View From Chicago

Why Did Asian Americans Mostly Vote for President Obama?

Democrats court them, Republicans may alienate them.

Robena Cheung votes at a polling station on Election Day in California.
Robena Cheung votes at a polling station at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church on Election Day in California

Photograph by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images.

According to exit polls in the Nov. 6 election, Asian American voters favored Obama over Romney by a ratio of more than 3-to-1 (76 percent versus 23 percent). This has puzzled a number of Republicans. Asian Americans, more than any other group, including white suburbanites, who are a backbone of Republican support, have demographic characteristics that would seem to make them support low taxes, fiscal austerity, conventional family values, and hostility to affirmative action (especially in higher education)—all policies strongly associated with today’s Republican Party.

As pointed out in The Rise of Asian Americans, a comprehensive study issued this past summer by the Pew Research Center,

Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States. They are more satisfied than the general public with their lives, finances and the direction of the country, and they place more value than other Americans do on marriage, parenthood, hard work and career success … They are more likely than all American adults to be married (59% vs. 51%); their newborns are less likely than all U.S. newborns to have an unmarried mother (16% vs. 41%); and their children are more likely than all U.S. children to be raised in a household with two married parents (80% vs. 63%).

Of course, satisfaction with “the direction of the country” after four years of the Obama presidency suggests a liberal tilt, as does the fact, reported elsewhere in the Pew report, that Asian Americans favor homosexual marriage and abortion rights by a wide margin. But one might expect these liberal leanings to count for less than the desire of the nation’s highest-income, best-educated, and most conventionally familial demographic group for lower taxes, fiscal austerity, family values, and an end to affirmative action, which benefits blacks and Hispanics at the expense of Asians. And although most Asian Americans are first or second generation Americans, they are not the targets of Republican hostility to immigrants; the target is illegal Mexican immigrants, and from elsewhere in Central America.

The voting behavior of Asian Americans appears puzzling, however, only in light of the widespread belief that people vote their interests, that is, vote for the candidate whom they think most likely to promote policies favorable to them. But many voters don’t vote their interests—and there is a rational basis for their behavior. No election in which 120 million people vote is decided by a single vote, even if one allows for the fact that, if the electoral vote were close, the outcome might be decided by the popular vote in one state. So why does anybody bother to vote in such an election, since, unless he is very dense, he knows that his vote won’t affect the outcome? The answer is that voting is more an expressive than an instrumental act: more like applauding at a play or concert than buying a lottery ticket.

If voting is thought of in expressive terms, it becomes possible to understand why Asian Americans should have favored Obama so decisively. For one thing, although according to the Pew Center study they do not feel that discrimination is an obstacle to their advancement in American society, and the high rate of intermarriage between Asian Americans and Caucasian Americans confirms that discrimination is not an obstacle, they are of course conscious of being a minority. And the Democratic Party is the party that racial and ethnic minorities tend to support and that courts their support. In contrast, the Republican Party is widely perceived as a party primarily of white people, though it has some prominent minority members and President Bush had some success in courting Hispanics.

Moreover, the strongest support for the Republican Party is now found in the southern states (a striking historical reversal), especially in suburban or rural areas, and it is easy to see how Asian Americans, who are concentrated on the East and West Coasts and in cities, might tend to find Southerners culturally alien. And, being well educated as a group, Asian Americans may be disturbed by the hostility to science, particularly evolutionary biology, which Republican supporters and politicians have exhibited of late. It is also possible to understand how, as newcomers to the United States—the Asian-American population rose 46 percent from 2000 to 2010—some Asian Americans might tend to favor an incumbent president, feeling perhaps that it might seem (not that it would be) presumptuous for a newcomer to vote against the nation’s highest official.

Jews are an even wealthier American ethnic group than Asian Americans, and they also have strong family values and are highly educated, are they are more prominent in business and government than Asian Americans even though they are an even smaller percentage of the American population (2 percent versus 6 percent). No longer are they newcomers. They have arrived! (Milton Friedman couldn’t understand why they weren’t all Republicans.) Yet Jews gave 69 percent of their votes to Obama in this past election, not far short of the Asian-American percentage, and this despite the fact that the Republican Party is more supportive of the current Israeli government than the Democratic Party is.

Jewish voting behavior is further evidence for the expressive theory of voting. For obvious reasons, Jews have an acute sensitivity to discrimination; this may explain their continuing affinity for liberal policies, which does not seem to be in their economic self-interest. Furthermore, historically anti-Semitism in the United States was private rather than governmental; for example, government agencies employed Jewish lawyers in great number at a time when Jews found it hard to get jobs in leading law firms. Big government was a friend, and apparently the friendship is still reciprocated. And this may be a factor in Asian-American voting as well, for it is the government that decides whom to allow to immigrate, and although until a few decades ago our immigration laws discriminated strongly against Asians, they no longer do.

I drew an analogy between voting and applauding, but I want also to draw a distinction. At a play or concert the volume of applause will vary with the audience’s enthusiasm for the performance, but boos are rare. Booing is common in some sports, but the hostility that it expresses derives from support for the other team; the hostility doesn’t motivate the support. A political election is different because a voter’s support for one candidate may derive entirely from dislike for the other. Voters may choose candidate A over candidate B not because they have a high regard for A or even think A would be a better president, but because they feel they’ve been insulted or disrespected by B or B’s supporters. A successful member of a minority, or a member of a successful minority, may feel that minority status is indivisible, and so he may vote against a candidate of a party that seems hostile to minorities, even if not to successful minorities or to successful members of minorities. That sentiment may well have been a factor in Asian-American and Jewish voting in the 2012 presidential election.