Why aren’t Asians Republicans? For one thing, more than half of them live in California, New York, New Jersey, and Hawaii

by Andrew Gelman on November 27, 2012 · 28 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Immigration,Political Parties

Conservative data cruncher Charles Murray asks, “Why aren’t Asians Republicans?”:

Asians are only half as likely to identify themselves as “conservative” or “very conservative” as whites, and less than half as likely to identify themselves as Republicans. . . . 70% of Asians voted for Barack Obama in the last presidential election.

Something’s wrong with this picture. . . . Everyday observation of Asians around the world reveal them to be conspicuously entrepreneurial, industrious, family-oriented, and self-reliant. If you’re looking for a natural Republican constituency, Asians should define “natural.” . . .

Asian immigrants overwhelmingly succeeded, another experience that tends to produce conservative immigrants. Beyond that, Asian minorities everywhere in the world, including America, tend to be underrepresented in politics—they’re more interested in getting ahead commercially or in non-political professions than in running for office or organizing advocacy groups. Lack of interest in politics ordinarily translates into a “just don’t bother us” attitude that trends conservative. . . .

A few years ago, I addressed neoconservative Norman Podhoretz’s argument that Jews should vote Republican:

A problem with Podhoretz’s argument is it proves too much. Why are Jews Democrats? Why is anyone a Democrat? Once you accept that conservative economic policies are good for growth, you’d think just about everyone would lean Republican on economic issues.

Murray’s argument is, unsurprisingly, more sophisticated and data-based than that offered by Podhoretz. In particular, Murray explicitly makes the economic argument that a financially successful person should want to vote Republican. From this perspective, Murray is not surprised that low or moderate-income Asians vote for Democrats but he’s surprised at the voting patterns of high-income Asians. Murray writes that Asians are more likely than whites to have “conservative-skewed professions” such as managers and engineers—-but there’s a bit difference, politically, between being a manager or engineer in a tech company in California, as compared to the comparable position in an oil company in Texas.

As we discuss in Red State Blue State, it’s the higher-income voters who are more likely to vote based on social issues. Murray writes:

Republicans are seen by Asians—as they are by Latinos, blacks, and some large proportion of whites—as the party of Bible-thumping, anti-gay, anti-abortion creationists. Factually, that’s ludicrously inaccurate. In the public mind, except among Republicans, that image is taken for reality.

I don’t know what Murray means by “except among Republicans.” Rick Santorum is a Republican, no? If he’s not a “Bible-thumping, anti-gay, anti-abortion creationist,” who is?

And consider Marco Rubio, a prominent Republican who got into a bit of trouble recently for either admitting he does not believe in evolution, or going to a lot of trouble to deny he believes in evolution. According to this site (which I found by googling Marco Rubio abortion), Rubio “opposed Sotomayor nomination based on her Roe support.” Here he’s quoted as saying “’America cannot truly fulfill its destiny unless’ it ends abortion.” Rubio also “supports amendment to prevent same sex marriage,” “supports banning homosexuals in the military,” and “opposes employment non-discrimination act.” Lots of Americans share these views and Rubio has every right to promote them—-but “anti-gay, anti-abortion creationist” pretty much covers it.

To put it another way, most Republican voters are not “Bible-thumping, anti-gay, anti-abortion creationists,” but many prominent Republican leaders are.

Where do Asian voters live?

One way to understand the Asian vote is to ask where these voters live. It’s not in Alabama.

According to this site, the states with lots of Asians are mostly pretty liberal. Here are the 10 states with highest %Asian:

Hawaii
California
New Jersey
New York
Nevada
Washington
Maryland
Virginia
Alaska
Massachusetts

And after that comes Illinois. And within these states I assume the Asians are likely to live in or near big cities.

At the bottom of the list, at less than 1% Asian, you have solidly Republican Montana, West Virginia, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Mississippi.

California alone is big enough that its 13% Asian represent a large proportion of all the Asians in the country. (Here’s a quick calculation: California has 38 million people, so 13% Asian comes to 5 million. The U.S. has 312 million people, 4.8% Asian, thus a total of 15 million.) A third of Asians in America live in California. And a bunch of the rest live in New York, New Jersey, and Hawaii.

This doesn’t by itself explain why Obama got so much of the Asian vote—-but it’s not a surprise that members of a minority group concentrated in urban areas on the Pacific coast and the Northeast are mostly voting for Democrats.

P.S. The commenters below add many helpful references. Let me emphasize that the above discussion is not intended to be the whole story. I’m just trying to put Murray’s claims in a political and geographic context.

{ 28 comments }

Meme November 27, 2012 at 11:21 am

Just discovered your blog, and am very excited to check the rest of it out.

