Why Did Asian America Abandon the GOP?

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…. [1]

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)! [2]  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%).  [3]

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. [4]

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. [5]

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. [6]

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. 


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)


[1] Cecilia Hyungjung Mo, “Why Asian Americans Don’t Vote Republican,” Washington Post (2 November 2015). 

[2] Pew Research Center,  Rise of the Asian Americans, (Pew Research: Washington DC, last updated 4 April 2013), 159.

 [3] 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).

 [4] Pew,  Rise of the Asian Americans, p. 164.

 [5] The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, “The Asian American Vote: 2012,” (New York: AALDEF, 2012), 9.

[6] All of these numbers come from Pew, Rise of the Asian Americans.

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I think the religious factor mentioned at the end of the article has a LOT to do with the disengagement of Asian Americans from the GOP. You have, over the last 25 years, an increasingly strident religious right, fully embraced by the Republicans. I have no stats, but I suspect that Chinese (Buddhist?) and Indian (Hindu) Americans would be turned off by the unwelcoming rhetoric espoused by the wingers, and the tenuous position of separation of church and state in many Red States. Vietnam had a large Catholic minority, many of whom fled to the US at the end of the war, and Filipinos are majority Catholic. I would think a study of these influences on their voting patterns would be interesting. After all, a sizeable fraction of milennials seem to have been driven out of organized religion by the trend toward fundie evangelism.

I think the geography angle might be worth examining. People often take on the politics of their peers and neighbors. Certain Asian-American groups may be spread out in different parts of the country, which themselves are more Republican or Democrat. Perhaps there are more of them in bigger cities or more liberal college towns now?

Also, what about youth — is the Asian-American population younger or older than before? I wonder if much of the growth of new voters is from naturalized citizens than the children of the previous wave of immigrants. You mention most of the Asian-American growth is from immigration rather than births, but the voting population also matters (what if a young college student is more likely to vote than a grandmother who was a refugee?).

I think there is still something to the idea that racial/religious othering puts off ethnic minorities that are non-white or non-Christian. In Canada, there was talk about how the Conservative party alienated visible minorities in just the past election in this regard.

Lastly, do you think foreign policy matters to Asian-Americans and whether one party or the other is more friendly to their "ancestral" homelands? Or do you think most don't care any more about policy regarding their countries of origin any more than the average American of European descent does?

Also, regarding the idea that Asian-Americans don't identify as Asian more broadly but mainly to their specific ethnic origin, I find that it's not necessarily true. Many colleges have Asian-American sororities and fraternities and Asian-American is treated as a grouping just like African-American or Hispanic in the US in many situations or ways.

It might be more true of many new arrivals to identify with homeland first, but that's true of many first generation immigrant groups, not just Asian-Americans (A first generation Greek-American in Chicago or Somali-American in Minnesota might put homeland-identity first over racial identity and either may not feel much in common with a multi-generationally rooted white or black American from say, Alabama either).

Also, people readily switch between these kinds of labels all the time, depending on context. Someone might say they're "white", "black" or "Asian" in one context, and say the name of a specific ethnicity in another context, say when discussing heritage like food or family members overseas.

Perhaps it is a matter of the more educated regarding themselves as sort of a new Mandarinate, who figure by virtue of their educations they will tend to dominate a 'big government' state. If that is the case they vote the way they do in order to acquire power and thereby wealth. That would account for the voting pattern regardless of race. If true, it would also mean that it is not possible to attract these people to any political party that wants smaller government. Or to steal from Charles Murray, the superzips are voting for a Superzipistan.

Asian know that you don't fight the permanent government. There is nothing to gain by voting non-Democrat, and a lot to gain by doing so.


This is essentially correct, though the majority of Chinese are atheists and agnostics, not Buddhists. The one outlier here are the Koreans, 40% of whom are evangelical. These Korean evangelicals have some pretty conservative views re: homosexuality, sex, etc. too. But still Korean Americans vote Democrat.

@Anon #1–If you look in the "Asian American Vote" report for 2012 you'll find that the majority of Asian Americans in Louisiana voted Republican. So there is something too that. But your proposed causality might really just be a hidden selection effect. Does Louisiana turn its Asians conservative, or do only conservative Asians move to Louisiana?

"Lastly, do you think foreign policy matters to Asian-Americans and whether one party or the other is more friendly to their "ancestral" homelands?"

Yes, though the importance of this will very group to group. Japanese Americans, most who are 2nd or 3rd and sometimes even 4th at this point, are less attached to the ancestral homeland.


Also, regarding the idea that Asian-Americans don't identify as Asian more broadly but mainly to their specific ethnic origin, I find that it's not necessarily true….

I doubt these would exist if the category didn't already. Asian-Americans, exp. 2nd and 3rd generation ones, are socialized into accepting these categories. But there are limits. Most 1.5/2nd gen Indians, Sri Lankans, Bangledeshis, and Pakistanis in USA would be comfortable be grouped under a title like "Desi," but few would think of themselves in the same category as Korean or Chinese-Americans.

