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

Abstract

While numerous studies have examined the effect of a co-ethnic candidate on the ballot for African Americans and Latinos, Asian Americans remain understudied in this regard. With the growth of Asian American voters nationwide, empirical questions prevail: 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 Americans voters to mobilize or does such cohesion not exist? Using surname-matched vote returns from the California state assembly across four election years, I examine the constraints and opportunities for pan-ethnic and national origin Asian American turnout in the presence of a co-ethnic candidate. I find that Asian American candidates have a measurable increase on pan-ethnic turnout, but conditional on the percentage of Asian Americans in the district. Across national origin groups, the effect of a co-ethnic candidate varies. The findings suggest Asian American voting behavior is highly nuanced and markedly distinct from other minority voters.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Replication Data is available on Harvard Dataverse at https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/KDGUS6.

  2. 2.

    While the dataset used in this study does not capture ethnic specific campaign appeals, the influence of elite mobilization on Asian American turnout, has been well documented in the literature (Lien et al. 2004; Trivedi 2005; Wong 2005; Garcia and Michelson 2012) and should not be overlooked as a potential explanation for the findings.

  3. 3.

    Because the measurement tools of group consciousness and linked fate were developed to describe the African American experience, scholars have warned about the potential limitations of applying these tools on other minority communities (Chong and Rogers 2005; Lee 2007). The process for acquiring linked fate among Latinos, for example, has been found to be distinct from that of African Americans given the differences in group experiences with systematic oppression and discrimination in the United States (Sanchez 2006; Sanchez and Vargas 2016). The same consideration should be made in asserting group consciousness or linked fate for Asian Americans, who differ greatly from either African Americans or Latinos on dimensions such as language, religion, culture, and history of settlement in the United States.

  4. 4.

    Many communities, particularly those of Southeast Asia arrived in the United States as refugees and may lack the resources of income and high levels of educational attainment (Zhou et al. 2008; J. Lee and Zhou 2015) prescribed by resource models of political participation (Campbell et al. 1960; Wolfinger and Rosenstone 1980). Other segments of Asian Americans entered the United States as students pursuing advanced degrees, highly skilled workers in science and technology fields and their family members (Min and Jang 2015).

  5. 5.

    2012 was the inaugural year of three electoral design reforms in California: (1) the switch to the top-two primary; (2) the creation of new district lines following the 2011 redistricting, conducted for the first time by a citizen review board; (3) the adoption of additional term limits for state legislators (Sadhwani and Junn 2018; McGhee 2011; Highton et al. 2016). Given these electoral design changes, I begin the analysis in 2012 when these changes were enacted.

  6. 6.

    To create the dataset, three unique data files for each year were merged. These include (1) the Statement of Vote, which reports final vote tallies for each candidate from all counties and certified by the Secretary of State; (2) the Registration file, which reports the number of Asian American and Latino voters registered in each precinct using surname matching; and (3) the Voters file which reports the final vote at the precinct level with surname matching.

  7. 7.

    For example, see Henderson, Sekhon and Titiunik (2016) publication entitled “Cause or Effect? Turnout in Hispanic Majority-Minority Districts.” in Political Analysis.

  8. 8.

    In one instance a candidate of Indonesian background was coded as Asian-other. He was included in the pan-ethnic Asian turnout model, but is not captured in any of the national-origin specific models. Two mixed race Asian Americans appeared on the ballot. Their race was coded as Asian if their surname appeared in the Asian surname dictionaries.

  9. 9.

    Some scholars have warned that the use of registered voters in the denominator of voter file-based analyses can induce post-treatment bias (Nyhan et al. 2017). Pearson’s correlation analysis of the data, however, finds that Asian voter registration and the proportion of Asian residents in a district are highly correlated. Registration, therefore, is a reasonable measurement tool in the research design for voter turnout and the results of this project may indeed be underestimates of the true effect. Registration has similarly been used in other studies that measure voter turnout. See for example Barreto et al. 2004; Hersh 2013; Fraga and Merseth 2016.

  10. 10.

    See Kudialis, Chris. “Political group catering to Asian, Pacific Islander populations opens in Las Vegas.” The Las Vegas Sun. November 4, 2017. Available online.

  11. 11.

    See Miller, Justin. “Sri Kulkarni is Changing the Way Democrats Talk to Asian Americans.” The Texas Observer. September 5, 2018. Available online.

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported by the Haynes Lindley Doctoral Fellowship from the John Randolph and Dora Haynes Foundation. Special thanks to Jane Junn, Christian Grose, Bernard Fraga, Matt Barreto, Bryan Wilcox-Archuleta, Joey Huddleston and Dave Ebner. Additional thanks to the organizers and participants of the Politics of Race, Ethnicity, and Immigration Consortium (PRIEC) meetings at Michigan State University in April 2018, and UC Riverside in November 2018, and several anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback. Earlier versions of this paper were also presented at the American Political Science Association and Western Political Science Association.

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Appendices

Appendix 1: Difference in Difference Analysis

To further probe the effect of a pan-ethnic Asian American candidate on aggregated Asian American voter mobilization, a difference in difference analysis was conducted. This is a quasi-experimental design used to estimate the effect of a specific intervention or treatment using observational data (Card and Krueger 1993). The test isolates the presence of an Asian American candidate as a “treatment” on voter turnout whereas districts with no Asian candidate serve as a control (See Table 7).

Table 7 Difference in difference research design

I analyzed pan-ethnic Asian American turnout in districts that had no Asian American candidate from 2012 to 2016 election cycles, and compared that to Asian American turnout in districts with no Asian candidate in 2012 or 2014, but did have an Asian candidate present in 2016. This occurred in three instances—districts 27, 34 and 68. Using linear regression and the same electoral control variables, I again find evidence that aggregated Asian American turnout is elevated in those districts with Asian candidates in 2016, in comparison to those without an Asian candidate over the three election cycles. Figure 5 presents a visualization of the difference in difference analysis.

Fig. 5
figure5

Results from difference in difference analysis—observation of Asian American turnout in districts with and without Asian American candidate

Appendix 2: Asian American Turnout by Partisanship

See Tables 8 and 9.

Table 8 Asian Partisan Turnout for Asian Democrat Candidates, California Assembly Elections 2012–2018
Table 9 Asian Partisan turnout for Asian Republican Candidates, California assembly elections 2012–2018

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Sadhwani, S. Asian American Mobilization: The Effect of Candidates and Districts on Asian American Voting Behavior. Polit Behav (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-020-09612-7

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Keywords

  • Voting
  • Mobilization
  • Turn out
  • Asian american
  • National origin
  • Political behavior