Are Asian-Americans so put off by Trump they’re coalescing into a hard-Democrat demographic? That’s been the implication of a widely-reported survey released earlier this week by three Asian-American groups—AAPI Data, Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice. Most news reports, such as this one from NPR, have focused, as did the report’s executive summary, on the statistic that, “More than 40 percent of Asian-American voters surveyed said they would oppose a candidate—whom they otherwise agreed with on most issues—if he/she had anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim views.” The lesson seems to be clear: Asian-Americans, the fastest-growing demographic in the land, were being driven into the arms of the Democrats by Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Or are they? A deeper dive suggests that while Trump may not be helping, the party as a whole is so far underwater with Asian-Americans that the anti-immigrant stance of its front-runner cannot be solely or perhaps even primarily responsible. The polling on the anti-immigrant rhetoric question shows that, as reports highlighted, over 40% of Asian-Americans in almost every sub-demographic would change their vote away from an anti-immigrant candidate:
But 29-47% of various demographics wouldn’t. On the other hand, if you look at the polling on party preference for House elections, the percentages pulling for the GOP are even smaller. If you take out the more traditionally Republican Vietnamese-Americans, there’s not a single ethnic group that rates the GOP higher than 23%, with most in the teens:
In other words, the Asian-American community is more likely to vote for “a political candidate [who] expressed strongly anti-immigrant views, but you agreed with him or her on other issues” (emphasis added) than their local Republican House candidate. This is true even before you add in any of those who “don’t know” if the anti-immigrant talk would drive them away. The problem would appear to be less the exclusionist rhetoric (though again, that’s not to say that it helps with Asian-Americans) than with the “other issues.”
When you look at what issues Asian-Americans care most about, there should be fertile grounds for GOP outreach:
Yes, Health Care and “Security of retirement” (i.e. entitlements), are generally considered strong Democratic issues, but on the other hand “threat of terrorist attacks” and “jobs and the economy” are traditional GOP strong suits, with “education” at best contested. What gives?
I examined this question this fall for TAI in, “Will Asian-Americans Kill the GOP?“Asian-Americans have been voting Democrats for a while now (though as the NPR survey makes clear, strong explicit party identification with the Donkey is new), and it puzzles the heck out of people:
Asian Americans, as Edsall points out, have a higher median income than whites, Hispanics, or African Americans, are more likely to have a college degree, and have a lower percentage of out-of-wedlock births. They are also more likely than the average American to agree that “most people can get ahead if they work hard” (according to Pew). And yet, 73 percent of Asian Americans voted for President Obama in 2012.
But as a group swollen by new immigrants, the Asian-American shift makes sense:
Basically, it looks as if the new Asian Americans are following the trajectory of many other immigrant groups in the past. Since the wave of Irish immigration in the 1840s, most newcomers have organized politically in the United States under the aegis of the Democratic Party. Each new group would get a share of the “spoils” system—elected offices, other plum jobs, contracts. Times have changed since Tammany Hall, but urban political machines continue to offer a welcome to new immigrants.
Ethnic politics in a spoils system setting is something many immigrants understand from the old country. Look at India, where political parties mix socialism, protectionism, identity politics, corporatism, and ethnic coalition-building. In many ways, the Democrats are a much cleaner, less corrupt, less dysfunctional version of what someone from India—or China or most other places—has understood government to be for his or her entire life. So with the exception of a few groups—e.g. Cuban and Vietnamese Americans, for example—the vast majority of immigrant groups in America have started out organizing on the left.
Meanwhile, younger, better assimilated, second and third generation Asian-Americans are often so successful that they rocket past the GOP socio-economic stages to the college-educated demographics—hardly, at least among younger voters, natural GOP fodder.
But if the growing Asian-American Democratic affiliation isn’t just about Trumpism, and if historic and demographic factors help pull Asian-Americans left, this still doesn’t let the GOP off the hook here. Look again at that top priority: education. From the failure of urban schooling to the persistent war being waged against Asian applicants by Ivy-league elites, the left-leaning educational establishment stands objectively athwart the aspirations of Asian-Americans. And yet, per the same survey, only 10% of Asian-Americans trust the Republican Party more on it, versus 40% who trust the Democrats.
This all suggests a GOP failure to frame the issues properly and to court Asian-Americans. It also likely reflects a growing GOP tendency to write off the cities (where many Asian-Americans, especially recent immigrants, live) as hopelessly blue, rather than offering policy alternatives. But at the 10,000 foot level, it suggests too that GOP has gotten itself into the worst of all possible worlds—one in which the Party’s elites have managed in the run-up to 2016 to alienate both anti-immigration Jacksonians and immigrant groups at the same time.
The good news is, fixing it isn’t zero sum. If the schools worked, or if people trusted the GOP’s plan to make them, both Jacksonians and first-generation Indian-American parents would be more likely to give the GOP a hearing, and so on for issues from municipal solvency to national security. The bad news is, figuring out how to reframe policy in many of these areas is going to take a while—certainly longer than between now and November.