Diversity’s thunder shakes national politics, and Asian Americans played a role

For the GOP, election night on Tuesday was like a political version of Hurricane Sandy.

It left a Romney-led party trounced and bewildered, staring at a brand new landscape it had failed to prepare for —

a totally new American electorate, rich in diversity and growing in number.

Politics isn’t just a game for white men anymore.

On Tuesday, white voters were at their lowest point ever, shrinking to just 72 percent of the electorate.

The minority vote? About 28 percent of the electorate.

But with African Americans at 13 percent of that number, and Latinos at 10 percent, that’s where the mainstream media tends to drop the detail.

Filling in the rest of that 28 percent minority number? Asian Americans, currently at around 3 to 4 percent, but growing.

So you may have heard about African Americans at 93 percent support for President Obama, and Latinos at 71 percent.

But make no mistake, according to an AALDEF election eve poll of likely voters, Asian Americans were part of the minority juggernaut behind Barack Obama, 72 percent vs. 26 percent for Romney.(See my take on the poll here.)

And things are only going to get worse for the GOP if it sticks to its monochromatic ways.

Indeed, as far as the electorate goes, it’s Asian Americans, and not Latinos, that are the fastest growing group in the last 16 years—a 128 percent increase since 1996.

That number should grow even faster now that Asian Americans have routinely surpassed Latinos in annual immigration totals since 2008.

Remember that Pew survey earlier this year? Rightfully, the community criticized it for perpetuating the “model minority” stereotype. But the survey did bring out some basic facts: Asian Americans are the highest income, best educated, fastest growing racial group in the U.S.

And along with all that should come record participation levels and increasing success in politics. It’s inevitable.

On Tuesday, we began to see the beginning of historic change. With Mazie Hirono’s victory in Hawaii, we saw the ascent of the first Asian American woman to the U.S. Senate.

With Grace Meng’s congressional victory in Flushing, we saw an Asian American woman win one of the most diverse districts in New York.

But as the saying goes, “all politics is local,” and the diversity wave that carried Obama to a massive blue state victory in California (59.1 percent to Romney’s 38.6) didn’t necessarily help every Democrat.

There was no benefit to Jay Chen in California’s 39th congressional district. The race was marred by xenophobic sentiment against Chen, who saw signs in his district urging people to “Vote for the American.”

Chen, born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, was undaunted, but ultimately was defeated by veteran white conservative Ed Royce by nearly 20 points.

That race was a throwback to the old days where a “Whites Only” strategy was typical. Maybe it will still work for small homogeneous congressional districts, but as Romney found out, it doesn’t work in a wildly diverse national race.

Demographers have been heralding a seismic demographic shift for some time, with the earliest stories on “minorities becoming the majority in 2050” showing up as early as 1988.

I know. I did a few of them.

But even though politicians have recognized it (G.W. Bush seemed to embrace it fully, winning 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004), the GOP has since lost its way.

The GOP could learn a thing or two from that AALDEF election eve poll.

First, it should realize that immigration is more than just a Latino issue.

When it comes to comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, 57 percent of Asian Americans were in support.

Only 26 percent were opposed.

Second, it’s clear that people take politics personally, which means empathy counts. The poll asked “would you say that Barack Obama is someone who truly cares about the Asian American community, that he didn’t care too much about Asian Americans, or that Obama was hostile toward Asian Americans?”

Of respondents, 47 percent thought Obama cared. Only 26 percent said he didn’t care that much. Three percent said he was hostile.

The same was asked about Romney, and his numbers predicted his defeat. Only 14 percent said he truly cares. Forty-five percent said he didn’t care too much. Seven percent, more than double the Obama number, said Romney was hostile.

The GOP needs to revive Bush’s “kinder, gentler” approach.

Showing empathy presumes you’ll reach out, and this is perhaps the biggest failure of this election cycle. Asian Americans, despite being poised to make a difference in a close presidential race, were virtually ignored, or taken for granted by everyone.

The AALDEF poll asked: “Over the past few months, did anyone from a campaign, political party, or community organization ask you to vote, or register to vote?”

Only 40 percent nationally said yes.

More than half of likely Asian American voters said no one reached out to them.

Maybe after this election, that will change. Indeed, the AALDEF poll indicates there are potential segments within Asian America who could be swing voters “up for grabs.” Already 29 percent say they’re independent, with another 16 percent undecided or with a third party.

That’s 45 percent who say they aren’t beholden to any party.

There’s also potential Republicans to be gleaned from among Filipino Americans, a group estimated at more than 3 million. Forty-two percent of them say they think of themselves as “closer to Republicans.”

In the future, campaigns of any political stripe will have to look for voters where they never looked before. They can’t afford to make Romney’s mistake of mining sparsely populated areas with mostly white voters. That’s no longer a winning formula.

So expect more campaigns to pay closer attention to us in the future, especially if they include us in all their polling, or see data reconfirmed in polls like the AALDEF election eve poll, over-sampled for Asians and in multiple Asian languages. It would be hard to come away with any other conclusion: Asian Americans are a much more significant part of the nation’s evolving, dynamic, and diverse national electorate than anyone ever realized.

And the white part of the electorate? It’s shrinking.

Image by AALDEF

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.

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