Asian Americans and Obama

Isaac Chotiner writes on a subject near and dear to my heart, namely the political predilections of Asian Americans. My own views can be summarized by the phrase “unleash Chiang!" But I am atypical in many respects.

More thoughts below.

For Chotiner, the most persuasive theory as to why Asian Americans have preferred so strongly Clinton over Obama is that offered by political scientist Taeku Lee.

“Running on change is risky,” he explains. “It’s not the best way to sell your candidacy in some immigrant communities. Many people who just came to this country or who feel unsettled are looking to have their anxieties alleviated, looking for a sense of stability.” When I spoke with an aide to a California congressman whose district includes a large East Asian population, he agreed with the assessment. “Many of our voters think his pitch is too radical. They are ‘New Democrats’ for a reason.”

This dovetails with an argument Ramesh Ponnuru shared with me some years ago, that Asian Americans tend to be slightly less liberal than their neighbors. And yet since Asian Americans are overwhelmingly concentrated in blue and trending-blue metropolitan areas, this means they tend to be moderate Democrats. Notable exceptions include the supposed tendency of Asian Americans in Hawaii to favor incumbents, and of course older Vietnamese Americans and other groups that, like Cuban Americans, have built political identities around the legacy of the Cold War. Chinese Americans are an interesting group in this regard: in New York’s Chinatown, there used to be fairly fierce conflicts between ROC and PRC loyalists, but they’ve faded as the older generation has died out. More broadly, the post-1965 component of the community swamps the pre-1965 component, and the newer arrivals are (for the most part) not as hostile to the PRC. It’s finer-grained than this, of course, and different subethnic and ethnic groups manifest different patterns.

This reminds me of the idea, in wide currency after the 2006 elections, that Latinos track whites in their political preferences, but move somewhat more strongly in the same general direction. Another thing to keep in mind is that less-savvy voters lag behind more savvy voters, as Noam Scheiber argued in the context of the 2004 post-Iowa fight between John Kerry and John Edwards. Asian Americans tend to be relatively well educated and relatively affluent, but “affluence” is often a function of overconcentration in high-cost, high-wage metropolitan areas. And as for education, it’s worth parsing: what did the numbers look like for well-educated foreign-born whites? Perhaps they too are wary of radicalism, in Lee’s formulation.

There’s another theory which dovetails with Lee’s, from Jeff Chang in The Huffington Post. After noting that Super Tuesday was a watershed moment in the history of Asian American political power, Chang maintains that the key about the “new minorities” is that they are “emergent, not yet insurgent.”

Emergent voting blocs respond to leaders in their community. If the candidate wins the leader, she wins her followers. Insurgent voting blocs instead respond to calls for change, and may focus more on single issues or agendas. If a candidate stakes out a good position, she captures the community. Hillary played the politics of emergence.

Early, she locked down important leaders in the Latino and Asian American communities. In Los Angeles, that meant securing Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s support, and the predominantly Latino unions that have supported him. She also landed the support of Fabian Nunez and Dolores Huerta. In San Francisco, that meant seizing on Mayor Gavin Newsom’s popularity amongst Asian Americans. She also captured a who’s who of Asian American elected officials starting with Controller John Chiang and moving on down. Just as important, Hillary’s campaign locked up a huge number of the leading Latino and Asian American party operatives—the people who actually deliver the voters.

Growing up in Brooklyn, I saw something similar with Orthodox Jewish communities. More broadly, this reminds me of Jim’s post on the Clinton machine in Nevada: these people know what they’re doing.

The question I wonder about is: how long will it take for Asian Americans to go from emergent to insurgent, and what will it look like when they do go insurgent? My understanding is that Jewish Americans were “underrepresented” in Congress before Watergate and “overrepresented” in its wake. (I’m uncomfortable with this concept for all the obvious reasons.) One wonders if we’ll see a similar political moment for Asian Americans, who are already “overrepresented” in the US elite. Or perhaps the perception of foreignness will stymie the group’s political rise. Bobby Jindal, the first Organization Kid governor, is an interesting test case.

It occurs to me that I haven’t said much about Obama specifically. Well, he seems like a cool dude, and I understand he’s related to Asians. And that’s all she wrote.