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Will Asian Americans Retreat from Democrats?
Democrats lost significant ground among minority populations over the last decade. Between the 2012 and 2020 presidential elections, black voters moved six points towards Republicans and Latinos shifted eight. The exception to this trend was Asian American voters, who inched one point towards Democrats over those eight years.
In 2022, this silver lining dulled appreciably. New data from the analytic firm Catalist shows that Democrats struggled with Asian American1 voters in the midterms. The demographic lurched seven percent towards Republicans in just two years—more than any other major ethnic category. And while Asian Americans, who make up around four percent of the voting electorate, do still favor Democrats by about a 20-point margin, the shift in 2022 reveals that Democrats have a problem on their hands.
To understand why the midterm results are so startling, it’s helpful to have some historical context. During the 1980s, Asian Americans were politically divided. Some had recently escaped oppressive left-wing regimes in Cambodia, China, and Vietnam and so they found a natural home in the Republican Party. Others preferred the Democratic Party for its orientation on social issues and minority groups.
Despite these cross-pressures, Asian Americans as a whole voted overwhelmingly for Republicans as late as 1992, when they supported George H.W. Bush over Bill Clinton by a 24-percent margin. The GOP dominance among Asian Americans soon began to waver, however, as Clinton embraced a business-friendly free-market agenda and oversaw economic boom times while the perception of the GOP as hostile to minority groups and immigrants grew. As a result, Asian Americans shifted 13 percent towards Clinton in the 1996 election. This movement toward Democrats continued for the next twenty years, and within the span of two decades, Asian American voters went from giving Clinton 28 percent of the two-party vote in 1992 to giving Obama, Clinton, and Biden 65 percent, 67 percent, and 66 percent, respectively.
What makes the 2022 midterms so noteworthy, then, is that they represent a break from the decades-long trend toward Democrats. And when you drill down into the numbers, it becomes clear that two issues in particular are responsible for the Asian American backslide toward Republicans: public safety and education.
Let’s start with the former. As violent crime surged in cities throughout the country in 2020 and 2021, the Democrats in charge of many of those cities largely failed to respond with an effective message or policy agenda. Rather than prosecuting criminals and getting repeat offenders off of the streets, many Democrats took a “root causes” approach that came across as quixotic and ineffective. Moreover, following George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, many people, fairly or not, began to see the Democratic Party as anti-police. For many Asian Americans who live in urban areas, the visible erosion of public safety was unacceptable—and they blamed Democrats for letting it happen.
The first sign that this could pose an electoral problem for Democrats came in early 2022 with the effort to recall San Francisco’s progressive District Attorney, Chesa Boudin. Simmering fury about Boudin’s handling of crime and his seemingly indifferent attitude towards the victims of crime, many of whom were Asian American, eventually boiled over into outrage. And while every major racial demographic favored recalling Boudin, Asian Americans were by far the most supportive, with around 67 percent supporting the recall and only 13 percent opposing.
Frustration about crime wasn’t isolated to San Francisco. Asked in a national poll ahead of the midterms how important crime was to determining their vote, 85 percent of Asian Americans said it was “extremely” or “very” important. And when asked which party handles crime better, Asian Americans broke about even between Democrats and Republicans. Compared to other issues like health care, immigration, and gun control, on which Asian Americans overwhelmingly prefer Democrats, crime is a striking outlier.
The other issue most responsible for Asian Americans’ rightward shift is education. For many Asian Americans, especially those who are immigrants or low-income, education represents the step ladder for reaching a better life for themselves or their children. In recent years, however, Democrats have begun to fold up that stepladder in the name of racial equity. Across the country—from San Francisco to Boston to New York City and beyond—public school systems have tried to restructure the admissions process for “gifted and talented” schools and programs. By replacing academic assessments with lottery systems or other subjective evaluations, these proposals would dramatically reduce the number of Asian American students admitted, sometimes by as much as 40 or 50 percent.
The response from Asian Americans? Anger, resentment, and an electoral backlash. In San Francisco, Asian Americans drove the recall of three school board members who had rammed through one such admissions change. In New York City, frustration with a new admissions process that replaced academic screenings with lottery systems for hundreds of selective public middle and high schools eventually drove Mayor Eric Adams to roll back the unpopular reform.
And while admissions changes like these are certainly animating for many Asian Americans, Democrats are pushing plenty of other education policies that are likely just as politically toxic. One example is California’s attempt to eliminate honors-level classes and prohibit schools from sorting students according to academic achievement. Another is the ongoing attempt to encourage colleges to consider race and ethnicity when deciding which students to admit, something that only 21 percent of Asian American adults support according to a recent Gallup poll. In short, Democratic attempts to meddle with education in the name of equity and social justice at the expense of equality and fairness are driving away Asian American voters.
Of course, other issues beyond crime and education contributed to the rightward shift among Asian Americans in the midterms. Many Asian Americans think the GOP is better at managing inflation and the economy. Others dislike the form of progressive identity politics that’s become increasingly associated with the Democratic Party. Others are less motivated by individual policies and are simply a part of the working-class realignment toward Republicans.
Taken together, these Democratic deficiencies created the conditions by which Republicans could gain significant ground among Asian American voters in the midterms. If Democrats want to reverse this trend, they’ll need to stop giving in to the most ideological and progressive wing of the party and actually address the concerns that Asian Americans are expressing. A good place to start would be with public safety and education.
If Democrats continue to try and paper over the cracks that are forming in this increasingly important voting bloc, however, we could look back on the 2022 midterms as the start of an Asian American retreat back towards the GOP.
I want to note that “Asian American” and “AAPI” (Asian American Pacific Islander) are broad and imprecise terms. There are a number of subgroups within the Asian American population that vary greatly in their political tendencies. For example, those with ancestral roots in communist countries like Vietnam and China are typically more Republican-leaning and conservative than those from non-communist countries. Similarly, Asian Americans who were born in the United States are significantly more Democratic than those who moved to America as immigrants. Ultimately, any label that could refer to both a North Korean refugee and a third-generation Indian-American is seriously flawed. Lumping all that diversity into one broad category flattens an immense amount of complexity. Even so, imperfect categories are a necessary part of political punditry, allowing us to move beyond definitional disputes to actual analysis.