Sometimes people can be quite insistent about this too. I was fascinated with the ethnic dynamics of the Cambodian community of Lowell, MA, which I live in for some time. The adults would kill you if you put them together in any category with Vietnamese (I've written about Viet-Khmer relations before, here: http://scholars-stage.blogspot.com/2015/07/the-cnrp-wont-save-south-china-sea.html ), but if you asked the kids in high school they would conceptually group Viet, Khmer, and Lao together as one clique.

In any case, the Pew Rise of Asian America report has several pages of data on this. When asked to self identify on surveys, Asian-Americans overwhelmingly choose their ethnic identity instead of the broader 'Asian' one.

@Anon#3– The majority of Asian-Americans aren't rich enough to be Superzips. They are in Belmont, not Superzip territory.

@Spandrell– You seen this tweet? https://twitter.com/rorycooper/status/661906137562923009

"I doubt these would exist if the category didn't already. Asian-Americans, exp. 2nd and 3rd generation ones, are socialized into accepting these categories."

But Europeans were also socialized into accepting the category "white", rather than Sicilian or Swede. I've known first-generation European immigrants who identify with their national origin just as strongly too — eg. Greek-Americans with opinions on the issue of labeling people Greek or Macedonian as strongly as the Vietnamese and Cambodian Americans you mention. First-generation African-Americans also identify with ethnic group first too, like Nigerian, Somalian.

There are individuals of all races who put their ethnic heritage over the broader racial category. I don't think there's anything out of the ordinary about Asian-Americans doing so, it's not an Asian thing, it's a new immigrant thing. It's just that 1st generation Americans, as you mentioned, make up a larger portion of Asian-Americans than of the other US racial categories.

When people mention Asian-Americans are too diverse in origin (an Indian-American isn't like a Korean-American) to be one group etc. couldn't you say the same about "black", seeing how lumping together a 1st generation Somali-American with an African-American with roots from the colonial days is just as big of a stretch as lumping two Asian-American groups? One could say a Nigerian immigrant in some ways has much in common with an Indian immigrant over a native-born African-American, because both have an immigrant experience the other lacks.

So when people point out how incoherent Asian-American is as a group or think it was artificially crafted, well I don't think it's any more so than any other labels and color lines historically imposed by the US or even elsewhere in the Western world. I don't know what is supposed to make a self-identified racial group more real (Is it genetics/genealogy? No, obviously look at peoples' hang ups even now on people of mixed race choosing to identify with one side or the other, legacy of the "one drop rule" etc. Is it language? No, You can identify as Hispanic by having Mexican ancestors while not speaking Spanish itself. Being on the same continent? No, why does Arab get put into the US census category of white, and not Asian/African when Arabs can originate from the latter continents too).

At the end of the day, these categories are all man-made, and the crafting of an Asian-American identity is a work in progress, ongoing in the US, just like many other groups that had dropped identification with the ancestral land and developed a new identity in the US.

You mean Asians are voting GOP in local elections?

If so, they know that federal elections are all about signaling and they choose to signal what is obviously the best strategy. Nobody became rich by signaling right wing credentials.

I like your argument. I too feel that a lot of it comes from the origin state's culture. The people of Vietnam, when polled on support for capitalism, voted 90% in favor of the free market. This is more than any other country, including the United States. It seems obvious that immigrants from Vietnam would vote Republican, as the party is often seen as the defender of the free market. Honestly, I would expect Vietnamese support to be higher, and more like Black support for Democrats. Perhaps the religious reasons mentioned in the comments can account for this lack of support.


So you say that Asian-Americans, specially new immigrants vote for the Democratic Party because they are over-represented at demographics that already lean Democratic at first place, such as the college-educated, the upper-middle income individuals, atheists/agnostics, or people living in the East and West Coasts.

But then immigrants who are over-represented at the opposite demographics, such as the uneducated, lower-class, religious Hispanic and Latino Americans who migrate to red states such as Texas and Arizona, so what gives? I still prefer Steve Sailer "Fringe over Core" theory. Bangladeshi-Americans, Salvadoran-Americans, LGBT Jews, Californian atheists and New England feminists, may have nothing in common, but they can all unite in opposition to the angry white male demographics that the GOP represents.

@Anon November 4, 2015 at 11:07 PM–

Please consider using a pseudonym. Distinguishing between different Anons is frustrating.

I am reminded of a paper (which I am having trouble finding right now; if other readers of the thread are familiar with it, please drop a line) which discussed Italian immigrants to the USA in the late 19c. These immigrants did not consider themselves "Italian" — they were "Sicilian," "Lucanian," etc, for Italy wasn't a nation (or had barely been so) at the time of their immigration. They only embraced the "Italian" label once they were shoe-horned into it by other Americans.