I would add that it is not just geography, but rather the current anti-immigrant climate and the implicit notion that to be American is to be white. The fact that there are demands from the right for President Obama to show this birth certificate to prove that he is American reinforces that notion. Obviously, Mitt Romney was never asked to prove his citizenship. Asian Americans have long been cast as a the “perpetual foreigner,” regardless of how many generations they have lived here. And the demands for President Obama’s birth certificate parallel the everyday question that many Asian Americans get:

“Where are you from?”
“From Seattle.”
“No, where are you REALLY from?”

The anti-immigration climate, which has primarily targeted Latinos, also impacts Asians and Asian Americans. However, because in our contemporary discourse, an “illegal alien” is someone from Mexico, the impact of these anti-immigration measures on Asians and Asian Americans have been under-reported.

It is also important to note that historically, the figure of the “illegal alien” was constructed in the era of Chinese exclusion, and the contemporary apparatuses of immigration regulation and patrol are founded on the enforcement of Asian exclusion. The explanation that Latinos supported President Obama because of the issue of immigration also goes a long way to explaining Asian American support.

Pithlord November 27, 2012 at 2:58 pm

This explanation just does not fit with the fact that Asian Americans were a moderately Republican-leaning demographic a generation ago. It just isn’t plausible that the 1988 cohort of Asian American voters experienced less racism in the United States than the 2012 cohort.

Razib Khan makes the point that most of the variance is accounted for by religion. That also helps explain the difference with 1988 or 1992, since the current cohort of Asian voters is much less likely to be Christian.

Zorro for the Common Good November 28, 2012 at 8:17 pm

I don’t think it’s a case of them experiencing more racism, but rather that the issues Meme is talking about have become more politically polarized as the GOP has moved to the right. It’s entirely possible that the perceived hostility toward Asians from Republicans has gone up even as discrimination against them has gone down. To put it in concrete terms, there may be fewer idiots on the street making slanty-eye jokes, but there are more Republican politicians implying that “American = white”.

Phil November 27, 2012 at 11:30 am

The fact that states like California tend to vote Democrat does not mean that someone who settles in California becomes a Democrat. Since we are stereotyping here, I think that Asians do not vote Republican for the same reason African-Americans and Hispanics do not. All three groups tend to be socially conservative, very family-oriented, the latter two especially are church-going, all traits that tend to be associated with the GOP. The reason those groups tend to vote Democratic instead is because the GOP does a fabulous job of marketing themselves as the angry rich white guy party and others are portrayed as neither welcome in the party or in the nation. If Republicans tempered their rhetoric on immigration, abortion, religion, and poor people, they could win easily.

Jim November 27, 2012 at 11:55 am

I disagree with blanket statements like African-Americans or Hispanics “tend to be socially conservative…” If you reduce all social issues to abortion, then yes, Hispanics are more conservative than other groups. Much if you expand your definition to issues of marriage equality, “law & order” issues, immigration, and civil liberties, these groups are not especially conservative.

Pithlord November 27, 2012 at 3:01 pm

Asian Americans tend not to be “Church going”. They are the least likely of the major racial demographics to be Christian.

Also, “family-oriented” isn’t associated with the GOP. Among whites, “married” is associated with voting GOP.

Acilius November 27, 2012 at 11:37 am

One very small demurrer. “Rick Santorum is a Republican, no? If he’s not a ‘Bible-thumping, anti-gay, anti-abortion creationist,’ who is?” I think “Bible-thumper” and “creationist” are both strongly evocative of right-wing Protestants, and as everyone knows Mr Santorum is a Roman Catholic who takes a lively interest in the doctrines that distinguish his church from other Christian traditions. So you might call him a Magisterium-invoking, anti-gay, anti-abortion quasi-creationist, but the other wouldn’t quite seem to fit.

matt w November 27, 2012 at 2:51 pm

A demurrer to the demurrer: Santorum really does promote creationism. It might depend on how much weight you put on the “quasi,” but that does seem like what most people mean when they talk about creationists.

Acilius November 27, 2012 at 4:06 pm

Mr Santorum certainly does promote Creationism, and he also promotes Bible-thumping. But I would point out that when speaking for himself he has been careful never to endorse anything more than the most tepid “Intelligent Design,” and that he always uses specifically Roman Catholic language when discussing the foundations of his own beliefs. So, in answer to the question “If he’s not a ‘Bible-thumping, anti-gay, anti-abortion creationist,’ who is?,” I could mention about half the population of the USA, including a whole bunch of senior politicians.

Thomas November 28, 2012 at 3:15 pm

I think it’s more accurate to say that Santorum is anti-anti-creationism than to describe him as a creationist.

Chris November 27, 2012 at 12:06 pm

Could you walk me through your resolution to the endogeneity problem here?

