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.”
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).
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.
One of those “old people” is Bich Nguyen. At 75, Bich is a popular leader in the D.C.-area Vietnamese community. He helped develop Radio Free Asia, which combats propaganda in Asian countries with grants from the federal government, and was its first director. A Fulbright scholar who attended Princeton and Columbia, Bich began working for the South Vietnamese government’s news service. As the North Vietnamese crept toward Saigon in April 1975, he was sent to the United States in a last-ditch effort to convince the American government to continue providing support to the South Vietnamese. Bich says he knew the mission was futile when he spoke with South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, who for some reason started talking about Korea. “Uh, no, Vietnam,” Bich recalls himself thinking as he spoke to Thurmond, then already in his seventies.
So he returned home, taking the last commercial flight into Saigon on April 26, to collect his wife and escape—he was one of the “vulnerables” whose life was about to get much worse once the Communists were in charge. Bich and his wife fled to the small island of Phu Quy and on April 30, the day Saigon fell, they were picked up by an American barge, the American Challenger. He remembers American helicopters dropping food onto the crowded ship as it made its way across the Pacific.
Almost all Vietnamese Americans have some connection to 1975. Some fled as Bich did or soon after, often on crudely constructed boats. Others came over the years as families reunited in the United States. The younger generations, those born in America, have parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles who remember the persecution in Communist Vietnam. Bich is a Republican, like many of his generation, because of his experiences opposing communism in his home country.
“Issues of national security and defense tend to be quite important to us,” he says. “Eventually, over two million Vietnamese fled the Communists and those, you know, were unhappy because they had their property confiscated, they were sent to very inhospitable land to remake their lives. Several hundred thousand were put in concentration camps and all this kind of thing. So that was the kind of background that makes us open to the Republican ideology.”
The downturn in the economy and its effect on a relatively recent immigrant group, Bich says, has also affected the Vietnamese way of life and, in turn, their politics.
“People lost jobs, and therefore instead of going to work for the big American companies, that’s no longer available. So you turn back from being an engineer, Ph.D. and all of that, you go and open a restaurant. So in a way, the Vietnamese economically tend to think very independently. You don’t try to rely on welfare or something like that,” Bich says.
All these characteristics of Vietnamese-American culture are on display at Eden Center. The community doesn’t just work and shop at the nearly 120 Vietnamese-owned businesses here. There are restaurants and delis, karaoke bars and billiard rooms, tax preparation centers and a gym. Business owners sponsor local school sports teams. Children work at their parents’ stores, and business is a family affair. Throughout the year, the community holds traditional festivals and cultural events at the center, such as the annual Miss Vietnam D.C. pageant and the mid-autumn Moon Festival. The center’s parking lot has street signs honoring fallen heroes of South Vietnam like Tran Van Hai and Le Nguyen Vy.
In this little pocket of Northern Virginia, small-town, middle-class values—with a Vietnamese flair—thrive. And not unrelatedly, so does the Republican party.
Michael Warren is a reporter at The Weekly Standard and a 2012 Robert Novak Journalism fellow with the Phillips Foundation.