The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Politicians often overlook Asian American voters. They shouldn’t, especially in 2020.

Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) attends an immigration roundtable at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas in June. (John Locher/AP)
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Every analyst, strategist, reporter and armchair pundit has a preferred group Democrats should woo to win the White House in 2020: blue-collar white Democrats who voted for Trump, the women who fueled the suburban revolt of 2018, the black voters whose high turnout rates helped President Barack Obama win the presidency twice, or the long-awaited Latino surge.

These strategies might be reasonable, but they typically fail to mention a significant and growing population: Asian American voters. Asian Americans are the fourth-largest racial group in the United States, and the Asian American population has been growing faster than any other ethnic group. They’re strongly Democratic, too: 65 percent of Asian Americans are Democrats or lean toward the Democratic Party, while only 27 percent identify as a Republican or lean toward the GOP. Yet they’re often relegated to, at best, a footnote in conversations about national politics. Thanks to changes to the 2020 Democratic primary calendar that give Asian American voters more influence, this could change. Smart politicians would be wise to figure out how to win them over.

There are some legitimate reasons for the omission of Asian American voters from horse-race narratives. In recent elections, Asian American voters have been disadvantaged by the facts of political geography: Many were packed into states that vote late in the primary calendar and were safely blue in the general election. Asian American voters have historically turned out to vote at low rates, though they also report having less contact with politicians, a dynamic that might turn into a self-fulfilling cycle. And Asian American community and political organizations have not developed events that have become a critical part of the national political calendar in the same way that Rep. James E. Clyburn’s fish fry or the Essence Festival have for Democratic politicians.

If geography is destiny, Asian Americans have been dealt a politically disadvantageous hand based on where they live. According to the Center for American Progress, 5.5 percent of the national electorate in 2016 fell into the somewhat overbroad “Asian or other race” category in 2016, not much smaller than the 8.9 percent of the electorate that was Latino. But many of these Asian American voters live in uncompetitive states such as Hawaii, California, New Jersey, New York, Washington state, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland and Alaska. The only two vaguely swing-y states that have solid Asian American blocs are Virginia and Nevada, so national politicians often feel free to ignore California, New Jersey, New York and other big, uncompetitive states with substantial Asian American populations.

The story is a bit brighter for Asian American voters in presidential primaries and House elections, though not much. In the 2018 House elections, Asian American voters likely helped Democrats flip a number of traditionally Republican seats in Southern California, but they didn’t play as prominent a role in other regions and competitive districts. In the 2016 presidential primary, most states with a solid Asian American population voted well after Super Tuesday, when Hillary Clinton had already built a big delegate lead over Bernie Sanders. In 2008, the calendar gave Asian American-heavy states more influence in the Democratic primary, but these voters were less numerous and less lopsidedly Democratic at that time, which blunted the impact of their votes.

The 2020 Democratic primary might finally be a different story.

The Asian American population has grown larger and increasingly Democratic, which gives it more power within the 2020 primary. Pew calculated that in 2016, Asian Americans made up about 3 percent of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters — a significant increase from 1992, when 99 percent of Democrats were white, African American or Hispanic. And thanks to the primary calendar, they will probably have a louder voice than they had in 2008, the last genuinely competitive Democratic primary.

Nevada, a state where a modest 10 percent of the overall electorate is Asian American or Pacific Islander (AAPI) , is one of the four early voting states. California, where 15 percent of the electorate is AAPI, will also vote on Super Tuesday. Asian American voters obviously aren’t numerous enough to carry their preferred candidate to the nomination. But especially in a primary field this crowded, they could end up giving a substantial, and maybe decisive, boost to a contender in one of these contests.

If Asian American voters will have more influence in this primary, it’s not entirely clear how they intend to use it. The results of the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a gigantic survey conducted by academics, turns up few issues where Asian Americans differ substantially from other Democratic groups. Asian American Democrats seemed to be on the left on social issues, mostly similar to Hispanic Democrats on national security questions and generally believe that white people have advantages because of the color of their skin and that racial problems are not rare, isolated incidents. Other surveys have shown that Asian American voters prioritize “kitchen table issues” such as health care, the economy and education and are generally in favor of government intervention into the economy.

Reform-minded Republicans have also pointed out that many Asian American voters value free enterprise and the family and have some culturally conservative inclinations. So we might expect Asian Democrats to be somewhat pragmatic: to look for a candidate who can help their family’s bottom line rather than the cause of pure left ideology.

Part of the reason it’s challenging for politicians to draft a platform aimed at Asian Americans is that, like Latinos, that label is actually a big tent. The largest country-of-origin group is Chinese Americans, and they make up only a quarter of Asian Americans. About 20 percent of Asian Americans came from India, another fifth came from the Philippines, and many others came from Japan, Korea, Vietnam and other countries. These subgroups vary widely in their political leanings, religion, income levels and more, so it’s vital to be careful about over-generalizing and suggesting that all voters who are labeled “Asian” have the same preferences and goals.

And politics is about more than just policy positions. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), who is of Indian and Jamaican descent, arguably has a higher chance of winning the presidency than any other Asian American in U.S. history. She could get the votes of some Asian Americans who feel underrepresented in politics and government — or that part of her identity could get lost in the conversation as she argues with Joe Biden on busing. Andrew Yang, known mostly as a high-profile advocate for a universal basic income, could also become a focal point for Taiwanese American voters.

Trying to win over Asian Americans community by community and vote by vote might sound like a specific and time-consuming process. But in this Democratic primary, and in a tough general-election fight against a controversial incumbent candidate, Democrats need every ballot they can get.