Posted on March 19, 2014

Why Are Asian Americans Democrats?

Alexander Kuo et al., Politico, March 18, 2014


{snip} 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.

It’s a puzzle with huge electoral ramifications. More than 16 million Asian Americans live in the United States today, making up 5 percent of the population and accounting for nearly 4 percent of all voters. They’re a sizeable voting bloc, but one far less understood than other groups, given that their political clout has only begun to emerge.

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. {snip}

Other conservatives have pointed to less tangible characteristics of Asian Americans, such as an emphasis on discipline in child rearing and a penchant for entrepreneurship, that ought to make them Republicans. “If you are looking for a natural Republican constituency, Asians should define ‘natural’,” notes the American Enterprise Institute’s Charles Murray. “And yet something has happened to define conservatism in the minds of Asians as deeply unattractive.”


Is it just because Asian Americans have more liberal policy positions, as a recent report by Phyllis Schlaffy points out? This answer is unsatisfying because it might get things backwards: Someone’s party identification is just as likely to explain their policy views (since people generally take cues from their party) as the other way around.

Our research offers two alternative explanations.

First, there’s race. The feeling of social exclusion stemming from their ethnic background might push Asian Americans away from the Republican Party. Many studies, like Henri Tajfel and John Turner’s work on the psychology of intergroup relations, have shown that one’s identification with a broad category of people — be it on the basis of language, ethnic or racial solidarity or some other trait — is important politically. Republican rhetoric implying that the (non-white) “takers” are plundering the (white) “makers” has cultivated a perception that the Republican Party is less welcoming of minorities. That might help explain why Asian Americans, despite their “maker” status, prefer the Democratic Party — even if the GOP doesn’t discriminate against Asians specifically.

And many Asian-Americans do feel like they don’t get equal treatment. According to the 2008 National Asian American Survey, nearly 40 percent of Asian Americans suffered one of the following forms of racial discrimination in their lifetime: being unfairly denied a job or fired; unfairly denied a promotion at work; unfairly treated by the police; unfairly prevented from renting or buying a home; treated unfairly at a restaurant or other place of service; or been a victim of a hate crime. We found that self-reported racial discrimination was positively correlated with identification with the Democratic Party over the Republican Party.

But correlation does not equal causation. To confirm the causal relationship, 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.” These racial “microaggressions” are sadly common — see Roberts’s clueless remarks to Murthy — and carry the implied message that Asian Americans are not true Americans. In our lab, a white laboratory assistant made the comment to half the study subjects before asking them to fill out a survey on various political attitudes.

Among those who did not receive this message, 76 percent of respondents identified as Democrats while 24 percent identified as Republicans. However, when prompted with the racial microaggression, 87 percent identified as Democrats and 13 percent identified as Republicans. This is a very large increase given how innocuous the message was, and the fact that it was only mentioned once. In fact, Asian Americans who were exposed to this race-based presumption of “not belonging” were more likely to view Republicans generally as close-minded and ignorant, and have more negative feelings toward them. Our findings suggest that Asian Americans associate feelings of social exclusion based on their ethnic background with the Republican Party.

Our second finding is a little more complicated. It turns out that the political affiliation of Asian Americans is sensitive to how issues are framed. When Asian Americans are reminded of their shared political interests with other minorities, they are pushed to the left. We found evidence for this argument in the 2008 National Asian American Survey. To again get at causality, we conducted an experiment embedded in a national survey to corroborate this finding of the impacts of intergroup solidarity with African Americans and Hispanic Americans.

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 and 28 percent as Republicans. But when immigration was framed as an issue that pitted Hispanics and Asians against each other, only 67 percent of Asians identified as Democrats and 33 percent as Republicans.

Our findings of course do not mean that social exclusion and solidarity with other groups are the only reasons why Asian Americans are Democrats. {snip}