immigration, jobs, and foreign policy. Romney’s only advantage was a small one on the budget deficit. The NAAS also found that the “economy in general” was the most important problem for likely Asian-American voters (54.5 percent), with unemployment coming in at a long second (13 percent).

As it turns out, the Vietnamese are one of the more Republican-leaning Asian subgroups, along with Filipinos. But poll data show most other Asian groups vote differently. Here’s Pew’s Democrat-to-Republican breakdown: Vietnamese, 36 percent to 35 percent; Filipinos, 43 percent to 40 percent; Koreans, 48 percent to 32 percent; Chinese, 49 percent to 26 percent; Japanese, 54 percent to 29 percent; and Indians, 65 percent to 18 percent. (The rest were unaffiliated or third party.)

The U.S. census provides the other half of the picture. In 1990, there were 6.9 million Asian Americans, most of whom were Chinese and Filipino. The Japanese, Korean, and Indian populations were roughly even at around 12 percent of the Asian population each, while Vietnamese were only 8.9 percent. But those relative percentages changed drastically over the next 20 years. By 2010, the share of Japanese dropped by more than half. The share for more Republican-friendly Filipinos and Koreans fell, too, though by much less. The Democratic-leaning Chinese remained stable at around 23 percent, while the Vietnamese increased their share to 10.6 percent. But Indians (by far the most liberal and most Democratic bloc of Asian Americans) upped their share by nearly two-thirds between 1990 and 2010, so that they now make up over 19 percent of the U.S. Asian population—just about 2.8 million people.

What’s more interesting, a separate Pew study on religion shows that Asians who are evangelical Protestants or Roman Catholics lean more Republican than their coreligionists among all Americans. But as Razib Khan of Discover magazine points out, in 1990, 60 percent of Asian Americans were Christian, but two decades later, only 40 percent are. Looking at all these numbers, it’s no wonder Asian Americans went so strongly for Obama in 2012.

Still, like most things demographic, the concept of the “Asian-American vote” is complex and messy. The NAAS found that Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese, and Japanese Americans are more likely to vote, while Indian Americans are less likely. Consider, too, the cultural diversity among what we call “Asian Americans.” Japanese and Filipino Americans intermarry with non-Asians at high levels, while Indian and Vietnamese Americans don’t. Sixty percent of Korean and Vietnamese Americans say it is very important that future generations speak their native language; only 29 percent of Indian Americans and 25 percent of Japanese Americans say the same thing. Japanese and Filipinos are more concentrated in the western part of the country, while only about a quarter of Indian Americans live on the West Coast.

None of this even considers the expanding ranks of immigrants from the Middle East and Central Asia. The truth is, trying to understand the overarching political attitudes of a group that lumps together Koreans, Indians, and Arabs is counterproductive.

So how can we make sense of the pro-Romney outliers of Northern Virginia Vietnamese? The Census Bureau reports there are about 41,000 Vietnamese Americans in the region, and almost 70 percent live in Fairfax County, which borders Falls Church. That’s 2 percent of the more than 1.8 million Vietnamese Americans in the United States, most of whom live in the western half of the country. One poll of California voters suggests the Vietnamese community in that pervasively liberal environment is much more Democratic.

Back in Northern Virginia, Jonathan Duong says the key lies in understanding his community’s culture. Hard work, individualism, family—that’s what attracts his people to the GOP. “From our culture in Vietnam, that’s what it’s about. You go to work, you make whatever amount per hour, enough to take care of everybody. That’s what matters,” he says.

But for the Vietnamese Republicans here, the reason may just as likely be historical. Hung Hoang, the barbershop owner, immigrated to the United States in 1989, where he already had family. He says the older generation that first came to the U.S. in 1975, after the Vietnam war, influenced the politics of the next generations. “The first time we came here, the old people .  .  . said the Republican party was for human rights in Vietnam,” Hoang says.

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