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The Untapped Political Power of Asian America

After a memorable performance in the second Democratic debate last July, entrepreneur Andrew Yang rose rapidly from obscurity. In the last quarter of 2019, the campaign announced a massive $16.5 million fundraising haul.“Yang Gang,” as his supporters affectionately dubbed themselves, was on fire, fiercely contending that a Taiwanese American businessman and his signature “Freedom Dividend,” a $1,000 universal basic income given by the federal government to every American, could win the Oval Office. 

Despite early traction, Yang’s polling numbers were simply not delivering as primary season rolled around, and he regretfully announced the end of his campaign on February 11. But the effects of Yang’s run as the first Asian American man to run for president certainly did not die with his campaign. The fervor with which the Asian American community greeted his campaign offers presidential hopefuls and those vying for congressional seats in 2020 a lesson: to win in 2020 and beyond, galvanize Asian America. 

In recent years, Asian Americans have become the most quickly growing racial or ethnic minority group in the US, growing 72 percent from 2000 to 2015. But, according to exit polls in the 2018 midterm elections, Asian Americans made up only three percent of voters, even though their share in the national population is twice as large. Comparatively, Latinx voters comprised a much more representative 11 percent of the midterm vote. However, even categorizing Asian Americans as one racial group or monolithic voting population is highly problematic, especially when lumped together with Pacific Islanders. While Asian Americans as an aggregate population are among the most educated and highly earning, there exists tremendous diversity within the group. For example, although Asian Americans as a whole have a lower poverty rate than the national average, 8 of the 19 Asian subgroups have a higher poverty rate than the rest of the country with Bhutanese and Burmese households living in poverty at a rate more than double the national average. 

Republican strategists hoping to secure President Donald Trump’s second term in office ought to seize this heterogeneity as an opportunity to draw voters over. As of 2016, there are two million Asian American-owned small businesses that employ over 3.6 million Americans. For these small business owners, conservative tax cuts—delivered through the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017—make a second Trump presidency and a Republican Congress highly appealing. For Asian Americans miffed by race-based affirmative action policies in higher education, the Trump Administration’s rollback of Obama-era policy guidelines offers hope for fixing a system they see as broken and rigged. Current Republican National Committee (RNC) strategy seems to deploy perceived Asian American values, “economy, education and family,” according to director of RNC Asian Pacific American media affairs Marina Tse, which she argues are “very much aligned with those of the Republican Party.” 

Luckily for Democrats, as a broad racial group, Asian Americans have historically been a fairly reliable voting bloc for the party: in 2016, 65 percent of Asian Americans who voted supported Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and in 2018, 77 percent of Asian American voters favored a Democratic House candidate. Contenders in the dwindling Democratic field are now scrambling to reap primary support from those Andrew Yang had won over. Tulsi Gabbard, who identifies as a Pacific Islander with Samoan ancestral ties, is still struggling to gain momentum in an already-embattled campaign clouded by a $50 million dollar lawsuit against 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton for defamation. While Democrats should not take their vote for granted, they benefit from progressive views held by Asian Americans regarding issues like immigration and income inequality. This time around, campaigns are beginning to take notice: before she ended her campaign, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) had released a “Working Agenda for Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders,” to focus on disaggregating data for ethnicities within the greater AAPI community. 

Herein lies one of the greatest paradoxes of this electorate: while Asian Americans have long operated under tropes of the model minority—marked by economic prosperity, high levels of education, and low crime rates—and have been depicted as existing outside of the reach of racial discrimination experienced by their Black or Latinx counterparts, they are disproportionately disadvantaged by socially conservative policies. Since 2016, there has been an alarming upward trend of hate crimes against South Asians, with violence against Sikh-Americans surging 243 percent since 2016 at a rate higher than the post-9/11 spike. Moreover, 16 percent of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US are Asian American, and Southeast Asians comprise the largest population of refugees resettled to the US, largely due to the effects of the Vietnam War in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam in the 1970s. Similarly, President Trump’s obstinate opposition to chain migration raises eyebrows for many Asian Americans, who largely depend on this style of migration for family reunification. 

Yang’s campaign was aptly illustrative of this paradox. His iconic tagline claiming the title of President Trump’s foil as “an Asian man who likes math” mirrored his unwillingness to discuss at greater length and profundity the challenges facing racial minorities, a strategy criticized for deflecting important conversations on race and perpetuating stereotypes about Asian Americans. For Asian Americans excited to see one of their own gain such visibility at a national level, Yang’s refusal to engage in what he viewed as divisive identity politics disappointed. Yang’s racial identity alone could not sustain the excitement he generated at the peak of his campaign, and enduring skepticism about his Freedom Dividend ultimately cost him mainstream public support. 

If 2018 foreshadowed anything for 2020, it is that the Asian American vote may very well be the tipping point in key elections. The three states with fastest-growing Asian American populations—Arizona, Nevada, and North Carolina—are swing states, and states like Florida and Pennsylvania have seen more than a 80 percent increase in the number of Asian American residents since 2010. Mobilizing Asian American voters will mean tackling systemic challenges to the ballot box that resulted in a dismal 49 percent voter turnout rate in 2016. The Center for American Progress advises five strategies for improving Asian American voter turnout: collecting extensive disaggregated data on subgroups, removing language barriers through more proficient translations, increasing outreach and contact with Asian Americans from political parties, ending voter purging policies, and removing voter registration barriers. 

For Republicans, the opportunity to weaponize the model minority trope is invaluable for tapping the Asian American vote in 2020, especially in battleground states. And for Democrats, the message is clear: unless the party begins to seriously listen to and mobilize Asian Americans, their once-guaranteed loyalty may not be so sure anymore.

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