The Asian-American Minority Swing Vote

Hispanics and African Americans dominate debate of the minority vote. But Asian and Pacific Islanders, who comprise the third largest ethnic minority, could prove the decisive swing group come November.
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Minority voting has been a major theme in this election cycle. African Americans are voting as a bloc for Senator Obama. Latino Americans are voting mostly for Hillary Clinton. Little has been reported, however, about the so-called "quiet minority," Asian Americans, who have also voted in large percentages for Clinton in the primaries. On Super Tuesday in California, Asian Americans voted three-to-one for the Senator from New York. Clinton was quick to respond to a major Asian American political organization survey and she benefited from name recognition and positive feelings among the community for President Bill Clinton, who appointed Norm Mineta Secretary of Commerce, the first Asian American cabinet member. The community is settling into the fact that Clinton's chances of becoming the Democratic nominee have plunged since Super Tuesday.

Bel Leong-Hong, the chair of the Democratic National Committee's Asian Pacific Islander American Caucus, remains an uncommitted superdelegate who could see either Clinton or Obama being an asset to Asian Americans. As she watched the nail-biting race between senators Clinton and Obama this season, she saw minimal difference between them on issues concerning Asian Americans.

"On the one hand, you've got Barack Obama, who has family members that are Asian American; you have Barack Obama who has grown up in an Asian American environment and so you've got this whole issue that he understands our culture." Leong-Hong said. "On the other hand, you've got Hillary Clinton whose husband as the president of the United States did a lot for the Asian American community. He's the one who appointed the first Asian American cabinet member."

Yet none of the three presidential candidates has emphasized Asian American issues in general, nor has the mainstream media. "My rant is that, as Chinese Americans and as Asian Americans, we haven't really had any visibility in the mass media. You think about it during this political season -- the candidates think to add us in as 'oh, and Asian Americans,'" Leong-Hong said. At a time when the topic of China raises ambivalence in political debate, Asian people in America could also be an important resource and asset in developing sound foreign policy. So far, the candidates' statements concerning China have carried tones of measured hesitation.

When talking about minority voters this election cycle, mainstream media have primarily focused on two groups: Hispanics and African Americans. Asian and Pacific Islander Americans are the third largest ethnic minority -- sometimes stereotypically called the "quiet minority". Making up 5 percent of the U.S. population and as much as 12 percent in states like California, their power and influence remains largely untapped.

A group called the 80-20 Initiative may have influenced the strong show of support for Clinton on Super Tuesday. The organization's goal is to mobilize the pan-Asian community to become more powerful as a swing voting bloc, ideally "directing 80 percent of our community's votes and money to the candidate endorsed by the 80-20, who better represents the interest of all APAs," according to their website. If effective, the group would mobilize their constituency to vote 80 percent on election day in favor of their endorsed candidate. Because Hillary Clinton was the first presidential candidate of the three to respond to a questionnaire from 80-20 regarding Asian American issues, the group threw their support behind her leading up to Super Tuesday. Since then, Barack Obama has sent a response to the questionnaire, and the group currently does not endorse any particular candidate. John McCain has yet to respond.

Leong-Hong stresses that the issues most important to the Asian American community are immigration, family reunification, and language barriers that affect access to things like social services and capital for small businesses. While most discussions on immigration hinge around debates over the Mexican border, deportation of immigrants who have been living in the U.S. -- sometimes for nearly their entire lives -- also splits Asian American families.
And as S.B. Woo, the co-found of 80-20 points out, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported that Asian Americans still have the lowest glass ceiling compared with other groups.

The main barrier to garnering more attention to the effects of policy on Asian Americans partially lies within the community itself. The Center for Asian Americans United for Self Empowerment, or CAUSE, is a Southern California-based nonprofit group trying to improve voter turnout among Asian Americans. Sharon Chen, the group's executive director, said she knows that voter turnout can be vastly improved. "Asians don't vote, they don't make a fuss," Chen said. "We have the lowest voter turnout of any group...A lot of it is cultural. A lot of Asians are brought up and taught not to question authority or the system."

Not questioning the system not only means not making a habit of voting, but also not running for political office. Chen also said that especially with those who are doing well financially, there are ways in which Asian Americans can work hard and succeed without ever having to vote or get involved.

"If you asked me 30 years ago if I would be as heavily involved in politics as I am today," said Leong-Hong, "I would have said no way." Leong-Hong attributes the lack of political involvement to a cultural fear. Those who may have experienced living in countries with repressive governments may fear entering politics.

Groups like CAUSE and 80-20 try to counter any existing apathy or fear. Chen said, "[The Asian population] is growing really quickly, and it's a shame we're not harnessing our potential." With the sizeable influence Asian Americans can wield in an election, as evidenced by Super Tuesday, candidates running for office would do well to campaign within this community. As Leong said, the conversation needs to go beyond just addressing this constituency as an afterthought to other ethnic groups. In a close election, the result could come down to a swing group, which, considering their support for Clinton, could very well be Asian Americans.

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