The Washington Post published an essay yesterday that is making the waves. It is titled “Why Asian Americans Don’t Vote Republican.” The author presents Asian-American voting patterns as a mystery to be solved:
In the 2012 presidential election, Barack Obama won 73 percent of the Asian-American vote. That exceeded his support among traditional Democratic Party constituencies like Hispanics (71 percent) and women (55 percent).
Republicans should be alarmed by this statistic, as Asians weren’t always so far out of reach for Republicans.
When we examine presidential exit polls, we see that 74 percent of the Asian-American vote went to the Republican presidential candidate just two decades ago. The Democratic presidential vote share among Asian Americans has steadily increased from 36 percent in 1992, to 64 percent in the 2008 election to 73 percent in 2012. Asian Americans were also one of the rare groups that were more favorable to President Obama in the latter election.
This dramatic change in party preference is stunning. No other group has shifted so dramatically in its party identification within such a short time period. Some are calling it the “GOP’s Asian erosion.”
Moreover, Asian Americans as a group have a number of attributes that would usually predict an affinity for the Republican Party…. 
The author, Cecilia Hyunjung Mo, goes on to suggest that Asian America’s flight from the GOP is best understood by Asian Americans’ “feeling of social exclusion stemming from their ethnic background.” This explanation is unconvincing. The main evidence she uses for her contention is a study that relies on social priming for its main evidence. This is a point against it already–social psychology has been embroiled in a crisis of its own making for the last four or so years as researchers have shot down one priming study after another. The criticism of these studies are legion: they fail to replicate, there is no proven connection between impressions primed in the moment and long term actions (in this case, voting), and it is too easy for researchers to read their own narratives into the data or into their subjects’ performance. The controversy is an old one, and it isn’t hard to find readable exposes on the whole affair. Here is one at the Chronicle of Higher Education, here is one at Nature, here is one from the New York Times, here is one at Psychology Today, here are three from Discover Magazine, here is one from LessWrong, here is one from Slate Star Codex, and here is a famous e-mail by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman telling the entire sub-field to get its act together.
In view of all this, a study based on social priming should not be accepted uncritically. At a minimum I don’t regard one as proper evidence unless it has been replicated by an entirely separate research team. (In this case, I would also like to see stronger evidence linking short term implicit behaviors with long term political affiliation).
A second problem is that Mo’s research does not answer the question she posed at the essay’s start. The interesting question is not “why do Asian Americans not vote Republican” but “why did Asian Americans stop voting Republican?” If the real issue is that “Asian Americans are regularly made to feel like foreigners in their own country,” as Mo suggests, then she must explain how Republicans made Asian American feel more like more foreigners in 2012 than in 1992.
Is it plausible that the Republican party has become less accepting and more prejudiced towards Asian Americans over the last three decades? Perhaps, as Reihan Salaam has suggested will happen, Republicans have finally learned to play identity politics as well as the Democrats do. This is a remarkable development, if true–a fundamental change in the way the Republican party is structured. When did this change happen? Was it with Trump? The Tea parties? The rise of social media and hash-tag social justice campaigns? The election of Barrack Obama? Most descriptions of the GOP as the party of white nationalism explicitly call this an Obama-era development. But if this is true, how do we make sense of Asian American votes against the Republicans in 2004, back when the main issues on the table were war, terrorism, and taxes, not race or immigration? The GOP began to “lose” Asian American voters in the 1990s. These losses continued at the same pace during the Bush years. They did not accelerate under Obama. Given the consistency of this steady decline, any potential explanation of why the GOP “lost” Asian America needs to explain what happened in all three eras–not just the politics of the present moment.
Here is a simple observation that fits the bill: The Asian Americans of 2015 are not the same people as the Asian Americans of 1990. The most important factor in Asian America’s changing political attitudes is immigration.
Let us look at some numbers (click on the images for larger pictures):
|Yu Xie, Research Tables, on Yu Xie’s U. Michigan research site (accessed 2 Nov 2015)|
|U.S. Census Bureau, “The Asian Population: 2010,” 2010 Census Briefs (March 2012), p. 4.|
| Pew Research Center, Rise of the Asian Americans,
(Pew Research: Washington DC, last updated 4 April 2013), p. 1
In 1990 approximately seven million Americans were classified by the Census as “Asian American.” In 2010 that number had risen to seventeen million. This means that the majority of potential Asian American voters in 2015 were not citizens when Bill Clinton was first elected.
There are several implications of this fact. One of the few tenets that unites Republicans from all corners of their fractious “big tent” is that government should be small and non activist. In their 2012 study Rise of Asian America Pew asked Asian Americans what they thought of this notion. 55% said that the government should be larger and offer more services. Only 36% said it should be smaller. But when the survey split up Asian Americans between”native born” and “foreign born” individuals, they found an enormous difference. 44% of Asian Americans who grew up in America thought the government should be smaller, while 48% (a 4 point spread) thought the reverse. In contrast 33% of foreign born Asians thought the government should shrink, while a whopping 57% said the government should provide more services (a 24 point spread)!  1st generation immigrants from Asia do not look kindly on attempts to cut down government, and 1st generation immigrants is what the majority of Asian Americans are.
More important than the number of these immigrants, however, if their composition. The census labels a wide group of people as “Asian Americans” and most pundits take this category at face value. This is wrong, if for no other reason than the fact that few “Asian Americans” use it themselves. Most immigrants from Asia, especially in the 1st generation, identify themselves with their country of origin: Indian-American, Chinese-American, Cambodian-American, and so forth. Describing all of these different groups as “Asian America” hides the economic and cultural fault lines that divide them.