Yes, lots of Asians live in California. But from 1948 to 1988, California was a fairly “red” state (R in all but 2 elections). So was New Jersey. So was Nevada (R in all but 3, compared to 4 Democratic wins). Why couldn’t I argue that an increase in voting-eligible Latinos & Asians is what made the Pacific reliably “liberal” in recent elections?

The underlying argument seems to be that urban = liberal & Asians = urban, therefore Asians = liberal. But this relationship doesn’t hold for other “minority” groups (Latinos in New Mexico; African-Americans in Alabama).

Isn’t the story here just political/social? Liberals pursued inclusive ethnic strategies while Conservatives pursued an exclusive (“Southern”) ethnic strategy, creating reliable ethnic voting patterns. If Conservatives want to break these patterns, they need to change their frames of social exclusion; ie they need to accept Asians as “insiders”, rather than just appealing to their pocketbooks.

Emily November 27, 2012 at 12:12 pm

Does living in a particular area make you more conservative or liberal? My fairly-uninformed view of this was that demographics are behind much of the differences in voting by location – that if you condition on income, race, educational level, marital status, etc., much of the geographical differences go away, and that much of what remains is a result of people sorting into places that better match them culturally and politically. Is that not correct? Has there been work done on this that I should read?

Eric L. November 27, 2012 at 12:29 pm

There’s a fair amount of political science research on this. See Wendy Tam Cho’s work here, e.g.:

http://cho.pol.illinois.edu/wendy/research.html#Anchor-23240

A lot of the work with Jim Gimpel discusses the residential patterns as well.

del2124 November 27, 2012 at 12:49 pm

A better explanation is that they’re highly educated. That would likely explain where they tend to live, too.

Jonathan H-E November 27, 2012 at 12:52 pm

“Something’s wrong with this picture. . . . Everyday observation of Asians around the world reveal them to be conspicuously entrepreneurial, industrious, family-oriented, and self-reliant. If you’re looking for a natural Republican constituency, Asians should define “natural.” . . .”

Judging from this excerpt, Murray is falling prey to a simple fallacy here. Consider the the importance of being “family-oriented.” In this election and others marital status has been strong political signal- Romney won married voters by 14 and Obama won singles by 27. Murray and other Republicans have looked at this and searched for false consciousness explanations for the liberal tilt of Asians, but they are neglecting an obvious point in their quest. Being married does not necessarily signify the same things among Asians as it does among the non-Asian population! Most obviously, when you look at the married/unmarried split for the general population, there is a large racial divide. Blacks and Hispanics tend to vote Democratic and also have lower marriage rates than whites. Taking race into account makes the single/married political divide much less powerful, but even assuming it does exist for whites, there are easy explanations. Marriage is less common among those with lower income and low income whites still do lean Democratic. Similarly, marriage is very important for devout Christians, a group that has become strongly Republican over the last however many years.

To put the point in vaguely statistical clothing: among non-Asians marriage has a strong correlation with certain attributes that determine one’s level of conservatism. Among Asians however, the correlations simply don’t hold and the conclusion that being family-oriented should make Asians “natural Republicans” collapses.

Emily November 27, 2012 at 1:55 pm

There is a 19-point (+/-) marriage gap in voting among whites. This gap remains very significant if you look only at people with full-time jobs, people who are unemployed, Catholics, people with some college experience, or homeowners. (The Reuters American Mosaic Polling Explorer shows this data. It does not break it down by income.) To the best of my knowledge, there is no data publicly available on whether there is a similar marriage gap among Asians, or whether it can or can’t be explained by other factors. (I agree with you more generally.)

RobC November 27, 2012 at 1:05 pm

It seems a trifle reductionist to label people as anti-gay and creationist on the basis that they oppose same-sex marriage (Barack Obama’s position until earlier this year) and openly gay soldiers (Bill Clinton’s position throughout his presidency) and that they waffle on the subject of creation. With respect to the creation question, Slate has helpfully provided Marco Rubio’s recent answer and Barack Obama’s in 2008:

Here’s Rubio, in his interview for the December 2012 issue of GQ:

Q: How old do you think the Earth is?
A: I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.

And here’s then-Sen. Obama, D-Ill., speaking at the Compassion Forum at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa. on April 13, 2008:

Q: Senator, if one of your daughters asked you—and maybe they already have—“Daddy, did god really create the world in 6 days?,” what would you say?
A: What I’ve said to them is that I believe that God created the universe and that the six days in the Bible may not be six days as we understand it … it may not be 24-hour days, and that’s what I believe. I know there’s always a debate between those who read the Bible literally and those who don’t, and I think it’s a legitimate debate within the Christian community of which I’m a part. My belief is that the story that the Bible tells about God creating this magnificent Earth on which we live—that is essentially true, that is fundamentally true. Now, whether it happened exactly as we might understand it reading the text of the Bible: That, I don’t presume to know.

