In the midst of November's midterms, which were marked by apathy and disillusionment on both sides of the aisle, two clear trends involving the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) electorate have emerged. Firstly, Asian American voters showed a sharp rightward turn, swinging more heavily in favor of the Republican party than in previous election years. Secondly, in spite of a long history of low voter turnout and limited civic engagement, more AAPI candidates sought office this cycle than ever before.
According to exit polls, Asian Americans accounted for 3% of all voters in November’s general elections, up from 2% in 2010. Though the numbers are small, they tell a compelling story: AAPI voters displayed a dramatic shift in partisan allegiance since the last midterms, by far the most pronounced of any racial demographic. 49% of Asian Americans voted for Democratic candidates, compared with 73% in 2012 and 58% in 2010; conversely, 50% of AAPI’s voted Republican in 2014, compared with 26% in 2012 and 40% in 2010. This amounts to a shift of nearly 50 percentage points in the last two years alone and repudiates an almost unbroken trend of increasing Democratic support among Asian Americans over the past 20 years.
A number of factors may have contributed to this anomaly. The Republican National Committee invested heavily in AAPI outreach throughout Virginia, Colorado, and California in the months preceding the election. There is also the issue of selective turnout: voters are notoriously apathetic during midterm elections, particularly supporters of the current governing party. In California, the sharp hike in Republican support among Asian Americans may have been a backlash against the state’s Senate Constitutional Amendment Number 5 (SCA-5), a piece of Democratic legislation that seeks to upend an earlier statutory provision for race-blind college admissions. Many ethnic minorities, Asian Americans included, fear that SCA-5 will precipitate reverse discrimination.
Irrespective of partisan alignment, there is reason to believe that the Asian American community is engaging more actively in the “by the people” (if not the “for the people”) aspect of governance than ever before. An unprecedented number of Asian Americans campaigned for state and federal office this November, and a significant proportion were rewarded for their efforts: of the 159 AAPI candidates for state legislature positions across the country (90 of whom hailed from California and Hawai‘i), 95 earned a seat on their respective state Senates and Assemblies. Furthermore, there were six AAPI gubernatorial candidates in four states: Nikki Haley, a Republican of Indian descent, won her bid for reelection in South Carolina, and David Ige, a Democrat of Japanese ancestry, emerged victorious in Hawai‘i. Haley and Ige join the current governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal (who was not up for reelection), in bringing the total number of sitting AAPI governors to three.
At the national level, 39 Asian Americans entered their states’ congressional primaries. This continues a steady upward trajectory of Asian American congressional hopefuls: in 2012 there were 29 preliminary candidates, compared to a mere eight in 2010. Of the initial 39 contenders in 2014, 22 survived the primaries and twelve ultimately gained or retained seats in the House. The Senate, however, continues to include only one Asian American member, Mazie Hirono of Hawai‘i, whose seat was not in contention this year.
Olivia Waring is a graduate of Princeton and Oxford Universities and a Research Intern at the East West Center in Washington DC.