The national exit polls showed nearly two-thirds of those identifying themselves as Asian voted for Obama, a strong majority. Let's use the census data to find some neighborhoods with heavy concentrations of Asian Americans and examine the election results.
Here's a promising place to start:
This map shows percent Asian by precinct; there is a nice variation from none (yellow) up to about three-quarters (dark blue).
We should see a corresponding pattern in the precinct results then - here, dark blue shows strong support for Obama:
There's certainly a pattern there, but not what we might have expected from the nationwide exit polls.
Ten Second Summary
The Asian-American population has been growing and changing rapidly over the past several decades. Politically, there is strong and growing support for Democrats, on average. The Asian-American electorate is far from uniform, however, with very different voting patterns in different communities.
We Are Not All of Us Alike, Reprise
Clearly, the population shown in the map above did not support Obama for president. Some of you may have even recognized the neighborhood - it's part of the Ninth Ward in New Orleans - that's Lake Pontchartrain in the upper left corner. It is the center of a strong Vietnamese-American community, and home turf for Republican Congressman Joseph Cao. I estimate support for Obama at 5-8% in this community. (We can get such a good estimate in part because the Louisiana Secretary of State provides the racial breakdown of those who voted in each precinct.) As to why this community did not support Obama (or Kerry for that matter), I will note that it was founded by people fleeing communism - but I just don't know. The point is that it's a very bad idea to assume that all Asian-American communities (let alone individuals) are generally supportive of Democrats. We are not all of us alike.
Yet all evidence shows that, in aggregate, Asian-Americans nationwide did indeed strongly support Obama and Democrats in general. In fact, in a previous diary we saw that support for the Democratic presidential candidate was growing rapidly among Asian-Americans, from 31% for Clinton in 1992 to 62% for Obama in 2008.
What is the reason behind this trend? Part of the answer could be a bit of identity politics - after all, Obama lived in Indonesia as a child and part of his family is Asian-American. But that certainly can't explain the entire trend, as it doesn’t apply to Kerry in 2004.
Everything Changed in the Sixties
The latest census estimate is that there are about 15,000,000 Asian-Americans (including citizens and non-citizens) in the country - or ten times the population in 1970. Over the past 40 years, there have been about 10,000,000 immigrants from Asia.
Here's a graph showing the number of immigrants from selected Asian countries. (Remember, not everybody who comes to this country stays, not everybody who stays becomes a citizen, and it typically takes years to become a citizen.)
After a long history of preventing Asian immigration to the United States and denying citizenship even to those of Asian descent who were born here, immigration from Asia started in earnest following the reforms of 1965. The proportions of immigrants from various countries has varied over time, leading to dramatically shifting ethnic compositions in the Asian-American population. In 1960, prior to the new wave of immigrants, almost half of Asians were of Japanese descent; in 2000, it was less than 10%. Meanwhile, those with (Asian) Indian ancestry now make up 16% of those identifying as Asian.
Diversity of Politics
What if some of the earlier groups to immigrate were more likely to support Republicans, while those who immigrated more recently were more likely to support Democrats? Wouldn't it be fun to see the Asian category broken down a bit? Really, we wouldn't necessarily expect Pakistani-Americans and Korean-Americans to have the same politics, as a group.
Well, through a massive effort, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund did just that. Their exit poll surveyed 16,665 Asian Americans in 11 languages at 113 polling sites in 11 states and DC. Wow! Another group surveyed 1237 Asian-Americans in Southern California.
Finally, using census data and precinct-level results, I estimated support for several additional Asian ethnicities as well.
A word of caution: the results are not necessarily representative of Asian-Americans nationwide. Both the AALDEF exit poll and my estimates focus on precincts with high concentrations of Asian-Americans, and urban and suburban areas. The National Election Pool exit poll, on the other hand, probably has the opposite problem, in that they quite possibly didn't conduct any interviews in heavily Asian-American precincts. Previously we have seen there may be a tendency for those who live in more demographically uniform communities to vote in a more uniform manner, so keep this in mind as you pick throught the following data.
Looking at all sources of data we get these numbers:
One of the important things to notice is the major difference between the voting behavior of Vietnamese-American communities in California (Los Angeles) and New Orleans. Again, we are not all of us alike. The different results for all Asian-Americans between the National Election Pool exit poll and the AALDEF exit poll also stand out. Because of the factors discussed above, I would guess the 'true' results, nationwide, would be somewhere between the two.
Returning to the question of demographic change over time, indeed, we see that the group with the most rapid growth in its share of the Asian-American population - Indians - also has much stronger support for Obama than Koreans, Chinese, or Filipinos. However, this is balanced out by Vietnamese. Only a few points of the increase in support for Democrats can be attributed to the changing ethnic composition of Asian-Americans.
Another possible reason for the increase in support for Democrats among Asian-Americans as a whole might be that immigrants fleeing their home countries for political reasons may have been attracted to the more belicose anti-communist rhetoric of the Republicans, whereas their children, and more recent immigrants, don't care about such rhetoric as much. Let me be clear that this is anecdote-based speculation on my part.
Finally, the last few decades have brought about a rise in identification and advocacy as Asian-Americans, as opposed to disparate and isolated ethnic groups. I've read several sources indicating this rise in Asian-American self-identification was spurred by the brutal murder of Vincent Chin in 1982. Vincent Chin was a Chinese-American bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat in Detroit by a white autoworker and his stepson after an altercation in which, assuming he was Japanese, the attackers yelled at him "It's because of you motherfuckers that we're out of work!" The underlying sentiments - Asian-Americans are not Real Americans, they're all alike anyways, and they're to blame for current problems - have waxed and waned in public discourse over the intervening years, along with the predictable and tragic results. What seems clear to me is that such sentiments are part of a nativist, anti-immigration, anti-non-white-American strategy on behalf of the Republican party, and Asian-Americans have been paying attention.
Back to the AALDEF
There are some more interesting numbers in the exit polls, however: native-born Asian-Americans were more likely to support Obama (87%) than naturalized citizens (74%). This is consistent with the anecdotally-based idea above, at least, but far from proof - it could simply be a generation gap similar to that seen among other demographics. It does, however, clearly dash the hopes of Republicans that the children of immigrants might be more likely to vote for Republicans. Indeed, in a separate New York City exit poll, foreign-born citizens of all races except "Other" were slightly more likely to vote Republican than native born citizens.
Another point to emphasize is that 35% of voters in the AALDEF exit poll had limited English proficiency. Without the Voting Rights Act, many of these people may not have been able to vote.
Hey Wait a Minute!
Isn't the Middle East part of Asia too? Yes indeed. In fact, the AALDEF survey included Arab-Americans. In this diary I've mostly stuck to the census definition of Asian as a racial category. We'll get to the rest of Asia tomorrow.
This diary is the fifth in a series taking a close look at the 2008 electorate and exploring three themes: diversity within demographics, progressive feedback loops, and demographic change.
Tomorrow: The West Asian American Electorate: Rapid Change
Cross posted at Open Left.
Diaries in this series (updated list):
Why Republicans Should Be Really Scared
African-Americans – We Are Not All of Us Alike
East and South Asian Americans – Diverse and Growing
West Asian Americans – Rapid Change
Native Americans – Increasing Participation
Islander Americans – In Need of More Representation
Native Alaskans – An Economic Factor?
Latino Electorate – Increasing Influence
European-Americans – Tribal Politics Persist
“Americans” – You Might Be Surprised
Appalachia – Surprisingly Democratic
Why Republicans Should Be Really, Really Scared
Why Republicans Should Be Really, Really, Really Scared
A Few More Tidbits