2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
Speaking Truth to Power!

What Happened to the Asian American Vote

 

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The untold story of Super Tuesday remains uninterrogated by mainstream media political analysts. In California, Asian Americans represented 8% of voters in Super Tuesday’s Democratic primaries; this statistic mirrors the number of African American voters in that state. Yet, while an ongoing headline for mainstream media analysts is the impact of African American voters on Obama’s candidacy, the only statistics I’ve found in the national press about the APIA community is CNN’s exit polls in California which state that 75% of Asian American voters supported Senator Hillary Clinton, compared to 23% for Senator Barack Obama

(For those of you who tuned out for Super Tuesday, Obama and Clinton remain in a tight race for the nomination. While Clinton won the popular vote in the large states – thus cinching the news cycle – Obama came out on top in terms of delegate count, narrowing the overall delegate count gap between the two top contenders. The good senator from Illinois is expected to do well in February 9 and 12 states making the contest even tighter between both Democrats. Thus, Super Tuesday was in no way a defeat for Obama.

In fact, post-Super Tuesday, Clinton loaned her campaign $5 million dollars, which indicates she never intended for her opposition to remain this competitive this far into the primary season, and which suggests she may be facing some financial woes in the campaign. Obama, meanwhile, responded to Clinton’s move by rallying his base for another fundraising drive, raising $6.5 million in less than 24 hours to match (and beat) Clinton’s transfer of funds.)

The major outcome of Super Tuesday is that Barack Obama lost to Hillary Clinton by a ten-point margin. This wasn’t an unexpected headline – Clinton’s February 5th strategy was to focus on California, New York, and other big states in order to outbalance Obama’s projected victory amongst the little states – but the gap in California was larger than anticipated by late polling. This ten-point gap at the ballot box could have been severely blunted by greater support out of the Asian American community.

And yet, mainstream media outlets have missed the impact of Asian American support for Clinton in interrogating the “Why?” of Super Tuesday. While they note that Latinos remained split by a two-to-one margin for Senator Clinton, neither CNN, nor MSNBC, nor Fox News made more than a mere mention (if that) of Asian American support for Clinton in California or in any other state, and how this contributed to her victory there.

For Asian Americans (particularly those who worked diligently within the community to help elect Senator Barack Obama), the story of Super Tuesday remains “why”? Why did Asian Americans flock in such large numbers to the Clinton banner?

This question has plagued me for more than a day, as I tried to parse what little information we have available to us. Unfortunately, exit polling in California failed to tell us anything about the Asian American vote other than how it represented 8% of voters and how it went primarily to Clinton. We don’t know anything about the age distribution, the generational distribution, income-level or education. So, every analysis that we’ll see about the APIA phenomenon in California is based on speculation. And this article will be no different.

(AALDEF has reported an 80% support for Clinton by Asian American voters in New York and New Jersey. However, I don’t think this represents a good cross-section of APIAs to interrogate Obama’s problem connecting with our community since New York is Clinton’s home state, and Jersey usually votes like New York.)

On the Huffington Post, Jeff Chang argues that the APIA community – like the Latino community – represents an “emergent” but not “insurgent” political vote. Thus, Asian Americans and Latinos were more likely than the more entrenched African American community to follow the lead of trusted community leaders to navigate America’s political waters. Chang argues that Clinton used this to her advantage by securing influential voices in both communities early in the primary season. Clinton coupled this with symbolic acts that gestured her acknowledgement of these constituencies. For example, the Clinton campaign famously had Senator Clinton eat a beef taco at a well-known Los Angeles establishment; this act cemented much of Clinton’s Latino support in the state because it suggested that she understood the importance of this beloved local establishment, and thus “got” Latinos.

Chang argues Clinton also avoided serious political missteps with the campaign, such as the Obama campaign’s much-publicized press release mocking Clinton’s ties to the Asian Indian community by affixing a “(D-Punjab)” at the end of her name. Clinton earned the support of the 80/20 Initiative, an influential Asian American PAC, when she responded in the affirmative to their presidential candidate questionnaire without much fuss – Obama, meanwhile, contended – and continues to contend – that the original questionnaire contained unconstitutional quotas and earned the ire of 80/20 by refusing to sign it without modifications. Though 80/20 eventually agreed to modify their questionnaire for Senator Obama, the damage had been done with 80/20 throwing their Asian American support behind Clinton.

