The party that wins Asian voters may benefit for decades
It may have seemed like just a photogenic way to get on weekend television when, 10 days before the November election, Meg Whitman showed up at a Koreatown grocery to carefully pick out pears as a swarm of photographers recorded the scene.
It was, in retrospect, a glimpse at what may become an urgent necessity for Republicans as they seek some way out of the California wilderness after their walloping in the recent election.
One of the few glimmers of hope for the GOP in a poll published last week by the Los Angeles Times and the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences was the openness among Asian voters to consider Republican candidates whom many in the state, particularly other minority groups, have spurned.
Among the state’s two ascendant ethnic voter groups, Latinos and Asians, the poll found plenty of agreement. Both backed Democrat Jerry Brown over Whitman in the governor’s race, and both supported Democrat Barbara Boxer over Republican Carly Fiorina in the U.S. Senate race. Both supported an activist role for government in regulating businesses, protecting minorities and aiding the poor.
But there were key distinctions as well, ones that drew directly on the different cultural experiences of the two groups. The poll provided a rare look at Asian voters, whose numbers among voters, estimated at 7% of the California electorate, are usually too small to analyze in detail.
If not as dominant a presence as Latinos, who were 19% of registered voters, Asians are also growing in number, part of the changing face of California.
“Somebody is going to have to mobilize them,” said Jane Junn, a USC professor of political science who helped design the survey. “If you get them now, you will get them and their kids and their kids’ kids. It’s a risk for the Democrats if they don’t mobilize them. It’s a risk for Republicans because if they don’t get Asians on their side, they’re gone in California.”
Many Republicans, of course, already feel gone in California, after losing all of the statewide offices — assuming Democrat Kamala Harris holds her lead in the still-being-counted race for attorney general — even as GOP candidates in other states routed Democrats.
The poll, the most extensive in the state since the election, laid out a scene of woe for Republicans among the groups most fought over by the parties — nonpartisans and Latinos. Those groups are essential: Democrats, while outnumbering Republicans 3 to 2, aren’t themselves a majority and need their nonpartisan allies to carry the day, and the state’s ever-growing ranks of Latino voters provide much of the propellant for Democratic victories.
No groups vote in lockstep with their parties on all issues. African American voters, now a slightly smaller slice of the electorate than Asians, are more opposed to same-sex marriage than other Democrats, even if they remain among the party’s most loyal voters. Latinos often hold more conservative views on abortion rights than other Democratic groups.
But Asian voters tended to be more sympathetic to Republican policies on two fronts — fiscal and social issues — which served to emphasize their potential as swing voters.
When asked whether the state’s giant budget deficit should be pared through tax hikes or decreased spending, 51% of Asian voters cited spending, well above the 35% among Latinos and the 46% among white voters.
On social issues, the distinctions were most pronounced on same-sex marriage. Thirty-eight percent of Asians said same-sex couples deserved no legal recognition, and only 29% backed the right to marriage. Among Latinos, 19% opted for no recognition and 45% backed marriage; among whites 12% opposed legal recognition and 53% supported marriage.
On immigration, Asians agreed with Latinos on backing a temporary worker program and allowing undocumented residents to gain citizenship if they fulfilled certain dictates. And they favored a measure that would allow citizenship for those who graduate from college or serve in the military.
But they differed sharply on whether employers who hire illegal immigrants should be fined: Latinos disagreed and Asians strongly agreed. And on the emotional matter of whether illegal immigrants should be barred from services like emergency room care or public school admission, Latinos strongly disagreed and Asians narrowly agreed.
Just as striking, Asians had a far more positive view of Whitman, who alienated Latinos with her handling of immigration and her treatment of an undocumented housekeeper. While 71% of Latinos had an unfavorable impression of Whitman, only 39% of Asians did. Thirty-three percent of Asians thought well of her, double the percentage of Latinos.
Analysts said the distinctions rested on demographic differences between the two groups. Latinos were younger, with 71% under age 50 to 59% for Asian voters. Latinos included more women, 60% to 48% for Asians. Latinos were less likely to be college graduates, 22% to 56% for Asians.
Most important, Latinos were far more likely to have been born in this country — 63% to only 27% for Asian voters. Junn said that meant that Asian voters were still, in many cases, hewing to the beliefs of their native countries rather than their adopted one.
On social issues, “you’ve got to remember where people are coming from,” she said. “If you come from China, Korea and Vietnam, you cannot be gay in that society. It’s not allowed, and it’s not open.... It’s a real taboo topic for Asians.”
The distance from Latino voters on some illegal immigration matters likewise stems from a “reluctance to break the law and a reluctance not to conform” often born of surviving under repressive governments, Junn said. Also, illegal immigration remains mostly a phenomenon of the southern border, meaning that Latino citizens are more likely to have undocumented relatives than are immigrants from most of Asia.
Dan Ichinose, director of the Demographic Research Project at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, which helped formulate and finance USC’s participation in the survey of Asian voters, said the views of California’s Asian minorities may change over time.
“Many folks do carry attitudes from their countries of origin and cultures in those countries,” he said. “As more are born in this country and become more comfortable in living here, those attitudes fall.”
For now, the attitudes are giving Republicans a chance; whether they make the most of it depends on how avidly the parties pursue the new voters.
“They’re sort of a classic swing group,” said Junn, born in Georgia to parents who emigrated from Korea. “Whoever makes the move to get these immigrants will get them for generations.”
Each Sunday, The Week examines implications of major stories. It is archived at latimes.com/theweek