Politics is a good example of this.
In the 2004 election, national exit polls found that 90% of South Asian-Americans voted for Kerry. They were followed by Chinese-Americans (72%), Korean-Americans (66%), and Filipino-Americans (60%). When grouped together Americans of Southeast Asian descent barely tilted towards Kerry (51%), but pre-election polls suggest that the Vietnamese contingent of the “Southeast Asian” group voted heavily in Bush’s favor (71%). 
In 2008, 84% of Indian-Americans voted for Obama (only 6% voted for McCain), compared to 67% of Chinese Americans, 63% of Japanese-Americans, 61% of Korean-Americans, 50% of Filipino Americans, and only 43% of Vietnamese. 
In 2012, 96% of Bangladeshi-Americans voted for Obama, as compared to 84% of Indian-Americans, 81% of Chinese-Americans, 78% of Korean-Americans, 65% of Filipino-Americans, and 44% of Vietnamese-Americans. 
There is a clear leftward shift among all groups from 2004 to 2012. However, disparities between the groups are large and politically significant. Indian-Americans are overwhelmingly Democrats. The majority of Vietnamese-Americans are Republican. If all “Asian Americans” were Vietnamese then “Asian America” would be a Republican stronghold.
But the majority of Asian Americans are not Vietnamese. In fact, the percentage of Vietnamese-Americans as a proportion of all Asian Americans has barely changed since the Clinton years. In 1990 approximately 8% of Asian Americans claimed Vietnamese ancestry. Today the number is 10%. In contrast, Indian-Americans were only 12% of the total in 1990, but are 19% of Asian America today. The political implications of this should be obvious.
|Eric Jensen et. al, “The Place of Birth Composition of Immigrants to the United States: 2000-2013” presentation at Annual Meeting of Population Association of America,” (30 April-2 May 2015)|
This data points to another problem with Mo’s main contention. If micro-agressions and discrimination are driving Asians away from the GOP, why has the flight been so uneven from one demographic group to another? Indian-Americans, who are often associated with Arab terrorists in the white hick mind, can plausibly claim they face greater prejudice than others placed in the “Asian American” camp. But what about the others? Are we really to believe that Japanese-Americans face more prejudice than Vietnamese-Americans–even though Vietnamese-Americans are poorer and speak far less proficient English on average?
This may be the key actually. The differences between the most liberal Asian American demographic groups (Indian-Americans, Chinese-Americans, and Japanese-Americans) and the more conservative Asian American demographic groups (Filipino-Americans, Vietnamese-Americans) are the same differences that divide liberal and conservative whites. Indian and Chinese-Americans are far more educated than the national average; Vietnamese-Americans are less so (to give you a sense of the numbers: 7 out of 10 Indian-Americans have a college degree; only one quarter of Vietnamese-Americans do). Most Chinese-Americans live on the West Coast or the Northeast, but a large proportion of Vietnamese-Americans live in Southern states like Texas. Indian and Chinese-Americans are less likely to be Christian than Filipino or Vietnamese-Americans, and even when they claim a faith they participate in religious services less than Filipino, Vietnamese, and Korean-Americans do. 
Were I to ask you to identify the likely political affiliation of a couple who both have post-graduate degrees, rarely attend Church, and lives in an upper scale neighborhood in California or New England, what would you guess?
Surely there are some Asian Americans who were once Republicans and now are Democrats. But shifting political loyalties are not the entire story–indeed, it cannot be the entire story, for the majority of Asian Americans were not citizens when their demographic category voted for the GOP en masse. The real story is not the loss of old GOP voters, but the GOP’s utter failure to attract these new immigrants to their cause. A thorough explanation shouldn’t begin with micro-triggers, but with more fundamental changes in Asian America’s demographics: the rising proportion of Asian Americans with college and post graduate degrees, the growing numbers of Indian and Chinese-Americans, and so forth.
USEFUL RESOURCES ON ASIAN AMERICAN DEMOGRAPHICS:
Pew Research Center, Rise of the Asian Americans, (2012; last updated April 2013).
U.S. Census Bureau, “The Asian Population: 2010,” 2010 Census Briefs (2012).
Asian Americans Advancing Justice’s “Community of Contrast” reports on California, the Northeast, and the South (2012-2014)
Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund’s “The Asian American Vote” reports (2004, 2008, 2012)
Yu Xie’s sociology Research Tables and Research Files
Arthur Sakamoto and Yu Xie, “Socioeconomic Attainments of Asian Americans” (2005)
Arthur Sakamoto, Isao Takei, and Hyeyoung Wood, “The Myth of the Model Minority Myth” (2013)
Arthur Sakamoto, Isao Takei, and Changhwan Kim “The Socioeconomic Attainments of Non-immigrant Cambodian, Filipino, Hmong, Laotian, Thai, and Vietnamese Americans” (2013)
 Cecilia Hyungjung Mo, “Why Asian Americans Don’t Vote Republican,” Washington Post (2 November 2015).
 Pew Research Center, Rise of the Asian Americans, (Pew Research: Washington DC, last updated 4 April 2013), 159.
 Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, “The Asian American Vote: 2004,” (New York: AALDEF, 2004), 8; Jim Lobe, “Asian Americans Lean Towards Kerry,” Asian Times Online (16 September 2004).
 All of these numbers come from Pew, Rise of the Asian Americans.