And certainly, all this seems to have been a factor – Clinton did indeed have several notable APIA community leaders backing her campaign. However, what Chang doesn’t address is the fact that Obama, too, had the benefit of several key endorsements in the Asian American community, including the highly-regarded state senator Leland Yee, San Francisco School Board candidate Jane Kim, and widely-distributed AsianWeek magazine. Obama also picked up the endorsement of Hon. Norm Mineta, the first Asian American appointed to a presidential cabinet, let alone the Clinton cabinet. (Mineta’s endorsement, unfortunately, was lost in a sea of Obama endorsements immediately prior to Super Tuesday and was missed even in this article printed in The Hill today). So, while Clinton’s APIA endorsements were a factor, it can’t have been the only factor.

Chang also forgets to point out that Clinton did make a major misstep amongst Asian Americans by excluding Asian-language American reporters from a fundraising event, saying that only “American” (re: American-looking) journalists were allowed entry. This should have been a big “no-no” for Asian Americans, and yet it barely made a splash during the campaign season. So, while Obama made missteps, Clinton did, too.

There must be something we’re missing here.

Over the past day, I’ve wondered if the APIA support of Clinton may also have reflected some more innate nuances of the APIA community that have remained underappreciated up to this point.

First of all, the Asian American community represents a heterogeneous mixture of older first-generation immigrants and younger second (or beyond) -generation youths. Growth in the APIA community has come primarily through new immigrants, thus the APIA community is heavily populated by older first-generation immigrants. This is significant because Clinton has struck a chord amongst older voters in most states.

Moreover, first-generation immigrants are greatly impacted by the immigrant narrative: they are highly motivated to ease the transition into their new country by focusing on integration rather than insurgency. This assimilationist, “don’t rock the boat” attitude favours the institutional candidate with greater name recognition (Clinton) and discourages support of a change candidate; assimilation prefers a stable institution and a flexible self. For many immigrants, who are intimately familiar with the potential fallout of political upheaval, Obama’s message may even be a turn-off. Moreover, while President Bill Clinton’s administration did little to specifically benefit Asian Americans, Asian Americans nonetheless did fairly well under the Clinton administration; Clinton’s conservative Democratic leadership benefited professional or small-business owner Asian Americans who trend towards being more fiscally conservative Democrats.

Asian American immigrants also tends favour a system of meritocracy, and so Clinton’s experience argument may have resonated amongst older generation Asian Americans who lament their own struggles with having their qualifications or experience go unnoticed by mainstream America, particularly in the job market that maintains a bamboo ceiling for Asian Americans trying to enter management positions.

I’ve also cited an Asian American version of the Bradley Effect. In mainstream America, the Bradley Effect refers to a long-standing pattern of Black candidates polling well the day before an election, only to lose by an unpredictably large margin. The traditional explanation for this phenomenon is that voters tell pollsters they will support a Black candidate in an effort to not look racist, but at the ballot box, make a last-minute decision to go for the non-Black candidate. The same pattern held true for Asian Americans: a pre-Super Tuesday poll showed Obama and Clinton to be tied for Asian American support, and yet, on Super Tuesday, Asian Americans went for Clinton by a three-to-one margin.

It’s easy to chalk this all up to racism, but that explanation oversimplifies what I think is a more complex influence of race in the decision-making process for Asian Americans. Some APIAs may, indeed, have felt reluctant to cast their ballot for an African American candidate based purely on intolerance for Blacks alone; indeed, Black/Korean tensions in the West Coast that erupted during the L.A. Riots remain an undercurrent of West Coast identity politics.

