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Spring 2016

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In California, the Asian-American Vote Matters

Professor of Public Policy and Political Science Karthick Ramakrishnan talks about why California’s diverse population will make a significant difference this election year.

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Julie Gallego

Karthick Ramakrishnan has been paying attention to elections — big and small — for a long time, and one thing he can tell you is that 2016 is different.

The raucous Republican contest and the closer-than-anyone-expected Democratic race extended the primary season; California’s primary votes on June 7 had more of an impact on the presidential race than it had in recent elections.

“In 2012, by the time the primaries got to California, Mitt Romney had locked up the nomination and Obama was the incumbent,” Ramakrishnan says.

This year, it’s possible that California’s results were impacted by the often underrated Asian-American vote. In 2012 Asian Americans made up 10 percent of the voters; Ramakrishnan says there are estimates now of being 12 percent.

Still, he says, most of the news reporting talks about California’s value in only the most general terms. “I’d be pleasantly surprised if some news outlet looked deeper into the Asian-American vote.”

Ramakrishnan, a professor of public policy and political science, associate dean at the UCR School of Public Policy and director of the National Asian American Survey, is founder of AAPI Data, a demographic data and policy research project on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Just appointed to the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs, he talks about what matters to Asian- American voters in this election year.

Fastest-growing minority

Asian-American voters are the fastest-growing minority in the United States; in some western and southern states, they constitute a big enough bloc to swing an election.

Despite their numbers, Asian Americans are often overlooked by campaigns and parties, he says.

One stumbling block could be the fact that Asian Americans tend to vote at a lower rate than other groups. Unlike the coveted Latino vote, most Asian voters were not born in the United States and haven’t had as much experience in the U.S. political system.

“This is something that most people don’t realize — the majority of the Latino community is native, U.S.-born, but two-thirds of the Asian population is foreign-born. What that means is that it’s a much bigger challenge to get Asian people interested and motivated about U.S. politics.”

Asian American voters are the fastest-growing minority in the United States; in some states, they constitute a big enough bloc to swing an election. Despite their numbers, Asian Americans are often overlooked by campaigns and parties.

Many political campaigns may not have the resources or the ability to communicate face-to-face with the community, he says, but there’s a lot that can be done by reaching out to them and doing voter education. Asian- Americans represent about 1 in every 10 voters or 10 percent; on many of these ballot propositions, the margin of victory is much smaller than 10 percent.

One way to better engage Asian- American voters, Ramakrishnan says, is through unaffiliated community groups.

“Asian-Americans are less likely to vote and so are less likely to be on the radar of campaigns. But you do also have these nonpartisan efforts doing voter outreach efforts, such as the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) in the Bay Area and the Chinese Progressive Association that are doing a lot to mobilize and energize the communities. Although the [Democratic and Republican] parties have a lot more money, they do less. So, absent robust efforts by the parties, you have these other groups and elected officials.”

Asian Americans in office

Although there are more Asian Americans in office now than 10 years ago, having even more would help.

“As more Asian-Americans are elected to office, you get more recognition and pressure to reach out. Eventually having a population that is English-speaking — like Latino voters — would increase outreach; but in the meantime it is the incentive of Asian- American elected officials [to reach out to their communities].”

Another possible barrier to engaging Asian Americans is the lack of an animating issue to rally around, Ramakrishnan says.

“The ’90s and the California culture wars over [anti-immigration] Proposition 187 were a game-changer for Latinos; you had more and more voters getting energized and running for office. Now the Latino Caucus in Sacramento has been strong for 10 years or more. You have had a longer history of Latinos in leadership,” he points out. “It will still take a while for Asian-Americans to reach that level of political power.”

However, more telling than a single unifying issue for Asian Americans are their voting habits.

As a group, Asian Americans tend not to affiliate with one party or another, instead preferring to mark “decline to state” on voter registration cards. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have an ideological preference.

“We look at party identification. We also look at the way they vote and over time, even though they are not registered as Democrat or Republican, Asian- Americans still tend to favor the Democratic Party by about a 2-1 ratio.”

Ramakrishnan says that Asian- Americans tend to be more educated and make more money than other minority groups. They also rank education as an issue higher than jobs, the economy and immigration, making them attractive to Republicans. However, in California, where voters in general are more progressive on immigration than other states, Asian Americans have been put off by the GOP’s exclusionary policies and rhetoric.

Reacting to Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric

“Friends of mine in the Republican Party talk about outreach to the Asian-American community. Asian-Americans have higher income, so they say, ‘If we just stop the anti-immigrant rhetoric we can get Asian-American voters.’ But 20 years of that divisive rhetoric has hurt the party so much that Asian-Americans started to believe in the other values of the Democratic Party, such as a path to citizenship, higher taxes and health care.”

That means, he says, that Asian Americans skew more liberal and progressive than average, and for the general election their vote is even more crucial for Democratic candidates.

“Asian-American youths tend to participate in elections at a lower rate than white, Latino and black youths.”

No matter how the election season plays out, Ramakrishnan hopes to see more attention paid to the Asian-American vote in the coming months.

“Asian-American voters are important to California in terms of their size and potential to persuade, yet there’s very little investment being made into these populations. So whoever reaches out to them will have their vote.”

Election ’16

Karthick in the News…

Ramakrishnan has been an influence on public policy and is a renowned expert on politics. Here are a few of his observations on the 2016 elections.

“Trump is writing his own rules in terms of what is permissible. He has done things that would have killed any other candidacy, but somehow he survives.”
On Donald Trump’s rise in the 2016 presidential race
TEEN VOGUE, March 14, 2016

“(Asian American and Pacific Islander voters’) party identity is not cast in stone. There’s still potential for persuasion there.”
On Hillary Clinton’s effort to court the Asian American and Pacific Islander vote
CBS EVENING NEWS, Jan. 7, 2016

“Immigration to the United States has changed considerably over the last several years, and our policy conversations need to reflect these new realities.”
On studies that have shown that more Mexicans are leaving the United States than are entering

“(There is) more commonality among Asian Americans in their politics than in their language, food religion or culture.”
On the difficulties many political parties have when trying to recruit Asian American voters
SALON, Nov. 21, 2015

“They’re seeing which party seems like a welcoming party, which party seems like an exclusionary party.”
On how the anti-immigrant rhetoric in this campaign season is making Asian American voters reconsider their political identity
NPR NEWS, Sept. 16, 2015

“Just knowing someone is Asian tells you very little about what they’ve gone through.”
On how Asian ethnic groups are unfairly classified under the umbrella term ‘Asian,’ and how the broadness of the term and its application have harmed certain Asian ethnic groups by not allowing them to pursue financial aid or government assistance

“California was once a major battleground for opposition to unauthorized immigrants, but after years of measures that actually help those immigrants, Californians show overwhelming support for them.”
On how California is a model for immigration reform
THE NEW YORK TIMES, Sept. 3, 2015

“In the past, it was a relative novelty to get ethnic politicians on the ballot. But candidates and voters have matured. … Where they once voted along ethnic lines, they now look for more qualifications.”
On immigrant politicians and how ethnic solidarity may be changing
LOS ANGELES TIMES, Oct. 31, 2014

“If you had asked me three years ago if (the Republican Party’s standing among Asians) could get any worse, I would’ve said it can’t, but it did. They need to stop the bleeding.”
On how Republican outreach to immigrants, minorities and Asian Americans has declined in recent years