Why Asian-Americans Have Turned Their Backs on the Republican Party

As recently as the 1990s, the fast-growing group leaned right. Lloyd Green on what changed.

Hill Street Studios/Getty,Hill Street Studios

The Republican Party’s problems with Latino voters are well documented, but its poor performance with Asian-Americans should be giving the party even greater pause. By and large, Asian-Americans are affluent, well educated, and disproportionately absent from the dreaded 47 percent. Moreover, they once had a history of voting Republican. In 1992, Asian-Americans favored George H. W. Bush over Bill Clinton, and four years later they went for Bob Dole.

Much has changed. Since 2000, Asian-Americans have consistently voted Democratic. In 2008, Asian-Americans gave 62 percent of their vote to Barack Obama. Last November that number jumped to 73 percent even as the president’s margin of victory in the popular vote was cut in half as he garnered a Dukakis-like 41 percent of white voters and slid by more than 13 points among Jewish-Americans.

It is not for lack of trying that Republicans are being rebuffed by this fast-growing, though still small, demographic. Republicans in Louisiana and South Carolina nominated Indian Americans to be their party’s respective gubernatorial nominees, and after both candidates won they were nationally showcased. At the cabinet level, add Elaine Chao, who served for eight years as W’s Labor secretary and is the wife of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

From a policy perspective, the Republicans have been more welcoming to Asians than to other immigrants. During the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney supported increased immigration by skilled workers (read: Asians), despite demanding “self-deportation” for nondocumented aliens (read: Latinos). Republican rising star Marco Rubio, together with Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Chris Coons and Republican Orrin Hatch, recently sponsored legislation to increase the number of H1-B visas granted to educated and skilled employees. Asian immigrants hold more than two in five of the H1-B high-skill visas presently issued.

The GOP’s appeal has gone beyond tokenism, yet its pitch has lacked purchase. Asian-Americans are no longer buying what the GOP is selling. Why the buyers’ remorse?

These days, the GOP strikes Asian-Americans, along with many other Americans, as hostile to science and modernity. For example, George W. Bush severely restricted the use of federal funds for embryonic stem-cell research and cast his very first presidential veto to block enactment of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act. More recently, Congressman Paul Broun of Georgia—a member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and a prospective Senate candidate—declared that evolution, embryology, and the Big Bang were lies that emanated from the pit of Hell. Apparently, a low-taxes-only agenda is no longer enough to woo a demographic whose median household income exceeds $90,000 by the time that they become third-generation Americans.

And there is a further rub. According to the Pew Research Center, a majority of Asian immigrants hold at least a college degree—compared with less than one in three members of the overall adult population. At Cal Tech—where race, ethnicity, and legacy status are excluded from admissions criteria—Asian-Americans comprise nearly 40 percent of the student body. At MIT, which professes a commitment to diversity, Asian-Americans comprise more than a quarter of students.

What’s more, Asian-American students tend to concentrate in the STEM jobs—sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics—that are crucial to our economy. Thus, in a sense, Asian-Americans are not just another ethnic group waiting for a politician to march in a parade, eat some exotic food, and then announce a community grant or shill for votes. Rather, they are also a subset of high-tech America, and one thing is clear: high-tech America is not in love with the Republican Party.

In Santa Clara County, California—the heart of Silicon Valley—Obama beat Romney by a 42-point margin. As Nate Silver documented, Obama received approximately $720,000 in contributions from Google employees, while Romney received a paltry $25,000. At Apple, the story was almost the same. Its employees gave more than nine out of every 10 campaign dollars they contributed to the president.

And it is not just a matter of votes or money. It is also a matter of campaign skills. High-tech America’s aversion to the Republican Party is wreaking havoc with mechanics of national Republican campaigns. A recent Sunday New York Times Magazine cover story highlighted the Republicans’ huge campaign-technology deficit and described at length how the party’s inability to connect with tech-savvy graduates is damaging its competitiveness. In that context, the Election Day epic failure of Romney’s ORCA operation is just another symptom of what is ailing the GOP.

To top it off, the economic resentments that motivate many voters are relatively absent among Asian-American voters. Three-quarters of Asian-Americans report that their living standard surpasses that of their parents. Nationally, the average is only 60 percent.

Regaining the votes of Asian-Americans, like making inroads with Latino voters, will be a slog for the Republican Party. It is not just about a difference in ethnicity. Rather, it is also a difference in attitude. Asian-Americans are generally more economically liberal than the GOP’s older working- and middle-class evangelical base and are less responsive to a message of unvarnished rugged individualism, despite their relative wealth and attainment. And that is a gap not easily bridged. Indeed, a party whose leadership professes a desire to drown government in a bathtub has little appeal these days to most Americans.