Parties vie for Asian-American vote
FAIRFAX, Va. -- Four years ago, Barack Obama captured 62 percent of the Asian-American vote. But in the 2012 cycle, Mitt Romney's campaign may have found the formula to chip away at that margin, and in swing states with booming Asian populations like Virginia, Nevada and Florida, that could make all the difference.
Though a majority of Asian-Americans are expected to back Obama again this year, the Romney campaign has made aggressive efforts to reach out to Asian business owners, who they say might warm to Romney's jobs-focused message.
Romney himself has met privately with Asian-American small business owners here in Northern Virginia, as has Lanhee Chen, the campaign's chief policy adviser. And aides say the campaign will soon roll out a coalition that will include "high ranking" Asian-American surrogates to "provide the face and voice of our efforts."
"We're not ceding one inch of ground to the Obama campaign," one Romney aide said when asked about their outreach to Asian-American voters. "We're reaching out to every community and every group."
The Obama campaign, meanwhile, says they don't plan to take the Asian-American vote for granted, particularly in the most fiercely contested states this election cycle. One focal point of their outreach has been a broad-based appeal rooted in the narrative about Obama's heritage and childhood spent in Hawaii and Indonesia.
"I remember thinking [on Inauguration Day] about how Barack's story is our story," Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif) said at a recent town hall here in Virginia focused on the Asian-American vote. "The Asian American and Pacific Islander community helped make our president the man -- the leader -- that he is today."
The campaigns' disparate strategies for courting Asian-American voters collided last week here in the hotly contested state of Virginia -- where in 2008 Obama was the first Democrat to win since 1964 -- and where the Asian-American population has skyrocketed, just one factor changing the racial dynamics that make up the state's political landscape.
Virginia's Asian-American population boomed in the past decade, growing 68 percent in the past three years. Much of that increase was focused in rapidly growing Northern Virginia. In 2000, Asians and Pacific Islanders made up 6.6 percent of the population of the Virginia counties closest to Washington. A decade later, the 2010 census showed that number had roughly doubled, to 13.6 percent.
The Romney and Obama campaigns converged on Fairfax County -- where 17.5 percent of residents are Asian -- last weekend for an Asian Festival held at George Mason University.
It was hard to miss the Romney campaign's presence, stocked with supplies and campaign literature and with a bold "Virginia for Romney" sign. Volunteers, like Audrey Lee, of Arlington, Va., passed out bumper stickers with the message: "I Stand with Romney" in Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese languages.
"Mitt Romney is one of the most reachable candidates that I've ever had the honor of knowing," Lee told POLITICO last Saturday afternoon as she stood outside the campaign's tent. "I never was involved in politics before, but Romney has been very proactive in reaching out to the Asian community in particular. We base our whole lives on relationships, building relationships and trust. Therefore, when a candidate does reach out and is proactive to our community, we also feel the trust and it builds both ways."
Other volunteers for the Romney campaign -- some who were barely old enough to vote themselves -- were deputized to collect contact information from would-be supporters.
"We're going to show the Asian community that we care -- that's our first priority," Joshua Baca, the national coalitions director for the Romney campaign, said. "The second priority is then to translate that situation into votes."
Baca said, "there is no doubt" that Asian voters are significant to the campaign's aggressive get-out-the-vote campaign in Virginia. "It would be foolish of us as a campaign not to have a robust effort to make sure that we're identifying these voters ... and that we've gone into their communities and have been able to have a dialogue with them, to listen to them, and to learn about them and then, ultimately to activate them to vote."
Representatives from the Obama campaign were also on hand, including Honda, the DNC vice chairman and California representative.
Battle-tested tactics that brought out the Asian-American vote in earlier state campaigns -- like having Democratic surrogates routinely reach out to ethnic media outlets -- are back in play for Obama, Honda told POLITICO in an interview.
"A lot of communities have their own vernacular newspapers, so we go to them, we get interviewed by them," Honda said. "A lot of [constituents] have customs, like some of the Chinese, when they go to dim sum, some of them bring a wad of Chinese language newspapers. They go from cover to cover. They absorb that stuff."
The Romney campaign -- combating a lack of awareness about their candidate among Asian-Americans - is employing some of the same tactics. According to a poll conducted in April by the Democratic firm Lake Research Partners, most Asian-Americans at that point had yet to make any impression -- favorable or unfavorable -- of Romney.
"Right now a lot of the things we're doing are sort of the smaller things that are really going to matter," Baca said. "The things that matter to people, that really get them amped up are some of the small things. It's to have campaign literature and bumper stickers and campaign collateral in their language. It's being able for them to pick up their native news source and read about our efforts in their papers. Some of those small things are just as impactful as some of the big things that you're talking about. "
Honda and Obama campaign officials stressed the diversity of the Asian-American community, noting that dominant ethnicities vary widely from state to state.
In Fairfax County, for instance, most residents are Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean, while in other parts of Virginia the exploding population can be attributed to an influx of Asian-Indians.
"The thinking has to be that Asian-Americans are not a monolithic one-kind-of-vote community," Honda said. "You have to figure out which communities there are and ... address them in linguistically appropriate, culturally sensitive ways."
"The [Asian-American] community is a really important constituency, and we're going to do everything we can to reach out to voters and explain why the president is the right choice for them," Clo Ewing, a spokeswoman for the Obama campaign, added. "Obviously, there are certain states and places where there is a larger population, so we will work in those states and in those neighborhoods to engage as much as we possibly can."
At phone banks sponsored by Asian-American Pacific Islanders -- or AAPIs -- for Obama, the group launched in May to court voters in the core constituency, volunteers often speak to potential voters in languages like Mandarin or Vietnamese, in addition to English. Regardless of the language, though, the message is frequently familiar: Obama knows this community.
The campaign draws from Obama's past in its mailings; the name of Obama's half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, is on a campaign note that opens with, "Aloha from Hawaii," and urges readers to join the Obama campaign's coalition for Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders.
But the campaign is also talking policy, with campaign aides pointing to Obama's activism on immigration, health care and small business growth as points likely to resonate with Asian-American voters across the country.
Some small business owners here in Virginia, however, aren't buying the president's sales pitch and say they prefer the economic message Romney's been honing on the stump.
Mike Jing, an executive vice president at CyberData Technologies in northern Virginia, joined several other Asian American business leaders in a meeting with Romney late last month.
Romney talked shop, Jing said, asking the leaders about their businesses and about the challenges their companies faced.
"We are hardworking, and we don't want to be rewarded by high taxes," Jing said. "We want to give to the next generation an example: If you are working hard, you [get] a reward. That's a major reason I'm supporting Gov. Romney."
Jing -- who also attended the Asian festival in Fairfax -- said Romney would create a more "entrepreneur-friendly environment" that would reward "hardworking people who build up businesses and create jobs.
"He will give us pro-business growth policies to help us achieve our American dream," Jing added.
Jimmy Yang -- who emigrated from China 20 years ago and now owns a business in Fredericksburg, Va. -- said it's Romney's policies, not Obama's, that offer new immigrants a better shot at the American dream.
"I migrated from China about 20 years ago," he said. "We were all working very, very hard to achieve the American dream. ... I become a successful owner. It's not necessarily that Romney helps [me now], but he helps hardworking people, the American people."
"I want to come back to a statement from our current president," he continued. "'If you got a business, you didn't build that, somebody else made that happen,' -- which really hurt our feelings," Yang said. "Especially the hardworking people who make our businesses successful by working very hard. We've overcome a lot of difficulty to make it successful."