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Mariam Khan/MEDILL

Pakistani Americans head into their polling site to cast their ballots on Election Day. Exit polls show at least 70 percent of Asian Americans chose Obama, a sign that the nation's fastest-growing electorate is leaning Democratic. 

Asian Americans voted for Obama this time, but their loyalty isn’t assured, experts say

by Mariam Khan
Nov 14, 2012

Mariam Khan/MEDILL

Nearly a thousand Asian Americans were surveyed, and their results show the community as heavily supportive of Democrats -- despite a lackluster outreach effort by the Democratic and Republican Parties. (Graphics courtesy of Asian American Institute).

Despite the rapid growth of the Asian American population – a 55 percent increase in Illinois since 2000, and 46 percent nationally – Asian Americans have remained largely uncourted politically.

“Candidates use the community as ATM machines,” said Sayu Bhajwani, executive director of New American Leaders Project, during a phone conference. “There’s no real voter engagement.”

Obama got the Asian American vote by a 73 percent to 26 percent margin. These voters voted even more heavily Democratic than Latinos, who voted 71 percent to 27 percent for Obama over Mitt Romney. But that was not the result of active engagement with the Asian American community.

It’s a group that, “neither party can afford to not court at this point,” said Rekha Radhakrishnan, communications director of the nonpartisan Asian American Institute. “The Republican Party in particular had yet to define itself for this group of voters, leaving a real opportunity, but one that I don’t think was seized in this election cycle,” she said.

A significant number of voters, according to a recent nationwide survey, say there is no difference between the parties. However, Asian Americans say the Democratic Party is overall doing better than the Republican Party.

More than half the population of Asian Americans strongly identify themselves as Democrats, compared with 16 percent identifying as Republicans, the survey of 713 Asian American voters found. Roughly a third of Asian Americans identify as independents or don’t identify with either party.

“The survey data indicates that both parties did a relatively poor job of reaching out to the Asian American community as of the second quarter this year,” said Radhakrishnan.

Independent voters were up for grabs, but only 23 percent of voters were contacted by the Democratic Party in the last two years, and only 17 percent of voters were contacted by the Republican Party.

“This again is tied in part to demographics; Asian Americans constitute significant numbers across this country and can be the margin of victory in tight races,” Radhakrishnan said. “Both on the national and local level, neither party can afford to ignore Asian Americans in elections.”

Democrats including Tammy Duckworth and Brad Schneider, both newly elected to Congress, have done a “good job of reaching out,” said Kathleen Fernicola, policy expert and lecturer at University of Chicago.

“Democrats, at least locally, were humane and fair, and didn’t immediately dismiss Asian American voters,” she said.

Asian American voters are dispersed across the country, though two in five live in California. Chicago has the third highest population of Asian Americans of any city in the country.

They also tend to speak a language other than English at home, and most are born outside the United States, the survey says.

Similar to the general population, Asian Americans have negative views of the economy, with a third who think the economy is “poor,” the survey shows. However, they tend to think the country is moving in the right direction. Though they like Obama, they are split on his job performance, with 37 percent saying he is doing “just fair.” Nearly 3 in 10 either never heard of or have no opinion of Mitt Romney.

According to AAI, Asian Americans in general are a young electorate, with no generational political affiliation – 31 percent of Asian American voters in 2008 were voting for the first time.

Historically, Asian Americans have been conservative, holding views on the economy and jobs that are consistent with the Republican Party’s platform, Fernicola said. Yet on Election Day Obama got most of their votes.

Asian Americans voters are concerned with many of the issues that the larger electorate is focused on—the deficit, national security and immigration, and on those issues they believe the Democratic Party is serving them well, according to the survey.

Had Romney targeted Asian American voters nationally and in swing states, such as Florida and Ohio, the election might have turned out differently, Fernicola said.

“If the Republican Party is able to convincingly present their approach, and demonstrate that they can work in a bipartisan way, more Asian Americans will consider Republican candidates next time,” Fernicola said.