US presidential election: the power of the Asian vote

In 2008 Asian-Americans helped swing it for Obama. This time, Mitt Romney is doing much better for the Republicans than his predecessor

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 October, 2012, 9:14am

At this time four years ago on the streets of northern Virginia, an influential Asian-American heartland in a key electoral swing state, there was a distinct smell of death surrounding the campaign of the veteran Senator John McCain, the Republican White House hopeful.

Representatives of Asian-Americans for Obama - ethnic Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese and Filipinos - were taking the suburbs by storm in a way not seen before. With flags, banners and rallies, they created a palpable presence on behalf of the young Chicago senator then vying to become the first black president of the United States. More importantly, too, they were going door-to-door in suburbs both rich and working-class, making sure their neighbours were not just energised, but registered and planning to turn out to vote.

And vote they did. Obama took the presidency, in part thanks to a historic win in the southern state. It marked the first time Virginia had voted Democratic since electing president Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and never before had Asian-Americans had such a targeted impact on a US election.

But four years on, it is a different story. Virginia is once again in play and the campaign of Republican contender Mitt Romney is fired up after four tough years for the Obama administration.

McCain, it should be remembered, was attempting to follow the failed eight-year presidency of the Republican George W. Bush, amid a collapsing economy and the mire of Iraq. As one professional Republican staffer said at the time: "I never thought I would see the day when it is embarrassing to tell people in Virginia that you are a Republican, but it is upon us. I go to weddings now, and I don't tell people what I do." No one talks like that now.

Unlike McCain, Romney has momentum. His team is showing that they have learned the lessons of Obama's earlier success and have built their own formidable Asian-American operation in Virginia.

While some activists have long warned that Republicans too often ignore immigrant communities (and Romney stands accused of losing Hispanics in large numbers), he is certainly listening in northern Virginia.

Romney has personally staged rallies here and visited local Chinese-language newspapers. Vote Romney stickers in Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese can be seen plastered across car bumpers.

Local Republican leaders deny simply aping Obama's tactics, pointing instead to the striking engagement of the community by Virginia's Republican governor Bob McDonnell, three years ago. He won over 60 per cent of the Asian-American vote, the same proportion won by Obama a year earlier.

"We're making it very hard for the Obama campaign here now, and this is a real battleground," said Peter Su, a third-generation Chinese-American and a key figure on Romney's Asian-American advisory board.

"It is no exaggeration to say that Asian-Americans could swing Virginia, and therefore have a real impact on the national election," said Su, who has been active among both the Chinese and Vietnamese communities.

These are, of course, the politics of sheer common sense. Just consider the numbers. While Latinos are the largest immigrant group across the US, Asian-Americans are the fastest growing community. They already comprise an estimated 5 per cent of the US population of 311 million.

That rise is particularly noticeable in northern Virginia, where the Asian population has doubled in a decade and now makes up more than 13 per cent, or some 420,000 people. Asian-Americans are also having an impact in other crucial states, particularly Florida, Nevada and North Carolina.

Northern Virginia surrounds much of Washington, its dormitory suburbs serving the region's many universities, its large government and military-industrial sector and the associated research facilities.

Pigeon-holing the Asian-American community politically is no easy task, though plenty of political analysts have tried.

With numbers roughly equally split between ethnic Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese and Filipinos, plus a smaller South Asian community, all manner of backgrounds and generational politics are in play.

The Chinese community is diverse. It includes recent mainland immigrants, including some recently arrived students who have decided to stay, as well as scientists and scholars who fled post-Tiananmen and swiftly found work in the area, and older migrant families, some now with a strong entrepreneurial base.

Further complicating the mix, the Falun Gong remains active politically, pushing a strong human rights element into local debates.

One local Chinese community Democratic activist said: "You can perhaps roughly say that the older generation support the Republicans, and the younger people Democrats, but even that is tricky. We are talking about a really diverse community, some obsessed with local issues, such as taxes and regulations, some on relations with China - and even that is split. Some are pro-engagement, others want a tough line and judge candidates accordingly."

Even government stimulus spending provides no easy guide, with some government workers approving of Obama's actions to fund their programmes while others rail at inefficiencies they detect from the inside.

The Filipinos, meanwhile, include thousands of active servicemen, meaning they are an important voting bloc around Virginia's military bases, particularly the vast Atlantic naval port near Norfolk.

The political complexities among the Asian community in Virginia were on stark display at the weekend at the Eden Centre in Fairfax, a popular Asian shopping mall that is a traditional hub for the Vietnamese.

Two large flags rippled above the car park: one, of course, the Stars and Stripes and the other the red stripes on yellow of the former regime of South Vietnam, a nation lost to history.

Here old Saigon soldiers still gather, nearly 40 years after the city's fall, to voice stubbornly anti-communist, and staunchly pro-Republican Party rhetoric.

"It's an uphill battle with the older guys," said Hung Nguyen, Virginia chairman of the Asian-American and Pacific Islanders for Obama, as he organised volunteers to tap local shoppers.

"They came here as refugees and have this strong view, dating back to Reagan, that the Republicans are the ones that stand up against the communists. We've got to work hard with the older generation to stress Obama's health care and other policies in favour of the working-class family and minorities, not to mention his foreign policies."

As Hung talks, a man in late middle age sporting military-issue sun glasses walks stiffly past. He's wearing Special Forces fatigues, boots and a Mitt Romney shirt, all under a hat that reads "Vietnam Veteran". "That's my boy," the man, named Dan, says, pointing to his shirt. "Romney hates communists and so do I … spent 12 years in their jails. That's my election right there."

Hung acknowledges the extra difficulties this year of taking on an insurgent Romney campaign that, like Obama's, is targeting Asia-Americans.

"They just weren't in the game last time. They are now, so we have work that much harder to communicate our policies. If we can improve our communication and all that has been achieved, I'm sure we will prevail."

Ultimately, he says, the competition will serve the broader ethnic communities well. "We can't be ignored and, hopefully over time, our needs and voices will play a larger role in American life, so no, I really don't mind that we've got a fight on our hands."

Robert Gee, a well-connected third-generation Chinese-American, warns of a different problem for Obama this year.

Four years ago, Gee, veteran Democrat activist and a former senior official in the Clinton administration, told the South China Morning Post that he had never seen such energy in the Asian American community, with many moved by the historic moment Obama's election represented.

This time he noted a quiet apathy among Obama supporters in Virginia, a cavalier sense that the president would get re-elected. Romney's strong showing in the first debate shot "a jolt of fear through the campaign".

"It's very different when you are an incumbent," said Gee, who is also a member of the Committee of 100, the influential non-partisan Chinese grouping.

"Last time there was an overriding sense of destiny and history, and, trust me, that was really something. I've been involved with every election since 1972 and I'd never seen anything like it. "The reality is it is just not there this time," Gee said. "I guess I'd better get out there and start campaigning a bit harder … I think Obama has done well overall, but we've got some competition out there."