by Karoun Demirjian and Delen Goldberg
The rising political profile of Las Vegas’ Asian-American community hasn’t been lost on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Democrats, who spent Saturday in Chinatown lobbying business and community leaders for votes.
A half dozen candidates, including Reps. Dina Titus and Shelley Berkley, lunched on soup and dim sum with members of the Asian-American Coalition of Las Vegas at Harbor Palace Seafood Restaurant. Reid, facing the tightest race, skipped lunch and instead spent two hours popping into businesses and schmoozing members of the community.
Asian-Americans comprise 8 percent of Clark County’s population and have emerged as a powerful voting bloc expected to exert a sizable influence on Nevada races this year. The valley’s Asian population grew by more than 80 percent from 2000 to 2008, significantly more than Hispanics and blacks — minority groups whose political influence has received far more attention.
Corralling the Asian-American Pacific Islander vote isn’t easy. The bloc is one of the most diverse in the ethnic patchwork. In Las Vegas, the Asian-American Coalition identifies three subgroups of members — from East Asia, South Asia and the Arab world.
Sixty-two percent of Asian-Americans supported President Barack Obama in 2008 while 35 percent supported Sen. John McCain, according to national data. Broken down by subgroups, however, differences emerge — more than 90 percent of South Asians chose Obama, while only 54 percent of Arab-Americans voted for the president.
Stacked up against other Democratic-leaning minority groups, that turnout is positive but not overwhelming. For example, 67 percent of Hispanics who went to the polls cast ballots for Obama, while 95 percent of blacks backed him.
In Nevada, 57 percent of Asian-American voters supported Obama and 58 percent voted for Dina Titus, according to an Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund’s exit survey. Its polling found 72 percent of Asian-Americans voted for Democrats — a significant overreach from more mainstream exit polls — but the group is the only one to have conducted a detailed subgroup analysis of exit polls.
There is no exit polling of Asian-Americans from Nevada in 2004, the last time Reid faced voters.
Anecdotally though, the Asian community appears to favor Reid over his GOP challenger Sharron Angle.
“Sen. Reid is like a tiger,” said Mike Vaswani, president of the Asian-American Coalition. “He’s going to fight for us, and he’s going to win with all the Asian votes.”
In the past few weeks, turnout at get-out-the-vote rallies for blacks and Hispanics has been relatively low, while Asian-American rallies have been standing room only.
“We have particularly robust programs in California, Washington state, Nevada, Hawaii, Pennsylvania and Virginia,” said Lynda Tran, spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee’s Organizing for America campaign, which is rolling out advertising targeting Asian-Americans today.
Still, showing up at a rally does not mean voters will show up at the polls.
Even if minority groups swing Democrat, Angle’s campaign says it is confident she will have a strong showing among Asians — as with all Nevadans.
“Our get-out-the-vote effort is really not geared toward any one subgroup of Nevadans. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your background is — we’re all suffering under the failed leadership of Harry Reid,” Angle spokeswoman Ciara Matthews said. “Harry Reid sees people as groups. Harry Reid plays racial politics — he divides people instead of uniting them.”
Angle recently came under fire for telling a classroom of Hispanic students that she has been called the “first Asian legislator in our Nevada state Assembly.”
Angle is white. But her comment underscores something about Nevada — no Asian-American or Pacific Islander has ever been elected to a state or national office.
In a tight race that might hinge on undeclared voters, there may be one statistic from 2008 that plays in Reid’s favor. According to exit polling, more than one quarter of Asian-American Pacific Islander voters were registered as independents — a group who swung toward Democrats by a ratio of more than two to one.
The Chinatown visit provided a more welcoming crowd than Reid has found elsewhere during this campaign. People crowded him for pictures, put him on cell phones with family and asked for his autograph.
No one shouted criticisms or called him names — a different reaction than he has encountered in other venues.
Reid appeared confident and at ease, reminding voters of achievements he made in the Senate, slipping in mentions about health care reform or school funding. But mostly he engaged in small talk.
“How are you? What’s your name?” Reid asked again and again in hundreds of interactions.
To recent immigrants: “How long have you lived in Nevada?”
To children: “How old are you?”
To couples: “How long have you been together?”
To everyone: “Did you vote?”
“What a sweetheart,” swooned Sue Shuaib, of North Las Vegas, who was eating at Chinatown’s Mr. Sandwich with her husband and son when Reid approached. The senator spent five minutes talking baseball with 14-year-old Amir Shuaib and telling stories about his days as a catcher.
When the family complained that they have to drive to Henderson for tournaments and lamented the lack of baseball fields in North Las Vegas, Reid jumped in: “That should be a project for me.”
Supporters said they favored Reid not because of his party affiliation but because he has been a strong advocate for the Asian-American community. Bill Bhatti, an Indian businessman, said Reid helped his mother with immigration issues. Amar Chadha, a Las Vegas banker, said he turns to Reid if he encounters discrimination.
“With a turban, it’s not easy to go around,” Chadha said. “Mr. Reid helps. He has touched every single Asian in Las Vegas.”
James Chih-Cheng Chen, president of Chinatown Plaza and founder of the Chinese American Chamber of Nevada, credited Reid with pushing through the Chinatown project, despite some resistance.
“The Chinese are mostly not that involved in politics,” Chen said. “More people are involved this year.”