The Obama Asian American Landslide

Last weekend on the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC, Wade Henderson the president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund said the following regarding the presidential election:

I found the interesting statistic to be the Asian American vote. Because the Asian American community doesn’t have the homogeneity, the cohesion that people have talked about. You’re talking about South Asian, Vietnamese and others. The fact that they gave 73% of their vote to the Obama presidency tells you that it really is about policies and not about demographics alone. They are the community that is most likely, it would seem, to align with the Republican party because their economic interests are very much the same.

That same weekend, on Up With Chris Hayes, Mr. Hayes made the following statement:

…almost no one has noticed what to me is the most shocking result, and that’s how the two candidates did with Asian-American voters….Asian-Americans are also, according to the latest census, the fastest growing racial sub category in America. In fact, the census projects that by mid-century they will make up 9% of the country. And as it happens, Asian-Americans are also the nation’s highest earning ethnicity, with median incomes even higher than those of whites.

So you might have predicted that Mitt Romney would do well with them, since he won among voters making more than $100,000 a year.

But he did not. He got creamed, losing Asian-American voters 73% to 26%. This is a shocking result not only because just 20 years ago George H.W. Bush carried Asian-Americans comfortably, or because the margin is so wide, but because the entire category of Asian-American is so obviously a construction there’s little reason to suspect members of the group would vote with each other in any discernible pattern…

This was one of the first times I’d heard Asian Americans discussed on a nationally televised program dedicated to politics. As I noted in a previous post, my firm, ChangeLab, pulled the transcripts of seven weekly political commentary programs televised between January 1-June 30 of this year including Face the Nation, Meet the Press, State of the Union, This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Fox News Sunday, Up with Chris Hayes, and Melissa Harris-Perry (which wasn’t on for the whole period).

Over the course of that 6 month period, these programs aired 169 episodes. Only one featured discussion of Asian Americans, the May 27, 2012 episode of Melissa Harris-Perry. Other than that, in the entire 6 month period under study, the term “Asian American” was uttered only seven times. And one was a sports reference.

Since then in spite of programs focusing on race and the elections, and even race in America, Asian Americans were simply not part of the discussion.

But then, the election results came in and suddenly, there we were, relevant because we did something surprising enough to get folks’ attentions. Of course, we weren’t allowed to speak for ourselves. Nope, other people spoke about us. The single exception was Up’s inclusion of conservative Romney health policy adviser Avik Roy, who knows just about as much about Asian Americans as anyone who just happens to be Asian American.

I’m going to give folks some slack here and say that inexperience is the reason for the clumsiness. The inexperience, on the other hand, I’m not going to let slide.

In that spirit, here for the virgins are my five guesses as to why Asian Americans voted for Obama:

  1. Asian Americans have been cast as perpetual foreigners, even when we are American-born. Given the way that race was used by the GOP to cast Obama as not quite American, even foreign and therefore dangerous or ineligible to be president, I’m guessing Asian Americans saw that their interests lay elsewhere.
  2. We aren’t all wealthy. Most Asian Americans are wage earners who don’t benefit much from eradicating inheritance and capital gains taxes. In fact, the median income of Asian Americans is well under the $100,000 a year tipping point after which voters were more likely to support Romney.
  3. Some of us, such as Vietnamese, Laotian, and Hmong Americans, are among the poorest people in the country. We are aware of that even if others aren’t. You might arrive at a more useful analysis of us if you didn’t first reference our diversity and then address us as a monolith.
  4. As many as 1.5 million Asian immigrants in the U.S. arrived without documentation. When Republicans attack immigrants as “illegals” they are talking about us, too.
  5. Asian Americans are people of color. In our own generation or in generations before us, we have benefited from programs such as affirmative action and many of us are one or two generations removed from desperate poverty and even peonage. This is part of our American story and, yes, we do have stories, as in histories, that started before you noticed us.

Of course, those are just guesses. But those guesses are based on actually having talked to and worked with Asian Americans in the context of Asian American communities. I’ve listened to their stories ad fought for their issues. And for that reason, Asian Americans are always on my mind when I hear the terms “American,” and “voters” and “people.” And that makes me more of an expert than just about any of the folk who have a platform on TV to talk about politics. And, those folk, in spite of their ignorance, tell a story about us all the time by simply acting as if we don’t exist.


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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

6 replies on “The Obama Asian American Landslide”

Awesome post., but here’s two more guesses that I think you missed, in order of likelihood:

1. President Obama is the “first Asian American President” in the same way that President Clinton was the “first Black President.” (Rep. Mike Honda, via US News, Sept. 2012) Between frequently and openly identifying with the Asian and Asian American elements of his family and personal life (born in Hawai’i, the only APIA-majority state; his sister, Maya, is Asian American; he spent time in his childhood living in Indonesia; etc.), and, perhaps more importantly, assertively and proactively reaching out to Asian American voters in both his 2008 and 2012 elections like no previous presidential candidate ever has, he has demonstrated, at least symbolically, that he cares about Asian Americans. If you’re an Asian American voter and often ignored completely (as recent reports on outreach efforts by both parties show that our communities experience too frequently), to have a President, much less a presidential candidate and campaign, make efforts to identify with you and address you directly, to ask for your vote, is going to make a big difference. I believe it did.