It is hard to say how durable terms like "Chinese-American" and "Asian-American" will be in the long term, for the majority of both groups fall squarely in the 1st generation label. Perhaps all Asian-Americans will come to view themselves such, perhaps they will not. (Or given intermarriage rates between Asian-Americans and the White & Hispanic populations, perhaps old labels will be discarded altogether). But for the moment I find that the term usually obscures more than it reveals. Unlike Hispanics, various Asian-American sub-groups differ strongly from each other in terms of language, religion, and political orientation; unlike whites and blacks, there is no baseline 'Asian-American culture' for immigrants to assimilate into, for no single group claims a majority and the number of recent immigrants makes talk of 'baseline' identities and norms meaningless.


My meaning is that the GOP is in a stronger position now than it has been since Reagan, and perhaps since the New Deal. The Neoreactionary idea that Cthulu swims left is wrong. The Dems are not "the permanent government," especially at the state and local levels.

@Anon November 5, 2015 at 3:07-

Razib and I had long twitter back and forth after I published this essay, and he brought up many of these same points. I think he is right. Race is less important than religiosity in Asian-American political affiliation. I would like to see some data on Asian American religious identification/practice in 1990s to see if a decline in the proportion of devout Asian Americans happened along with the declining proportion of Republican Asian Americans.

This is just a hypothesis though until we can get our hands on solid data.

@Daniel– Agreed, and thanks for the article.

@Anon November 5, 2015 at 3:41 —

My hypothesis is that Asian-American voting behavior is not too different from white voting behavior, and that the factors that predict white votes will usually predict how Asian Americans in the same circumstance will vote.

I made no hypotheses about Hispanic or black voters, and find it entirely plausible that their voting patterns differ from what we see with white and Asian voters.

In any case, Sailer's hypothesis faces the same problem as the leftist 'lets blame racism' one: how does it explain the Vietnamese-American votes?

As a first generation Indian American I'd say that one reason many Indian Americans support Democrats is sheer Brahminical snobbery. As a relatively high income, high education group who were molded in an extremely hierarchical Indian social structure, they look down on the Republicans as a party of uneducated rednecks, or of mere crass businessmen unredeemed by higher social purpose. Democratic elites are a far more attractive model – wealthy, well-educated,oozing with haut-en-bas progressive condescension. Figures like the Kennedys and Clintons are highly attractive in this set. To me it seems explicit religiosity has little to do with it. The liberal democrat Indian PhD types I see are still quite observant of Hindu religious ceremonial. That's only one group among Indian Americans of course.

Since the drop in Asian-American voting for the GOP starts circa 1992, couldn't the the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of communism be a factor as well? After all, Vietnamese-Americans, who are mostly anti-Communist refugees, are the most Republican of the Asian-American groups. If the specter of Communism in Asia is no longer a mobilizing issue for Asian-Americans, then that could definitely explain the timing of the shift to the Democrats.

As a second-generation Korean-American, in my high school and college days, I identified most with liberals and Democrats as the party that had the interests of "minorities" in mind more than the GOP, who looked like the rednecks I had to deal with in small town America – the type of people who would drive by in their trucks and yell racist things at me just for kicks. I also associated the GOP with evangelicalism and I never liked church, which I was forced to attend all throughout my youth. So it was part rebellion and part identity politics. But as I've gotten older, I've developed a hatred of the Democrats and their covert anti-Asian American agenda (e.g., affirmative action). I've sensed a lot of resentment from white and minority liberals in NYC. I'm finding libertarianism the most appealing at the moment. And I have more self-respect than to vote for the Republicans like Trump, Cruz, Bush or Rubio who consider me an anchor baby, illegal, visitor, or whatever.

I can't say what the case is for other Asian Ams though.

Several reasons:

1. Yes, the fall of Communism has weakened a reason for historically anti-Communist Asian-Americans to vote GOP.

2. Yes, the GOP becoming more of a Christian party was a turnoff to non-Christian (even if devoutly religious) Asian-Americans. A devout Buddhist or Hindu isn't going to think that a politician basing many of his/her views on the Bible is a plus.

3. The white nationalist strain of the GOP (which Trump has really elevated) is _really_ a turnoff. Even before that, after 9/11, my Indian-American friend said he always wore a suit when he had to go on a plane because he didn't want to be seen as a terrorist. You could say that anti-Muslim sentiment does not win the Indian-American vote.

4. One reason that hasn't been mentioned was the invasion of Iraq. Many Asian-Americans come from countries that have been invaded or colonized. The reaction of my parents' generation from Taiwan (all of whom were here in the '80's) is instructive. Many were staunchly anti-Communist and voted GOP in the '80's, but every single person ranged from being against the Iraq invasion to being extremely against the Iraq invasion.

As an Indian American with a PhD. and a scientific bend here is why I stay away from Republicans:
I believe, nay I know, that Evolution is true and Creation is false.
I support my fellow 97% of the scientist and know that global warming is true and is caused by burning fossil fuels. I also know that we can work together and get away from our oil addiction. This would make the US a #1 leading nation in the future renewable energy field.
I support peaceful settlement of our differences with hostile nations rather than war.
I respect the rights of others especially the poor and less fortunate. I have empathy.
I know that the Democratic party is not perfect but the Republicans don't even come close.