Asian American Mobilization: The Effect of Co-ethnic Candidates and Districts on Asian American Voting Behavior

Sara Sadhwani, PhD
Cal Lutheran University

Asian American communities are growing across the United States. With that growth, legislators and candidates are adjusting their campaign tactics to reach communities that are growing as a proportion of their electorate. While numerous studies have examined the effect of a co-ethnic on the ballot for African Americans and Latinos, Asian Americans remain understudied in this regard.

My forthcoming article at Political Behavior asks: Does the presence of an Asian American candidate on the ballot spur Asian American turnout or, like other minority communities, is the demographic composition of a district the central mobilizing mechanism? Can we expect country of origin subgroups of Asian Americans such as Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Japanese, and Korean American voters to mobilize or does such cohesion not exist?

The goal of this study was to analyze the impact of a co-ethnic candidacy for Asian American voters for the first time. The race and voter behavior literature has largely concluded that the size and context of the minority population is a key factor in understanding minority mobilization. The logic of these prior studies suggests that being of a minority community alone is not enough to stimulate turnout for a co-ethnic candidate, but instead living amongst a large proportion of others of your own racial or ethnic group alters the calculus of minority voting behavior with or without a co-ethnic candidate.

Using surname-matched vote returns from the California state assembly across four election years, I examine pan-ethnic and national origin Asian American turnout in the presence of a co-ethnic candidate.

When examined as a pan-ethnic group, I find that co-ethnic candidates stimulate a measurable increase in turnout conditional on the proportion of Asian Americans residing in the jurisdiction, consistent with the expectations of the race and ethnic politics voting behavior literature. This finding suggests that living amongst other Asian Americans may create an environment characterized by increased political participation. These findings hold regardless of partisanship: Asian American Democrats, Republicans and Independents all show statistically significant increases for an Asian American candidate.

By analyzing Asian Americans in their national origin subgroups, however, I find distinctive behavior between groups. For Korean and Filipino Americans, turnout is contingent on the racial concentration of the community within a jurisdiction, and thus reflects a similar pattern of findings that prior research has found for African American and Latinx voters (see for example Fraga 2016). Turnout of Indian and Japanese Americans, however, is stimulated in the presence of a co-ethnic candidate. What drives this difference in turnout might rely on the immigration pathways, unique history, socioeconomic resources, and hierarchical racial and class position of Japanese and Indian Americans in California.

Asian American communities are growing far beyond California. It is important to view trends in Asian American voter behavior to better understand the growing communities of Asian Americans across the country. Nevada, Texas, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Virginia, Georgia and many other states all have growing communities of Asian Americans. This study represents a step forward in our theorizing and empirical analysis of minority voting behavior and should open the door to additional studies that can further uncover the mechanisms driving voter behavior.

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