I am the son of Taiwanese immigrants who came to the U.S. in the 1970s seeking opportunity for themselves and the chance for their children to grow up in a more prosperous society. My story is not unusual among Asian- Americans. It’s also a profile that is tailor-made for the Republican Party, which stands for enhancing opportunity. Yet Asian-Americans from my generation (and others) are finding less and less appeal in the Republican Party.
In 1992, a total of 31 percent of Asian-Americans voted for Bill Clinton for president. In 2000, Asian-Americans were roughly split between George W. Bush and Al Gore; 62 percent voted for Barack Obama in 2008; and, according to exit polling, last year 73 percent of Asian-Americans voted to re-elect him. (Obama won a higher percentage of Asian-American voters than Latino voters.) That’s a near-total inversion over two decades.
The National Asian American Survey, conducted after the November 2012 election, illustrates how thorough the political transformation of the community has been. Obama carried every segment of the population, including Vietnamese and Filipinos, who have traditionally been more supportive of Republican candidates.
What’s concerning is not just this turn in Republicans’ electoral fortunes with Asian-Americans, who are the fastest- growing minority group in the U.S. It is also the party’s apparent inability to gain traction with Asian-Americans on any dimension of its platform. Among those Asian-Americans who told pollsters that “jobs and the economy” were “very important” to their voting decision, Obama had a 34-percentage-point advantage. This finding stands in stark contrast to exit polls showing that among those who believed the economy was the most important issue facing the country, Mitt Romney held a four- percentage-point advantage. More broadly, Asian-Americans preferred Obama regardless of the issues driving their vote choice.
There are a few potential explanations for the Republican Party’s poor performance among Asian-American voters. One is that Republicans have failed to properly communicate their message. Another is that there was a policy area, or areas, not addressed by the party or the polls, which drove Asian-American votes. A third possibility is that policy wasn’t actually the deciding issue for Asian-Americans, but rather there was a more intangible one -- the image the party projected, for example, or the tone displayed by its candidates.
Regardless of the explanation, there are a few concrete steps that Republicans can take to turn the tide among Asian- American voters.
First, Republicans need to be better at communicating a policy agenda that fosters opportunity, facilitates upward mobility and puts economic success in reach for more Americans of any race or heritage. As my background shows, many Asian immigrants and their children want America to be a place where they can achieve these goals.
Republican leaders already have the components of this agenda, such as specific ideas to improve our public schools, make college more affordable and expand access to quality, affordable health coverage. More frequently, however, our focus is on other policies, such as reforming the tax code, cutting spending, expanding domestic energy production and opening markets abroad.
There is no question that these are important elements of a robust plan for economic growth. Republicans should continue to advocate for them. But party leaders must also begin to more forcefully argue and more directly focus on an agenda that promotes opportunity and helps those who have been less fortunate. I believe this will go a long way toward bringing Asian-American voters, as well as others, back into the Republican camp.
Second, the Republican Party must better engage and involve Asian-American communities. Republicans haven’t done enough to meaningfully connect with Asian-American organizations, churches and community leaders. The party has also been largely unable to recruit candidates that Asian-Americans can relate to. The diagnoses and recommendations contained in the party’s recent Growth and Opportunity Project report are an excellent start, but, as the report notes, lasting relationships in Asian- American communities will require greater time and effort.
Republicans must recognize that the Asian-American electorate isn’t monolithic -- whether in terms of ethnicity, religion, age or socioeconomic status. The community organizations and specific concerns of third-generation Chinese- Americans in San Francisco are very different from those of recent Hmong immigrants in Minneapolis-St. Paul. To repair the party’s broken image with Asian-American voters, Republicans will have to cultivate future party leaders, surrogates and activists from within these communities.
Republicans clearly have a lot of work to do if they are ever to recover the ground that has been lost with Asian- American voters over the past 20 years. Progress will come only with a real commitment from the highest levels of the party -- including those considering a presidential run in 2016.
Last week’s gathering of the Republican National Committee in Los Angeles, at which we discussed the ways the party can broaden its appeal to minority communities, was encouraging. If we invest the necessary time, energy and resources, some of the very voters who helped to re-elect President Obama could help return a Republican to the White House in three years.
(Lanhee Chen is a Bloomberg View columnist and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He was the policy director of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. The opinions expressed are his own.)