Why do Asian Americans mostly vote for Democrats?

March 19

Political scientists Alexander Kuo, Neil Malhotra and Cecilia Hyunjung Mo write:

In the 2012 presidential election, Barack Obama won 73 percent of the Asian American vote, exceeding his support among Hispanics (71 percent) and women (55 percent). This striking statistic has caused a great deal of consternation among Republicans, who seem generally mystified as to what they might be doing wrong. . . . The GOP’s confusion comes not only because, in 1992, Bill Clinton captured just 36 percent of the Asian American vote. It is also because Asian Americans as a group have certain characteristics that would ordinarily predict a Republican political affiliation, most strikingly their level of income, which on average, is higher than any other ethnic group in the United States. . . .

They have two explanations, each of which they studied quantitatively:

First, there’s race. The feeling of social exclusion stemming from their ethnic background might push Asian Americans away from the Republican Party. . . . we conducted an experiment in a university laboratory in which both Asian Americans and white individuals were brought into the lab, and half of them were randomly subjected to a seemingly innocuous statement, such as being asked “Where were you born?” or being told “You speak good English.” . . . Among those who did not receive this message, 76 percent of respondents identified as Democrats . . .However, when prompted with the racial microaggression, 87 percent identified as Democrats . . . This is a very large increase given how innocuous the message was, and the fact that it was only mentioned once.

Interesting. It’s great to move from hypothesizing to measurement. I’d like to see a replication of this study. It’s not that I don’t believe it, it’s just that it’s easy enough to do a quick psychology experiment, and without a replication there’s always a nagging worry that the effect is just an artifact. Don’t get me wrong — I like their study and think their results support their general claims, I’d just like to see some confirmation.

And now for their second explanation:

When Asian Americans are reminded of their shared political interests with other minorities, they are pushed to the left. . . . We surveyed a large sample of Asian Americans and randomly assigned individuals to read different versions of a newspaper article that framed the important, high-impact issue of immigration in two different ways. One article focused on the impact of Arizona SB1070, a law that required police officers to ascertain people’s immigration status, indicating the common status of immigrants of Asian and Hispanic origin. Another article focused on how the current immigration reform debate can pit higher-skilled immigrants from Asia against lower-skilled immigrants from Latin America.

The result: When immigration was framed as an issue that teamed Hispanics and Asians together under the umbrella of common interest, 72 percent identified as Democrats . . . But when immigration was framed as an issue that pitted Hispanics and Asians against each other, only 67 percent of Asians identified as Democrats.

To all of this discussion I’d like to add a thought of my own. A couple years ago, in addressing this question, I pointed out:

According to this site, the states with lots of Asians are mostly pretty liberal. Here are the 10 states with highest %Asian:

Hawaii
California
New Jersey
New York
Nevada
Washington
Maryland
Virginia
Alaska
Massachusetts

And after that comes Illinois. And within these states I assume the Asians are likely to live in or near big cities.

At the bottom of the list, at less than 1% Asian, you have solidly Republican Montana, West Virginia, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Mississippi.

California alone is big enough that its 13% Asian represent a large proportion of all the Asians in the country. (Here’s a quick calculation: California has 38 million people, so 13% Asian comes to 5 million. The U.S. has 312 million people, 4.8% Asian, thus a total of 15 million.) A third of Asians in America live in California. And a bunch of the rest live in New York, New Jersey, and Hawaii.

This doesn’t by itself explain why Obama got so much of the Asian vote—but it’s not a surprise that members of a minority group concentrated in urban areas on the Pacific coast and the Northeast are mostly voting for Democrats.

I think all these things are part of the story.

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University. His books include Bayesian Data Analysis; Teaching Statistics: A Bag of Tricks; and Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do.
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