The recent defeat of an effort to reinstitute affirmative action in admissions to California's public colleges and universities demonstrates the political power of Asian American voters and challenges the conventional wisdom about their partisan loyalties.
The defeat is a reminder that Asian Americans can have a decisive impact on political and policymaking processes. Perhaps more important, it suggests that if education is a key issue that drives Asian American voters, the Democratic Party may not be able to reliably count on their support in the future.
In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 209, which banned the consideration of race, ethnicity or gender in state public employment and higher education. Last month, Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) tabled a proposed constitutional amendment, known as SCA 5, which would have restored the use of affirmative action in admissions to the state's public institutions of higher learning. Pérez went against the vast majority of Democratic legislators, as well as many ethnic identity groups traditionally supportive of Democrats, effectively killing the effort.
This happened because of strong, organized opposition to SCA 5 from the Asian American community — or at least its most vocal leaders and others active in the political process.
This ability to force such action supports the notion that the Asian American community is at a "tipping point" in California politics. Its numbers are high enough (about 15% of the state's population) to be a decisive constituency, particularly in statewide races and in close, contested elections. And community members' interest in education issues suggests that the affirmative action debate may have political repercussions for Democrats.
A majority of Asian Americans has consistently affiliated with Democrats since the early 1990s. But before that, they regularly supported Republicans. In fact, George H.W. Bush won 54% of the Asian American vote in 1988.
Survey data suggest that the two parties' positions on education may have something to do with this turn toward the Democratic Party. In a 2012 post-election survey of Asian American/Pacific Islander voters, 81% of those responding said that education issues were "very important" to their vote, second only to the economy and jobs at 86%. President Obama had a 42-point advantage among those citing education issues as being very important to their vote.
This debate over affirmative action highlights an area within education policy where the interests of Asian Americans are at odds with the Democratic Party. It also creates opportunities for the GOP to gain support.
Democrats have made it clear that they want to reinstate racial preferences in admissions, while Asian Americans do not, as illustrated in their efforts to defeat SCA 5. Given that the percentage of freshmen admitted to all University of California campuses who were Asian American increased between 1996 and 2013, Democrats do not appear to be accounting for the Asian American community's interests.
Notably, the percentage of freshmen admitted to all UC campuses who self-identified as Latino or Chicano nearly doubled during that time, while the African American percentage stayed the same. This suggests that affirmative action need not be an issue that divides racial and ethnic minorities.
Whether the Republican Party is able to capitalize on the debate depends in large part on whether its leaders are able to articulate principled arguments both about why the restoration of racial preferences in admissions is wrong and why the GOP's perspectives on access to higher education and the importance of choice, accountability and high standards in K-12 education are right.
Although SCA 5 is dead for now, Pérez and his Democratic colleagues plan to form a task force to examine whether the state's public institutions should change the way they admit students. Continuing efforts by California Democrats to reinstitute affirmative action have the potential, therefore, to alienate segments of the very electoral coalition they rely on for success in the state and beyond.