Minority voter engagement in Texas is often viewed as an effort to get Hispanic and African Americans to the polls. But Asian Americans are now the fastest growing minority group in the country—accounting for an estimated 5 percent of Texans, according to U.S. Census data—and several observers believe they could have an impact on the November 6 election. That could have positive implications for Beto O’Rourke’s campaign, since most Asian Americans vote Democrat.
Both the Texas Asian Republican Assembly and the Asian American Democrats of Texas said O’Rourke spent more time with the Asian American community than other candidates now and historically. Nabila Mansoor, the president of the Houston chapter of AADT, said the Democratic Party has really made an effort to get the Asian community to vote through outreach programs.
“We’re going to see I think a huge turnout rate,” Mansoor said. “If you look at it, there are areas of Texas where we could really make a huge difference.”
The term “Asian American” refers to someone with East, South, or Southeast Asian heritage, and the term is often paired with “Pacific Islander.” The group is massively diverse, which makes it difficult to pinpoint how the group will vote or even which issues are most important. After a while in the country, even on issues like immigration, racial and ethnic groups made up of immigrants might take an unexpected stance. There are an estimated 1.3 million Asian Americans in Texas, according to the 2017 report by the American Community Survey, and 625,112 of them are eligible to vote, according to Census data from 2015. The group’s growth rate of 2.7 percent nationally since 2012 is higher than Hispanics’ rate of 2.1 percent. Nationally, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) voter turnout has been historically low, with only 49 percent of eligible Asian Americans voting in 2016, according to Census data. That’s dismal compared to the 65.3 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 59.6 percent for non-Hispanic blacks, but about on par with the reported Hispanic voter turnout of 47.6 percent.
Both Mansoor and Democratic state representative Gene Wu of Houston–one of the few Asian Americans in the Texas Legislature–said this is due to both the culture of the country that many Asian immigrants came from and the feeling that candidates don’t pay much attention to their community.
“Immigrants have a tendency not to vote, not to engage,” Wu said. “People came from places where there was no voting, or voting didn’t matter. Those are high hurdles to overcome.”
That’s something O’Rourke’s campaign has fought against, and the extra attention may mean higher turnout from the community. Forty-eight percent of Asian voters are more enthusiastic than usual about voting in this year’s midterm elections, according to a survey conducted by UC Berkeley. Issues like immigration, health care, and gun control poll very highly nationally in Asian American communities, and there is much more support for the Democratic positions on those issues. The question is whether that enthusiasm will translate into votes.
“A lot of [Asian immigrants] who have come in the past ten to twenty years come through the education system or medical or tech jobs,” said Dr. Arthur Sakamoto, professor of sociology at Texas A&M and one of the founders of the Center for Asian American Studies at UT-Austin. “Many of them have green cards but haven’t become citizens.” And of those who have become citizens, only about half have registered to vote, according to Dr. Sakamoto.
Asian Americans had voted Republican for years until experiencing a gradual shift that started in 2000, when a majority of Asian Americans voted Democrat, AAPIData founder Dr. Karthick Ramakrishnan told The American Prospect for a 2016 article. Even though Asian Americans have a low turnout rate, they are often ignored in discussions of voter engagement. And just like any racial or ethnic group, the problems are more diverse than a few buzzwords.
“The Asian American community internally is extremely diverse,” Wu said. “On the outside, it looks like a monolith, but internally there are a lot of intercommunity issues.”
“After two to three generations of assimilation, you find that those attitudes [toward immigration] can change depending on the region they’re assimilating to,” Dr. Sakamoto said. So while first-generation immigrants are more likely to vote Democrat, third- and fourth-generation immigrants will tend to vote with Texas—predominantly Republican.
Many Asian Americans in Texas have closer ties to the Republican party, according to Anthony Nguyen, president of the TARA. He said many first-generation Asian Americans lean strongly Republican because of the countries they fled.
“In the general sense, freedom and liberty is what immigrants from Asian communities enjoy about America,” Nguyen said. “A lot of us are first-generation immigrants, and the countries we came from were very controlling.”
The concept of “freedom and liberty” aligns very closely with Ted Cruz’s base, with its push for less government regulation. Mansoor said the most important issue for most Asians is immigration, since so many Asian Americans got to the U.S. through chain migration—the ability of U.S. citizens to bring family members from other countries to live in the United States.
Another factor that could decide the Asian vote in Texas is which countries the voters are from. The highest share of non-citizen immigrant Asian Texans are coming from India, and according to the survey, 70 percent have a favorable view of the Democratic Party, compared to 36 percent who have a favorable view of the Republican Party.
According to the survey, Asian Americans see both President Trump and the GOP very unfavorably, with the exception of Filipino voters, with a 48 percent approval rating of Trump’s performance in office, and Vietnamese voters, with a 64 percent approval rating. Japanese voters gave the lowest approval rating for the president, with only 14 percent of respondents approving of Trump’s performance in office. At least half of each group surveyed viewed the Democratic Party favorably, and less than half of each group viewed the Republican Party favorably.
Those views, along with O’Rourke’s events in the Asian American communities—watch his September town hall in Houston—could help the Democrat’s campaign, but the question is whether O’Rourke has focused enough on the AAPI population to get them to vote. Democratic candidates across Texas are relying on voters who don’t normally turn out to show up at the polls.
“The hardest thing is getting non-voters to vote,” Mansoor said. “If you ignore that community, the community won’t respond.”
Another look at the importance and risk of campaigning in Asian communities is the case of Sri Kulkarni, who is running as a Democrat for a House seat for District 22. He has made news for reaching out to Asian American voters in 13 different languages, and raised hopes when the Cook Political Report, which ranks Congressional races, changed that race from “Likely Republican” to “Leans Republican.” That district has the highest concentration of Asian American voters in the state.