Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign on Thursday will unveil its effort to organize Asian Americans in the San Gabriel Valley, an area with one of the densest concentrations of those voters in the state. But the campaign’s real targets are outside California, in places where surging numbers of Asian voters have helped lead Democrats to victories in recent statewide races.
Those places include Virginia and Nevada, two hard-fought states that sided with President Obama in his successful campaigns for the White House and would have to be flipped by the Republican nominee to ensure a victory in November.
Clinton’s early outreach to Asian voters is meant to help her construct a demographic firewall in those key states and any others that prove problematic if she is the Democratic nominee. California, a killing ground for Republican presidential candidates since 1992, is not expected to be among them.
The national battle for Asian voters is a replay of the decades-long fight for Latino voters, one that ended in a Democratic rout because of Republican policies that left the burgeoning voter group feeling unwanted, even disdained.
Against that backdrop, Clinton’s announcement of her campaign’s Asian outreach plan represents the most public component of a courtship that dates to her husband’s presidency in the 1990s.
The desire for support from Asians has been driven by their swiftly increasing numbers. Two million Asians were registered to vote in 2000; the figure had doubled by 2012. By 2044, Asians are expected to represent 1 in 10 voters nationally, according to a study by Karthick Ramakrishnan, a UC Riverside professor who has long studied Asian voters.
Already, the voting-age population of Asians exceeds 10% in seven states, including California. Important areas in other swing states, such as North Carolina’s Research Triangle and Virginia’s Fairfax and Loudoun counties, also have growing Asian populations.
They are not a monolith; Vietnamese voters in particular lean toward the Republican Party, even in blue California. In this state, Asian voters often register as nonpartisan to avoid the embrace of either major party. But by voting behavior, Asians have drifted toward the Democratic Party and its candidates.
In the 2008 general election, 64% of California’s Asian voters sided with Barack Obama. In 2012, that figure grew to 79%. Nationally, 73% of Asian voters backed Obama over Republican Mitt Romney, the highest percentage of any demographic bloc after African American voters.
In 2014, a Virginia exit poll by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund showed that Asian voters sided with Sen. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, over Republican Ed Gillespie by 2 to 1. At the time, Asians represented 3% of the electorate. Warner won by less than 1% of the overall vote, meaning that Asians alone roughly accounted for his victory even in a state without a huge Asian population.
Denying Republicans a foothold in states like Virginia, where Democratic advantages have ebbed over the Obama presidency, would be key to Clinton’s chances in November.
“This speaks to how the campaign is pitching a very broad tent and thinking ahead to the general election,” Ramakrishnan said of Clinton’s entreaties. “The growth of the population, especially in certain swing states, is part of the appeal. Another part of the appeal is the fact that the face of immigration is changing.”
Indeed, it is with no small amount of teeth-gnashing that Asians have seen the immigration debate framed almost solely by the experience of Latinos, and the voting rights debate focused on the experience of African Americans.
Asians have been caught up in current and historical efforts to block their voting rights and worse, including the World War II internments. Two-thirds of Asians in the country were born elsewhere, compared with one-third of Latinos. About 40% of the millions in the nation’s visa backlog are Asian.
Even if they have been largely on the sidelines of those public discussions, Asian voters have still felt a chill this presidential campaign.
GOP front-runner Donald Trump has repeatedly assaulted China as an economic enemy. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, under fire from Latinos for using the term “anchor babies,” tried to mollify them by transferring the insult, saying that his remarks were “more related to Asian people.” Former Carly Fiorina, another Republican, took off after Chinese women who she said perpetuated “abuses” by giving birth in the U.S.
Political consultant Parke Skelton, who helped elect state Treasurer John Chiang and state Controller Betty Yee in 2014, said that such explicit insults were strongly felt by Asian voters.
“There’s been such a history of discrimination having to do with the Asian population that it’s a part of the cultural DNA,” he said.
The persistent GOP effort to kill Obama’s healthcare plan, which is highly popular among Asian voters, also has limited the Republican reach.
Clinton seeks Asian voters from a position of strength; in a September USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll, she led challenger Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont, by 21 percentage points among Asians in California.
She led by even more among women and Latinos, who fueled her 2008 California primary victory over Obama. Asians at the time represented a smaller and less sought-after component of the electorate. But no more, as voters, elected officials and donors are in the campaign’s sights, nationally and in California.
“The primary’s probably a foregone conclusion, but you never know,” Ramakrishnan said. “One way to interpret this is to see it as an insurance move by the Clinton campaign.”