Tweedledum, meet Tweedledee.

Of course, Professor Gelman may regard Barack Obama as a Bible-thumping creationist, just as he does Santorum and Rubio. But he’s smart enough not to say so in the Columbia Faculty Lounge, where he might find himself pelted with butter cookies.

RobC November 27, 2012 at 1:59 pm

Having reread the opening sentence of this post, permit me to amend the final paragraph of my comment. In place of “Professor Gelman,” please substitute “Liberal data cruncher Andrew Gelman.”

Mark November 28, 2012 at 1:15 am

I think Barack Obama can get away with this and similar statements (we can bring about the kingdom of heaven here on earth -said while campaigning in a church in 2007; taking the opportunity in 2012 at the usually non-partisan National Day of Prayer breakfast to claim Jesus told him his policies were the right ones and his opponents needed to get right with the Lord; getting on the phone with rabbis to tell them how to pitch his Administration policies at High Holy Day services) because his supporters know he really doesn’t believe this stuff, he’s just saying it to get the votes of some rubes.
It’s why having a President who found Jesus through the preaching of a spiritual advisor who is a race-baiting anti-semite and in whose church he sat for his entire adult life does not faze them. Now, if it was a Republican – well, my goodness, that’s different.

Andrew November 27, 2012 at 1:21 pm

I think many of the comments would be greatly benefitted by reading a book that attempts to tackle this and other questions:

https://www.russellsage.org/publications/asian-american-political-participation

It is a fallacy to assume that all Asians are the same, have a uniform immigrant experience, and have similar behavioral traits. The argument presented here leaves out one factor that would compliment the work that Prof. Gelman and his coauthors have made in the past–are wealthier Asians more likely to vote red, or at least, less likely to vote blue? I think this is the linkage that is missing from the argument presented here.

All in all, thank-you for an interesting post.

del2124 November 27, 2012 at 4:22 pm

No one is saying Asians are all the same, this is just a based on statistics. Asians have higher average incomes, higher average test scores, and higher average education levels. We can draw conclusion from that, not for every single Asian person, but certainly for Asians as a group.

GiT November 28, 2012 at 5:11 am

But, statistically, not all Asians are the same – Vietnamese are very different from Chinese, demographically, and so on.

Eric O. November 27, 2012 at 1:43 pm

I have no statistics to add, but isn’t education germane to this discussion? I think Andrew’s work has shown that educational attainment is related to political orientation.

Andrew B. Lee November 27, 2012 at 2:43 pm

It’s also partly a generational issue. Personally I’m Korean-American, and I can tell you that first-generation Korean-Americans are as right-wing as it gets. Part of that is the fact that a lot of first-generation Korean-Americans are small businessmen – and small businessmen tend to be right wing. But 1st-gen Korean-Americans also tend to practice a fairly conservative brand of Christianity (~70% of Korean-Americans are Christian). Then there’s the legacy of South Korea’s past – i.e. watching the basket case that is North Korea across the border, which tends to older Koreans shrink away from anything that vaguely smells of “left wing.” There’s also the whole “Confucian” thing, I guess.

On the other hand, second-generation Korean-Americans, the ones who are usually citizens and speak the language, are not too different from their other-race peers of the same age. They’re still highly Christian, but their practice of Christianity diverges from that of their parents and they’re more likely to use their Christianity to promote issues of “social justice” and whatnot.

So to generalize this to Asian-Americans in general, Asians who are eligible voters are more likely to be young and liberal. Many older Asian-Americans are conservative, but they’re not citizens.

Brian Parker November 27, 2012 at 7:38 pm

Just read your piece on why aren’t more Asian’s Republician. I’m an expat living in Singapore and working in Southeast, Northeast and South Asia. In my travels (and I’m on the road a lot), I can tell you that 80% plus, favored Obama over Romney. The reasons are mixed but like it or not, they see Obama as more international, favorable to Asia and more cerebral.

Andrew Straticzuk November 27, 2012 at 11:57 pm

We can slice the demographics ad infinitum and get as they say “patterns” which leave us just about as clueless as to why theses patters exist in the first place than before. My take is quite simple: people who have a reasonable amount of critical thinking skills tend to vote more liberal because they see through the thin gauze of puerile obfuscation exhibited by the present Republican ethos and find the Democrats in general a considerable notch above that.

Th November 28, 2012 at 9:36 am

Just a WAG, but I would guess it has to do with population density. People who live in higher population areas seem to have a greater appreciation for public goods and vote Democratic. Should be easily testable as there are lots of Asians living in small towns across the country.

Roddy November 29, 2012 at 7:37 pm

Are South Asian Muslims being included under the Asian-American category here? The shift among Muslims from Republican-leaning to overwhelmingly Democratic since 9/11 would go a long way to explaining this as well.

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