Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part series looking at the Asian American vote in the 2016 elections. Part two looks at challenges to registering Asian American voters. Part three will be published Wednesday.
FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va. — Grace Han Wolf, a town councilor for the northern Virginia community of Herndon, knows it’s another election season when her cellphone rings with invitations from fellow Democrats.
“It’s because they want me for a photo op and get an introduction to my Asian network,” said Wolf, whose married name belies her Korean heritage. “It’s an easy way to be seen as embracing the Asian American community.”
She willingly plays her role and dutifully appears at fairs, festivals and other community events as an ambassador for those needing an introduction to the fast-growing enclaves of Asian Americans that have sprouted across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital.
Wolf said the attention is long overdue. Asian America, she said, has too often been left out of national conversations about jobs, education, health care and immigration.
She said it will take more than photo ops to win over Asian American voters, and she wants her party to invest more to deepen relationships with the swelling numbers of Americans who trace their heritage to the dozens of countries stretching from the central Pacific to the Indian Ocean.
Republicans aren’t about to concede the battle for Asian American voters — a fact obvious to Wolf when she sees crowds of GOP volunteers registering voters at community events, often unchallenged by Democratic organizers.
“The Republicans are making a concerted effort, at least in northern Virginia, because they understand that Asians are the swing vote. They know they’re not going to get the black vote. And they’re probably not going to get the Hispanic vote,” she said.
In the 2014 midterm elections, some exit polls suggested that Asian Americans were about evenly split between Democratic and Republican candidates — a dramatic turn from the 2012 presidential election, when 73 percent of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) aligned with the Democrats.
There was a time when Asian Americans seemed reliably pro-Republican. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush got 55 percent of the Asian American vote. Bob Dole also won more of the AAPI vote — 48 percent to Bill Clinton’s 43 percent.
Last year’s midterms gave Republicans an opportunity to crow. Their efforts in wooing back Asian Americans were finally paying dividends, they asserted.
Democrats dismissed the result as a fluke and blamed low voter turnout.
While each party interpreted the numbers differently, both sides acknowledge this statistic from the Pew Research Center: Nearly half of Asian American voters identify as independents.
Far from monolithic, Asian Americans hail from dozens of countries — three-quarters of Asian Americans are foreign born — and arrived in the United States from a multitude of cultures, religions and political histories. They have different worldviews.
The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which conducted exit polling in 34 cities across 14 states during the 2012 presidential election, noted the varying political beliefs among AAPIs across ethnic, generational and geographical lines.
While Obama overwhelmingly won support from AAPIs as a whole, the study found Filipinos and Vietnamese showed a greater propensity to vote Republican.
AAPIs in the Northeast voted overwhelmingly for Obama, ranging from 77 percent in New Jersey to 89 percent in Pennsylvania.
But elsewhere, particularly in the South, Obama fared poorer. In Louisiana he won just 16 percent of the Asian American vote, with Mitt Romney garnering 81 percent.
Meanwhile, Asian Americans under 40 years old, who were more likely to be born in the U.S., were less likely to vote for Romney, according to the polling.
Asian America is a group that is difficult to organize politically, according to William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan Washington think tank.
Unlike with Hispanics, there is no common language. Unlike with African-Americans, there is no shared history to promote social and political solidarity.
“As a group, I don't think [Asian Americans] are in anybody's pocket,” he said.
Despite their growing numbers, Frey said, it remains to be seen if Asian Americans are a genuine focus of candidates. By most appearances, he said, Democrats and Republicans are more invested in chasing after the 25.2 million eligible Latino voters — a much bigger prize than the 9 million eligible voters of Asian descent.
But sooner or later, he said, Asian Americans “are going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
Asian Americans will grow to nearly 12 percent of the U.S. population by 2060 — from today’s 6.3 percent — as the country’s non-Hispanic white population dips to less than 44 percent, according to projections by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Immigrants from Asia, mostly from India and China, are arriving at a brisker pace than those from Latin America, propelling Asian Americans as the country’s fastest-growing ethnic group, according to Pew.
That rising population translates to a potential treasure trove of voters.
“We’re the rising new electorate,” said Christine Chen, the executive director of the Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote, a nonpartisan group that works to increase electoral and civic engagement nationwide. “Hopefully, it means they can no longer take us for granted.”
She hopes that elected officials will more aggressively address issues near and dear to Asian Americans, including help with fulfilling the American dream of homeownership, paying for college and reuniting families faster by reducing current delays due to limits and backlogs in immigration visas.
Already, AAPI voters in seven states — Alaska, California, Hawaii, Nevada, New Jersey, New York and Washington — account for at least 5 percent of the voting-eligible population, according to Nonprofit Vote, a Boston-based voter advocacy group.
Among those states, only Nevada is expected to be a swing state in 2016 — although Asian Americans have the potential for flexing political muscle in battleground states like Virginia, Florida, Colorado, North Carolina and Ohio.
In 2012, Obama won Florida by less than 1 percentage point, a margin that AAPI groups say could have been delivered by Asian American voters. Similarly, Obama’s margin of victory in Virginia was less than 3 percentage points, a margin also covered by Asian American voters.
In a postmortem of its disappointing performance in 2012, the GOP vowed to expand its tent by broadening outreach to communities of color, particularly Latinos and Asian Americans.
Republican operatives conceded that the party needed to work harder in showing how the party’s platform aligns with the values of many Asian Americans.
It means courting votes in communities that may be apprehensive about being visible at community events and reaching out to ethnic media to reach immigrants with limited proficiency in English.
“We go to where our people are, but we also go to where we have to win,” said Jason Chung, who leads the Republican National Committee’s drive to pull more Asian Americans into the GOP fold.
Part of the effort is to chip away at the Democratic base. Last week the committee released an online ad chasing after Asian American millennials.
By some accounts, Republicans have made inroads.
In last year’s U.S. Senate race in Virginia, Democratic incumbent Mark Warner was expected to handily prevail over Republican Ed Gillespie, but it turned out to be a tight race. Warner won by just eight-tenths of 1 percentage point. According to some exit polls, they evenly split the Asian American vote. Gillespie’s performance stirred hope that a Republican message could resonate with communities of color.
However, those advances may have been recently slowed by some of the party’s highest-profile candidates for president.
Jeb Bush tried to quell one firestorm on the immigration issue but instead triggered another when explaining his use of the term “anchor babies” to describe children of undocumented immigrants born in the U.S.
The furor was immediate among Latinos and was widened when he explained that the issue wasn’t about Latinos but “more related to Asian people coming into our country having children.”
When Bush made his comments, it was K.J. Bagchi’s first day on the job as the Democratic National Committee’s director of Asian American and Pacific Islander engagement. “It was jarring,” he recalled.
Carly Fiorina later chimed in, calling maternity tourism by Chinese women a “festering problem.”
While mocking Bush for his “anchor babies” comment, GOP front-runner Donald Trump might have alienated some Asian Americans when he used broken English to describe the cultural differences in how Asians negotiate business deals.
“The Republican candidates are making it easy,” said Bagchi, a former aide to Democratic Rep. Mike Honda of California.
“We understand the power of the AAPI voting bloc,” Bagchi said. “Do we have to make sure that we don’t take the AAPI vote for granted? Of course.”
But with a year to go before the 2016 elections, much of the political landscape remains unsettled.
Until then, both sides are laying the infrastructure that will mobilize the grass roots when it is time.
But Wolf, the town councilor from Herndon, offered some advice about wooing Asian American voters: Don’t wait.
“You have to be really proactive about reaching out,” she said. “And you have to be patient. It’s a community and electorate that is slow to warm up to people.”