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David Hung, a lawyer with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund asks a Chinese-American voter if she had problems voting
Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times/Redux
David Hung, a lawyer with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund asks a Chinese-American voter if she had problems voting

Up for grabs

Politics | Asian-Americans could be key voters in a close election, and they've proven to be open to Republican ideas. But Mitt Romney will have to make an effort to get their votes

Issue: "Inside Election 2012," Oct. 20, 2012

Two years ago Meg Whitman, the CEO of Hewlett-Packard, seemed like a strong candidate for California governor. She had business experience, resources, and a changing political climate. But despite putting $144 million of her own money into the campaign, she lost to Jerry Brown by 41 percent to 54 percent.

The reason? Shawn Steel, the Republican National Committeeman from California, believes part of her mistake was in where she spent her money. Of the $160 million spent, not a cent of it went to reaching out to Asian voters, who make up 12 percent of California’s electorate—no ads in Asian newspapers, TV stations, or radio programs. 

“She spent millions just on staff. They were smart people who didn’t have a clue … how demographics have changed to our favor,” said Steel, referring to similarities between Asian values and the Republican platform. “She relied on an English-only campaign.”

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That forgotten demographic could also make the difference between Republicans winning or losing this year’s presidential election, some analysts say. Asian-Americans have surpassed Hispanics as the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States, a third of them are undecided in the upcoming election, and they are concentrated in key battleground states like Nevada, Virginia, Ohio, and Florida.

But for either campaign to benefit from these voters, they first need to get Asian-Americans to the polls. In 2008, Asian-Americans were the least likely ethnic group to vote: Only 47 percent of Asian-Americans voted in the election compared to 50 percent of Hispanics, 65 percent of African-Americans, and 66 percent of Caucasians.

Part of the reason is that Asian-Americans are the most recent immigrant group. Ray Seto, the English pastor of Chinese Christian Church of Virginia, sees it in his own family. While he plans on voting this election, he doubts that his first-generation father will: “They think it’s an American thing, they still associate with the home country where they came from—Vietnam, China,” Seto said. “They would say this is a foreign land and so why vote?”

Compared to the attention politicians give to other ethnic groups, it is no wonder Asian voters often feel neglected. Seto said he hasn’t seen any outreach to Asian-Americans from either campaign in Northern Virginia where he lives, even though Virginia is 6 percent Asian. In a recent Asian-American presidential town hall in Fairfax, director of Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote, Christine Chen, was disappointed to find that neither candidate sent high-level surrogates.

“Traditionally, there haven’t been resources poured into Asian-Americans to get them registered,” Chen said. Many areas didn’t have access to traditional tools like voter files or ballots in Asian languages since Asians had made up such a small percentage of the population.

But this election year shows efforts on both sides to reach out, albeit slowly. Both the Obama and Romney campaigns have created Asian-American coalitions to contact the Asian-American community through phone banks, door knocking, advertising in Asian media outlets, and setting up tables outside of Asian grocery stores.

Republicans face a greater hurdle in that 63 percent of the Asian-Americans who did vote in 2008 voted for President Obama. Steel, who is married to Michelle Park Steel, the vice chair of the California Board of Equalization and a Korean-American, believes this is because the Republican Party had “done nothing for Asian-Americans.”

“The right has no Asian consciousness like there is on the left,” Steel said. “Most political Asian groups are left of center, but it certainly is not reflective of all Asians or their values.”

Crucial to winning the Asian vote is building relationships with the voters on issues they are concerned about, said Samuel Han, the district director for Republican Assemblyman Donald Wagner in Orange County, Calif. The 24-year-old represents a new generation of Asian-Americans who are involved in the political process and who reach out to the Asian-American community through personal networks and churches.

“Asian-Americans are not partisan,” Han said. “We may register as Democrats, but a lot of our positions are very Republican. Asian-Americans are more likely to vote on key issues, and that is the way we engage with Asian-Americans.”

A high percentage of Asian-Americans are small business owners, and many want lower taxes and less government regulation. Many also want to see change in the education system so that their children can have better futures. Han said Asian-American voters—especially those in the numerous Asian churches around the country—are also conservative on social issues such as same-sex marriage or abortion.

“Many pastors don’t know the political system, but when it came down to Prop 8 or abortion issues, they had people holding pickets, campaigning,” Han said, referring to the California referendum declaring marriage between a man and a woman. “It was a weird thing, politicians didn’t know where they were coming from.”

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