We examined how Trump racialized covid-19 and exacerbated anti-Asian sentiment among Americans. We also investigated whether this influenced Asian Americans’ political attitudes. In short, yes. Not only has there been a rise in anti-Asian sentiment since the pandemic began, but more Asian Americans have shifted to favoring the Democratic Party over the past year.
How we did our research
To better understand the links among political leaders’ rhetoric, anti-Asian attitudes and Asian Americans’ political affiliations, we examined both social media data and public opinion surveys.
First, we analyzed how prevalent anti-Asian sentiment was among the general public using a large-scale covid-19 Twitter chatter data set created by Panacea Lab from tweets sent between January and June 2020. From there, we looked at 1.39 million tweets that U.S. users composed in English and related to covid-19. We looked for anti-Asian tweets using a series of racially charged keywords such as “Chinese flu” and “kung flu.”
We found that Trump’s use of such terms was associated with a rapid rise of their use on social media. The count of both “Chinese flu” and “kung flu” increased exponentially after Trump made his first “China virus” speech. We found a parallel pattern on Google search trends.
Next, using a machine-learning technique called topic modeling, we examined tweets more broadly to identify anti-Asian sentiment related to the virus. We found that there was already anti-Asian sentiment present on Twitter in January 2020. However, even though Trump did not initiate anti-Asian bias, he exacerbated it by popularizing racialized covid-19 terms and implying there was an association between Asians and the coronavirus.
Did such rhetoric affect Asian Americans’ political affiliations?
Next, we were interested in how anti-Asian attitudes, driven by political leaders like Trump, shaped Asian Americans’ political views. We used weekly survey data from UCLA Nationscape and Democracy Fund to examine changes between July 2019 and May 2020. Each week, purposive sampling, or selecting respondents based upon their characteristics, was used to obtain a sample that was constructed to be representative of the population. The data we used was weighted to the 2018 American Community Survey by gender, region, race, education, age, household language and place of birth. Given the large number of weekly surveys made available to us for analysis, we were able to track partisan changes among Asian Americans.
We found that Trump’s framing of the pandemic as the “China virus” was associated with Asian Americans increasingly favoring the Democratic Party and Joe Biden, by a substantial amount. Even a month after Trump’s initial statement, Asian Americans identified with the Democratic Party by two points more. This movement toward the Democratic Party is especially notable, as large proportions of Asian Americans do not identify with a political party or identify as independents. When running the same analyses across other racial/ethnic groups, we found that changes in Latina/o, White and Black partisan attitudes were not as consistent or substantive as those among Asian Americans.
Since then, this partisan shift appears to have been sustained. A survey of Asian Americans conducted at the end of 2020, after the period covered by our research was over, found that 44 percent identified with the Democratic Party — while in 2016, only 36 percent of Asian Americans did.
What does this mean moving forward?
Our findings are consistent with other political scientists’ research. For example, Ben Newman and colleagues found that Trump’s rhetoric encourages and emboldens racist individuals to act upon their biases in what they call the “Trump effect.” Similarly, Alexander Kuo, Neil Malhotra and Cecilia Mo found that Asian Americans view the Republican Party as hostile to Asian Americans. When Whites suggest Asian Americans do not belong in the United States, Asian Americans become more supportive of the Democratic Party and view the Republican Party in a negative light.
The deadly attacks in Atlanta, combined with other incidents across the country, have brought an outpouring of grief and pain from Asian American communities and calls for unity against white supremacy. According to the Asian American Voter Survey, 33 percent of Asian Americans still do not identify with either party.
However, if Republican leaders continue to racialize the pandemic and if hate incidents continue, Asian Americans could become a more solidly Democratic voting bloc. This would have significant political implications at every level of U.S. government, because Asian Americans are and continue to be a growing part of the voting electorate.
Nathan Kar Ming Chan (@chanknathan) is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of California at Irvine who is interested in the political participation and public opinion of minority groups.
Jae Yeon Kim (@JaeJaeykim2) is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of California at Berkeley and investigates how marginalized populations participate in politics using data science.
Vivien Leung (@leungvivien_) is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of California at Los Angeles and is broadly interested in minority behavior and political psychology.