However, what I think is a greater factor here is the “Sister Souljah”-ing of Barack Obama’s candidacy by Clinton surrogates like Bob Johnson, Charlie Rangel and Bill Clinton, himself. Following Obama’s victory in South Carolina, where there is a heavily African American voter base, the Clinton campaign (and the media) has successfully cast Obama as the “Black” candidate, despite Obama’s best efforts to portray himself as a unifying, “post-racial” (although he would not use this term) politician. Obama’s overwhelming support amongst Black supporters on Super Tuesday did little to counter this misconception. And with race in America pitting disparate minority groups against one another for a finite number of slices in a common pie, Obama’s growing perception as the “Black” candidate will hurt him amongst non-Black minority voters.

Whereas Clinton represents the (unfortunately) race-neutral, normalized White politician, Obama is seen as being inexorably tied to the African-American special interest. For non-Black minorities, this suggests Obama will not – indeed, cannot – be an unbiased broker of Latino or Asian American concerns, because he has already laid claim to a side in the great “Race Wars”. If Obama is the “Black” candidate, than he will tend to side with Blacks, even over Latino or Asian American concerns. Clinton, meanwhile, has, by her Whiteness, no explicit race affiliation, and thus is perceived to be more likely to represent APIA or Latino interests over Black concerns.

This unfortunate perception of Obama is the same mindset that has hijacked decades of efforts to build a multi-racial coalition of concerned political activists; there is simply too much internalized history of minority communities perceiving other minorities – rather than mainstream America – as the enemy. But while I disagree with this manifestation of race politics in America, I cannot deny that they do exist in the minds of some voters.

The temptation is to conclude from all this that Asian Americans won’t go for Obama because he is Black; however, this conclusion is faulty because it assumes some sort of race-based racism, discrimination, or dislike for Obama or his message intrinsic to Asian Americans. That is, in and of itself, a stereotype that claims Asian Americans invariably will back a candidate like Clinton regardless of efforts by either campaign to change that outcome. That is not the intention of this post: indeed, I think mainstream media has transformed a reasonable discussion of why Asian Americans and Latinos haven’t supported Obama into a racist assertion that non-Black minorities won’t support Obama.

APIAs are experiencing a disconnect with Obama’s campaign – and we need to have an honest discussion as to what that disconnect is about in order to remedy it in the next few weeks. However, I refuse to believe that Asian Americans won’t support Obama for reasons associated with race or his progressive ideology. Indeed, Obama has closer ties to the Asian American community than Clinton; he was critical to passing immigration reform and is the only candidate to have a comprehensive plan for bettering the Asian American community. Obama’s half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, and brother-in-law, Konrad Ng, are both Asian American, and these members of his family remain among his closest advisors during his campaign.

Obama faces several steep obstacles in reaching out to the Asian American vote. And up until this point, his campaign has truly dropped the ball in drawing a distinction between himself and Clinton in regards to their commitment to APIA issues. Obama’s campaign has done little to introduce himself beyond the APIA youth vote, and APIA youths are still outnumbered by our first-generation elders who may gravitate to Clinton’s campaign for a variety of reasons. Obama needs to target Asian-language media, to translate his own press releases into Asian languages, and to target APIA surrogates to rally the APIA community with community-specific messages of hope and change. Asian Americans who are hesitant to jump on the Obama bandwagon need to see Obama’s history with Asian American issues as touted by a respected member of our community, contrasted with the history of empty promises (particularly to the African American community) that have dogged the Clintons. In general, Obama’s campaign also needs to go more on the offensive; my long-standing criticism of Obama has been his reluctance to poke holes in Clinton even when she provides and opening and he has the cover to draw distinctions amicably.

On February 9th, the Democrats will be competing in three states including Washington, where 22,000 Asian Americans will participate in the caucuses. On February 12th, Virginia, Maryland and D.C. will all have a Democratic primary, and Asian Americans represent a significant fraction of that voting population, as well.

It is imperative that in the coming days, the Obama campaign combat Clinton’s casting of Obama as the “Black” candidate, and improve outreach efforts to Asian American voters. Meanwhile, Asian Americans need to take a second look at why they’re voting Clinton; does she really represent the best advocate for us and our community? Or are we just most comfortable with the status quo than we are with gambling on a better future?

 


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