By JOSH RICHMAN Contra Costa Times
WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — Add Asian-Americans to the list of voting blocs that candidates and political parties ignore at their own peril.
Just as “soccer moms” proved to be a crucial swing vote in 1996 and Latinos have become a much-sought-after constituency, the Asian-American electorate is now emerging as a game-changer.
The signs are ominous for Republicans: The Asian-American population exploded in the past decade, and recent polls show Asian-Americans are turning away from the GOP in droves.
They’ve “started to understand they have the leverage,” said Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif. “A marginalized community has become a margin of victory.”
Honda might grasp that better than most. He’s seeking his own re-election in the newly drawn 17th Congressional District, where about 49 percent of the population is Asian-American, according to data from the California Citizens Redistricting Commission. That represents the largest Asian-American population of any House of Representatives district on the U.S. mainland.
A Democratic National Committee vice chairman since 2005, Honda is now arguably the Obama campaign’s leading Asian-American spokesman.
Coupled with Pacific Islanders, Asian-Americans represent the nation’s fastest-growing minority group. Census data show that the population grew by 41 percent nationwide from 2000 to 2011, but at higher rates – in many cases, much higher – in nine of 11 states likely to be key battlegrounds in November’s presidential election.
Although they still make up a tiny fraction of voters nationally, Asian-Americans “potentially could be the deciding force” in states such as Nevada, Virginia and Florida, said political prognosticator Larry Sabato, who directs the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “In those close states, every additional vote matters.”
Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders are 5.2percent of the national population, but 5.9percent in Virginia and 8.4percent in Nevada. And since 2000 those battleground states have seen their Asian-American populations boom by 55percent and 71percent, respectively. In Virginia, that burgeoning population was crucial to the 2006 and 2008 victories of Gov. Tim Kaine and U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Jim Webb.
California, where two of five Asian-Americans live, was 14.1percent Asian-American in 2011, 25.9percent higher than in 2000.
In a poll conducted in April for three national Asian-American advocacy groups, Asian-Americans self-identified as Democrats rather than Republicans by more than 3-1. Seventy-three percent viewed President Barack Obama favorably; 27 percent viewed GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney favorably.
It wasn’t always this way: In 1992, President George H.W. Bush got 55percent of the Asian-American vote, compared with Bill Clinton’s 31percent.
Many Asian-Americans once favored the GOP because it was seen as the more anti-communist of the two major parties – particularly among Vietnamese emigres and Chinese and Korean immigrants. But as the Cold War faded, candidates’ stands on communism became increasingly irrelevant. And many children of Asian immigrants joined their peers in drifting to the left politically.
The April poll showed that Asian-Americans rated Democrats three to four times higher than Republicans in areas such as health care, standing up for the middle class, treating all Americans fairly and equally, sharing their values, education and immigration. They also favored Democrats, although by narrower margins and with more seeing little difference between the parties, on foreign policy, jobs and the economy, taxes, national security and the budget deficit.
The poll also showed poor outreach to Asian-American and Pacific Islander voters from both major parties. And a study released in October by the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice found that although such voters turned out in record numbers in 2008, only 68percent of those who are of voting age are actually citizens. In addition, only 55percent of those eligible to vote have registered. And once registered, their turnout rate still lags behind that of white voters, who nationally favor the GOP.
So, academic experts and advocates say, more naturalization, voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts are need to fully awaken this sleeping giant.
“There’s still a lot of untapped potential,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside, who has written and edited books and studies on immigrant politics and civic engagement.
“If one party is more successful in getting people to get into the habit of registering and voting,” he said, “history suggests they will continue voting along those lines.”
The key to engaging new voters is focusing on issues most important to them, said An Le, community engagement project director at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles.
“People don’t vote because they don’t see how it can affect their lives personally, the lives of their community members,” she said.
The center is running a voter-education project based around something that hits closer to home: the tax measures on California’s November ballot.
“They are getting that connection because it’s getting too expensive to go to a four-year university in the state system,” Le said.
Honda said Obama’s focus on health care, job creation and educational and economic opportunity – as well as his appointment of Asian-Americans to administration posts and federal courts – is resonating with Asian-American voters.
He said the president’s birth in Hawaii and his childhood there and in Indonesia gave perspectives on Asian-American affairs unlike any other president’s.
“I think his style is very Asian-American, thoughtful – he doesn’t make snap decisions,” Honda said.
He added that given the four years Obama’s family spent in Indonesia, he’s had “on a daily basis more of an Asian influence even than I had.”
The presidential campaigns’ outreach seems so far to be asymmetrical.
An “Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for Obama” Facebook page has more than 23,000 “likes,” while a grassroots “Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders for Mitt Romney” Facebook page, created in February, has fewer than 300 members.
Carlo De La Cruz, voting rights coordinator for the San Francisco-based Asian Law Caucus, said the key to building a solid Asian-American electorate is language: One in three Asian-American voters still struggles with English proficiency, so groups like his strive to ensure “all voters regardless of what language they speak have the ability to vote” under protections provided by federal law.
That got a little easier as 2010 census data forced some counties to offer ballots and other election materials in more languages, he said.
The Voting Rights Act requires that such materials be translated into any language spoken by at least 5 percent of the population. So, for example, Alameda County had to add Tagalog and Vietnamese, while Sacramento added Chinese.
“Both political parties are finally starting to pay attention to the Asian-American vote,” De La Cruz said. “Hopefully this will only mean that civic engagement and voter turnout will increase.”