Fusion's Ester Wang visits Nevada and talks to the voters that will most likely decide the swing state next month and in elections to come: the state's large Asian voting-eligible population. But will they finally turn out?
2016 was supposed to be the Year of the Asian American Voter, the year that a swelling electorate finally turned out in massive numbers in November’s presidential election and provides the margin of victory not just in Hawaii or California but in swing states as disparate as Virginia, North Carolina, and Nevada. Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial group in the country, and the size of this voting bloc has doubled since George W. Bush entered the White House. Already, one of every four Congressional districts has a population that’s more than 5% Asian American, numbers high enough where these voters can be the decisive force in tight races that are sometimes won by mere decimal points.
It’s not just changing demographics. Asian Americans, advocates say, care more about this election than the last—more than half, according to a recent national survey. In the same survey, a full 85% of Asian American and Pacific Islander voters reported they plan on turning out in November.
This all paints a rosy picture. Silent, docile and passive no more, in 2016, Asian Americans are, in the words of one advocate’s op-ed, “ready to be heard!”
Not so fast. Asian Americans are also traditionally the most disengaged racial group in America, with only 56% of eligible Asian Americans even registered to vote, the lowest percentage out of all racial groups. Of those, less than half tend to come out on election day, lagging far behind black and white voters.
This leaves Asian Americans like Michelle Chen in a curious position: a fattening slice of the electoral pie, widely seen as crucial to victory, yet also the voting bloc with the least interest in political participation. As Election Day nears, the question remains: Will a record number of Asian Americans actually vote, or will the majority, as in previous years, stay home?
I know we've talked about the black and Latino vote around here at length, but by 2020 Nevada will join Hawaii, California and New Mexico as majority-minority states and that will be largely due to the state's major Asian population growth.
The Democrats aren't stupid here. They know they will have to have these votes and these voters and are working to get them, but there's a LOT of work that has to be done.
It’s easy to understand why, despite voting for Obama twice, Michelle Chen is going to sit this election out. Their lives haven’t improved as much as she would have hoped. Her husband, who works for a car service as a driver and used to be able to make $3,000 a month, now faces stiff competition from Uber and Lyft drivers and his income has dropped sharply. A self-described member of the working poor (she makes $1,300 a month at her job), it was largely Obamacare, which she says she and her husband can’t really afford, that turned her off of politics.
In a different world, one where the Bernie Sanders campaign had prioritized reaching out to immigrant voters, she might have been a Bernie fan. I asked if she’d heard of him, using the Chinese transliteration of his name and describing him as the “old white guy with the messy hair.”
“Who? Do you mean Trump?” Nevermind.
Of the presidential election, she repeated firmly: “It has nothing to do with my life.” She then went back to work, hawking steamed pork buns to a steady stream of customers.
Chen clearly feels no loyalty to the Democratic Party, and she’s not alone; 46% of Asian American registered voters are independents. Despite the general tilt towards Democratic candidates—in 1992, Bill Clinton only captured about a third of Asian American voters, yet by 2012, 73% of all Asian American voters cast a ballot for Barack Obama—voters remain stubbornly unaffiliated, due largely to the fact that two out of every three AAPI voters are immigrants. (Without a family history of voting for one party or the other—one of the greatest predictors of party affiliation—immigrants tend to register as independents.)
To build any sort of majority in the future, Democrats need to make the case to Asian voters that America's politics actually do matter to people. So far that has been a lukewarm case at best. Donald Trump's awful politics can only go so far.