2. This is a corollary to your #1 and #5 guesses: Asian Americans are people of color who have, within their own lifetimes and currently, experienced and recognized that they face racial discrimination in America and that the Republicans are attacking them directly, not just indirectly via other racialized minority populations. The biggest piece of this is the post 9/11 anti-South Asian, Middle Eastern, and Muslim demagoguery that we see from too many on the Right, and that has manifested in hate crimes against brown and Muslim folk, many of whom are Asian American. You are definitely right that we have histories that started before the MSM noticed us; I imagine it’s difficult for any Asian Americans to forget that it was only in 1965 that discrimination against Asian immigrants ended, that it was only in 1983 and 1987 that Fred Korematsu and Gordon Hirabayashi’s convictions for escaping internment were overturned, and that the pace of anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S. shifts quickly and could fall in violent fashion upon any of us at any moment. Even if some of us don’t know it explicitly, Vincent Chin (d.1982), Luyen Phan Nguyen (d.1991), Sam Nhang Nhem (d.1993), Thanh Mai (d.1995), Thien Minh Ly (d.1996), Kwan Chung Kao (d.1997), Won-Joon Yoon (d.1999), Joseph Ileto (d.1999), Naomi Kamijima (d.1999)… this is only a partial list, and it gets too much to bear into the 200s and post 9/11/2001, with the murders and attacks on Americans of South Asian descent and especially Sikh Americans. Facing all of this, is it surprising at all that Asian American voters of all ethnicities would support the party and candidate who proposes a more inclusive and diverse vision of America, who is more supportive of strong hate crimes legislation, and who condemns rather than perpetuates anti-Asian, anti-Muslim, and anti-Asian American sentiment?

Thank you for this great article,
Kevin Hsu

This is a great comment. Thanks for posting it. I hope you’ll become a subscriber and following the blog and esp. continue adding your voice to the dialogue.

Thanks! I’m very happy to discover this blog; looking forward to more insightful discussion here.

I really appreciate this! I’ve read a lot lately about why so many women, and African Americans, and people of color overall, voted for Obama, but nothing so to-the-point about Asian Americans. I’m excited to share with my students and colleagues.

I’ve been thinking about this post, and one thing I posted on FB is that the first quote from Wade Henderson is actually pretty great… minus the last sentence. I know Wade Henderson (even if he doesn’t know me), and he’s a good guy who does understand these issues (in my previous NGO life, I remember that Wade and the LCCR were one of the few civil rights groups out there trying to get the White House to enforce EEO laws in the 2009 stimulus). I think the fact that he tacked on that last sentence says a lot about the pervasiveness of the Model Minority Myth and how even our allies fall into this trap, as you say Scot, of viewing Asian Americans as a monolith. So there’s definitely a need for more of this dialogue with the major civil rights groups; while it’s crucial that more progressive Asian American voices get on the air, it’s just as important that our allies aren’t making things worse, since they’re the ones that other potential allies are hearing and looking to for cues.

The Hayes comment is a bit more insufferable, because it hits on so many problems we keep running into due to lack of disaggregation and lack of understanding of what these different indicators mean for different communities. For example, putting aside the fact that Asian Americans are not monolithic, the “median income” stat that keeps getting cited is of median household income, as opposed to individual income. It’s been shown that Asian Americans also have more wage earners per household than other racial groups, which artificially inflates the household income stat. And this is important any time anyone wants to talk about how Americans, all Americans, are doing, since we know that since the 1970s, households increasingly have more than one wage earner. So, apples to apples, this is a nonsense comment by Hayes; when he talks about Americans making more than $100,000, it seems from NYT commentary that the exit polls asked folks about their individual income, not household income.

The “inexperience” that the Hayes comment reveals is similarly insufferable, because the information he needed to not sound like a moron is so easily accessible. Specifically, the description of the outcome as “shocking” is ridiculous to anyone who just looked at exit polls or a trend summary from the elections in between the H.W. election 20 years ago and this one. It has been a steady and consistent trend of Asian Americans moving solidly into the Democratic camp. 1992 was the last year that the Republican presidential candidate won a majority of the Asian American vote, but it wasn’t any sort of overnight change. 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008… each cycle, the Asian American vote has gone more and more Democratic. Part of it is because they’re mostly folks who weren’t voting in 1992: in 1992, Asian Americans were 1.2% of the presidential electorate; in 2012, it was nearly tripled, at 3.4%. Regardless of the reason, the trendline is steady and consistent, and the only people who are “shocked,” as you point out, are those who haven’t been paying attention.

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