News Column

GOP Tries to Get in With Asian-American Voters

April 12, 2013

Republicans admit they have a problem with Hispanic voters. They have an even bigger problem with Asian Americans -- a group that was a majority GOP voting bloc less than 20 years ago.

Three-quarters of Asian Americans went for President Obama in 2012, more than any other group except black voters. The GOP is pursuing Asian Americans as part of the same $10 million outreach program to talk to Hispanic voters, conceived after the party's 2012 losses and just getting underway. GOP leaders say a return to success with Asian-American voters lies in better engagement. This week, GOP Chairman Reince Priebus announced the first two staffers hired for field operations in the Asian-American community.

Asian Americans are affluent, educated and family-oriented, surveys show -- just the kind of folks GOP leaders say should be natural Republicans. Even better, they don't strongly identify as Democrats, according to exit polls, even if they vote that way. "It sounds like they're persuadable, but it also means they're paying a lot of attention to issues," says Karthick Ramakrishnan, a University of California-Riverside political scientist and director of the National Asian-American Survey.

That may be the GOP's challenge. A party that is focused on limiting government and cutting taxes is pursuing a voting group that, opinion surveys show, favors an active government and says the rich should pay higher taxes.

"Is it issues or outreach that will garner the Asian-American vote? That is the question," says Glenn Magpantay of the Asian-American Legal Defense Fund, which conducted exit polls in November among Asian-American voters in 14 states.

According to the National Asian-American Survey, 67% of Asian-American voters favor raising taxes on the wealthy to cut the deficit; they want more spending on health care (46% compared with 41% of the general public) and less spending on defense (only 21% want to increase defense spending compared with 31% overall.) "They understand what power lies with government in terms of people's everyday lives," says Janelle Wong, director of Asian-American Studies at the University of Maryland.

Republican leaders, including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., say immigration is a "threshold issue" among Hispanic voters -- if Republicans are perceived to be anti-immigration, their messages won't get through. Among Asian Americans, support for a path to citizenship for immigrants grew from 32% in 2008 to 58% now, the survey said. Two-thirds of Asian Americans were born overseas.

"The whole discussion with the Latino community has just gotten a lot more coverage. People don't realize these are also our stories," says Christine Chen of APIA Vote, a group that encourages civic engagement among Asian Americans.

Texas GOP Chairman Steve Munisteri says he's not convinced there are policy differences between Republicans and Asian-American voters -- but Republicans haven't really tried to find out.

"The party as a whole has ignored two communities almost completely, Asian Americans and African Americans," he says. "Until we go into those communities and try to sell our platform and sell our candidates, we can't jump to the conclusion that it's a policy issue."

The Congress that came to Washington in January included a record number of Asian Americans. None of them was Republican. Of the 50 congressional districts with the highest percentage of Asian-American residents, only nine are held by the GOP.

In Texas, Munisteri has the state party send out lists of Asian-American events to county parties and elected officials -- with a directive to show up. That doesn't mean just sending a staffer, Munisteri says. "It's interpreted as being disrespectful if a Republican candidate doesn't show up for a candidate forum and the Democratic candidate does."

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Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2013

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