For years, Asian Americans were among the least likely of any racial or ethnic group to vote or to join community or advocacy groups. Today, they are surging into public life, running for office in record numbers and turning out to vote unlike ever before. They are now the fastest-growing group in the U.S. electorate.
But as a political force, Asian Americans are still taking shape. With a relatively short history of voting, they differ from demographic groups whose families have built party loyalties and voting tendencies over generations. Most of their families arrived after 1965, when the United States opened its doors more widely to people in Asia. There are vast class divisions, too; the income gap between the rich and the poor is greatest among Asian Americans.
"These are your classic swing voters," said Karthick Ramakrishnan, president of AAPI Data. "These immigrants did not grow up in a Democratic household or Republican household. You have a lot more persuadability."
Historical data on Asian American voting patterns is spotty. Analyses of exit polls show that a majority voted for George Bush in 1992, Ramakrishnan said. Today, a majority of Asians vote for Democrats, but that masks deep differences by subgroup. Vietnamese Americans, for example, lean more toward Republicans, and Indian Americans lean strongly toward Democrats.
It is too early for final breakdowns of the Asian American vote in 2020. But one thing seems clear: Turnout for Asian Americans appears to have been higher than it has ever been. Ramakrishnan analyzed preliminary estimates from the voter data firm Catalist that were based on available returns from 33 states representing two-third of eligible Asian American voters. The estimates found that adult Asian American citizens had the highest recorded increase in voter turnout among any racial or ethnic group.
Many Asian Americans find themselves uniquely interested in both major parties, drawn to Democrats for their stances on guns and health care and to Republicans for their support for small business and emphasis on self-reliance. But they do not fit into neat categories.
Former President Donald Trump's repeated reference to the "China virus" repelled many Chinese American voters, and the Democrats' support for affirmative action policies in schools has drawn strong opposition from some Asian groups. Even the violence and slurs against Asians, which began spiking after the coronavirus began to spread last spring, have pushed people in different directions politically. Some blame Trump and his followers. Others see Republicans as supporters of the police and law and order.
Yeun Jae Kim, 32, voted for the first time last year. His parents had moved from Seoul, South Korea, to a Florida suburb when he was a child and started a truck parts salvage business. Kim went on to graduate from Georgia Tech and then to a job at Coca-Cola in Atlanta, but, like his parents, he was so focused on making it that he did not vote or think about politics much at all.
Last year changed his mind. But how to vote and whom to choose? He and his wife spent hours watching videos on YouTube and talking at church to a politically experienced friend, also a Korean American.
He wanted to keep his vote private. But he said that casting a ballot made him feel good.
More Asian Americans are running for office than ever before. They include Andrew Yang, among the early leaders in the race for New York mayor, and Michelle Wu, the city councilor who is running for mayor of Boston. A Filipino American, Robert Bonta, just became attorney general of California.
At least 158 Asian Americans ran for state legislatures in 2020, according to AAPI Data, up by 15% from 2018.