With less than a month left before the U.S. presidential election, candidates are seeking support of minority groups to boost their winning chances in swing states such as Virginia. This strategy puts Northern Virginia localities, the most diverse in the state, on the campaigns’ priority lists.
On Sept. 29, the Obama for America campaign hosted an Asian-American and Pacific Islander outreach event in Falls Church, which featured B.D. Wong of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”
The actor told the 50-plus volunteers and visitors at the Falls Church Obama for America campaign office that he is traveling to swing states as a campaign surrogate in the hope of raising awareness of the importance of this election. Although events like this are not unique, efforts to engage Asian-American voters are becoming more common, campaign organizers and elections experts said.
In Virginia, Asian-American voters have proved significant in statewide races such as U.S. Sen. Jim Webb’s narrow victory against incumbent Sen. George Allen (R) in 2006 — the final margin was less than 0.5 percent. During that election, three out of four Asian-Americans voted for Webb (D), according to an exit poll conducted by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Although Asian-Americans comprised only 4 percent of the total U.S. population in 2006, the group made up nearly 20 percent of the vote in areas such as Annandale, according to the fund. Exit polling also was taken in other northeastern states and in areas with high immigrant populations, such as Chicago. About 80 percent of Asian-Americans voted Democrat that year, according to the poll.
Pew Research Center dubbed the 2008 election the most diverse in the nation’s history, with 2.5 percent of votes cast coming from the Asian community.
Asian-Americans attending Obama’s campaign event Sept. 29 said they are aware of the importance of their vote.
“For Asian voters, it’s important to have the voice, to be represented on issues that matter,” said Xiang Zheng, 27, a Chinese-American who lives in Washington, D.C. Many of those who attended the event were from the District or Maryland, areas already leaning toward Democrats. Obama for America campaign organizers said volunteers are visiting Virginia because of its swing-state status.
“As an Asian-American, schools are really important to me. I think mostly [Asian voters] will break for Obama because they are concerned about schools,” said Arlington resident Wesley Joe, 50, a Korean-American. “I’m concerned about the funding. … For Asian-Americans, education is the gateway to a lot of things.”
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Fairfax County’s Asian and Pacific Islander populations have outpaced all others in growth — going from 13.1 percent in 2000 to 17.6 percent in 2010. Asians now outnumber blacks (9.2 percent) and Hispanics (15.6 percent) in the county.
“Candidates [in previous years] haven’t focused on the Asian vote in Virginia because there haven’t been a lot of Asians in Virginia,” said George Mason University professor Jeremy Mayer, an elections expert for the school. “When we talk about the Asian vote it’s very different from the black vote. … Asian voters don’t vote as one community. South Asians and Pakistanis don’t vote the same as Chinese, who don’t vote the same as Koreans or Japanese.”
Korean-Americans, Mayer said, tend to lean toward Republican candidates who offer pro-small business platforms. Vietnamese-Americans tend to value social services, while Chinese-Americans vote the spectrum.
Fellow Mason professor Michael McDonald, a government and politics scholar, said because of their low population numbers, Asian-American voters tend to have a greater impact on local races than statewide races. Although there is some indication Asian-Americans will lean Democratic this election, McDonald said because there are truly no reliable exit polls on the minority group, Nov. 6 might be a surprise.
“It’s difficult to get reliable polling on Asian voters,” he said. “They’re such a small segment of the population. ... Asian-Americans don’t appear to be so pro-Democrat as other groups within the country,” such as blacks, American Indians and women.
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s campaign also is wooing the voter group. In June, Romney appeared on the cover of a Northern Virginia-based Chinese-language newspaper with Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R). McDonnell reportedly captured 60 percent of the Asian-American vote during his 2009 campaign. Calls and emails for local links from the campaign to Asian voter outreach efforts were not returned by leadership at the Fairfax County Republican Committee.
Although this year’s election might be an important milestone for the Asian-American vote in swing states such as Nevada, Florida and Virginia, for Govindan Nair, 53, of Fairfax, Nov. 6 is an important first.
The Malaysian immigrant, who was sworn in as a U.S. citizen in 2010 after residing in America for 14 years, will cast his first vote for president next month.
“I think we are definitely at a political juncture,” said Nair, who attended the Sept. 29 outreach event. “Depending which way we go, it will make a big difference.”