Posted on: March 18, 2014
In February, during the confirmation hearings for President Barack Obama’s nominee for U.S. surgeon general—Vivek Murthy, a British-born Indian American—Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) invited Murthy to his home state.
“I’m going to invite you, because we have a lovely doctor from India,” Roberts said good-naturedly. “She’s in her mid-30s and she’s highly respected by the community. And another doctor from India who did a carpal tunnel when I did a stupid thing. And so, I think you’d be right at home, and we would welcome you.”
Although Roberts probably did not intend to offend (his remarks were of the “I have plenty of friends who are Indian” variety) media outlets generally mocked the interaction. At the very least, it likely reminded Murthy that he is different than the white ethnic majority—some other kind of American.
However harmless it might seem, this is exactly the sort of exchange that makes Asian Americans—the fastest growing ethnic group in the country—more likely to identify themselves as Democrats than Republicans, and by stunning margins. 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. (According to the 2009 Current Population Survey, the median Asian household had a higher income, $65,469, than the median white household,$51,863; median black and Hispanic household incomes were $32,584 and $38,039, respectively.) Income, as shown by Andrew Gelman and his co-authors in their book Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do, is one of the most powerful drivers of which political party someone prefers. Generally, the richer people are, the more likely they are to be Republicans.
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.”
The solidification of Asian Americans as a core Democratic constituency is not lost on liberal commentators either. Josh Barro, now a writer at the New York Times, wrote in December, “Asians have higher family incomes and education achievement than whites, and lower rates of out-of-wedlock birth. Republicans’ typical explanation of their poor performance with blacks and Hispanics (a policy platform that alienates groups disproportionately likely to depend on government services) cannot explain Republicans’ Asian gap.”
So what does explain it? Why don’t Asian Americans lean right?
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.