Anyone who has been watching or reading coverage of the Super Tuesday results has heard about Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's success with Latino voters. In California, the day’s biggest prize, Clinton beat Barack Obama by a margin of 67 percent to 32 percent. While her edge was smaller in other states, including New Mexico and Arizona, Clinton's achievement with Latinos helped offset Obama's overwhelming win with African Americans and his gains among white voters, particularly men, since South Carolina. However, a quick glance at the exit polling shows that in California, Latinos were not Clinton's biggest boosters. In fact, another subset of the population went the former first lady's way by nearly a 3-1 ratio: Asian Americans. It is hard to draw too many lessons from the data last night (at least yet), and most states do not have very large Asian American populations (California has approximately one-third of the country's Asian Americans). In New York, Clinton performed disproportionately well with Asian voters as well. In other words, Obama's message of a “post-racial” politics is having trouble reaching beyond white and black audiences.
It's worth keeping a map handy when thinking about Asian American voters, a diverse group whose ancestral homelands fall anywhere between Japan and Punjab. California alone has large populations of voters descending from India, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Korea, Japan, and, of course, China. But Clinton's absolute evisceration of Obama among these voters, who composed 8 percent of Democratic primary voters in California, suggests that he did poorly with almost every (sub)-subgroup. This is surprising for a number of reasons, most of all because the best-educated nationalities in America tend to be Asian ones, and education has been a solid indicator of support for Obama among white voters.
In evaluating Hillary Clinton’s success on Tuesday, it should not be forgotten that Bill Clinton was widely popular in California (and for obvious reasons, given the state’s Silicon Valley-driven economic boom in the 1990s). Also, the Clinton administration made numerous prominent Asian American appointments, and received significant support from the Asian American community during Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign (this fact is usually remembered because of the fundraising scandals involving Asian donors in that year). Clinton had a deft understanding of the outlines of what a new Democratic majority could look like--and cultivated various groups accordingly. “It is admiration for the Clintons,” says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, when I asked him to explain the Asian vote on Super Tuesday.
Unfortunately, there are also less seemly reasons why Obama may have come up short in Asian American communities this week. California has a long history of battles over affirmative action, and as Henry Brady, a political scientist at UC Berkeley explained to me, "A lot of those fights pitted African Americans against Asians." Brady's colleague Taeku Lee put it even more bluntly: "Many Asian Americans have very deeply rooted and stereotypical reviews of African-Americans. [Blacks] will face a higher degree of scrutiny." David Lee, the founder of the Chinese American Voter Education Committee, appeared to second this view when he told John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira, authors of The Emerging Democratic Majority, that one of the reasons Bill Clinton appealed so much to various Asian communities was that he "distanced" himself, as a New Democrat, from the party's African American base.
The most interesting theory I have heard for why Obama may have underperformed in Asian American communities came from Taeku Lee, the Berkeley political scientist. The Illinois senator has focused his campaign squarely on the theme of change, and on the promise of radically altering the status quo in Washington, D.C. Obama aides are not shy in arguing that their boss is leading a movement as much as an ordinary fight for the presidency. Rhetorically, at least, his campaign can seem almost radical. For ordinary Democrats fed up with eight years of the Bush administration, this has been his main selling point. But, in an interview yesterday, Lee gave a different and very interesting explanation for why Obama may have underperformed in Asian American communities. “Running on change is risky,” he explains. “It’s not the best way to sell your candidacy in some immigrant communities. Many people who just came to this country or who feel unsettled are looking to have their anxieties alleviated, looking for a sense of stability.” When I spoke with an aide to a California congressman whose district includes a large East Asian population, he agreed with the assessment. “Many of our voters think his pitch is too radical. They are ‘New Democrats’ for a reason.” It probably does not help Obama’s cause that many of the immigrants who came to America were fleeing “revolutionary” regimes.
These issues aside, however, Obama’s campaign seems to have something of a blind spot when it comes to some voters. Here, for example, is a typical passage from Obama’s speech Tuesday night, which many viewers probably found powerful: "When people said that maybe we don’t have to be divided by race and regions and gender… that the crumbling schools are stealing the future of black children and white children…that we can come together and build an America that gives every child everywhere the opportunity to live out their dreams.” Completely missing here is any attempt to reach voters who may consider themselves neither black nor white. This is not to say that Obama never mentions Asians on the stump. In his victory speech after South Carolina, for example, Obama mentioned them, along with other ethnic groups, but only in the context of the diversity of his supporters: “There are young and old, rich and poor. They are black and white, Latino and Asian and Native American.” And in recent weeks, he has been peppering his speeches with more direct appeals to Latinos, which is probably smart. But he still faces the reality that his words are, too often, not "post-racial" or "colorblind" but actually dichotomous. In short, it’s not surprising some voters may feel left out.
Finally, there have been occasional examples of Obama snubbing Asian voters (particularly some staffers on his campaign’s crack, which Obama himself later repudiated and apologized for, about Hillary Clinton being the senator from Punjab, a remark that probably united both Indians and Pakistanis in disgust). These slights may not affect the outcome of the nomination battle--of the remaining states, only Virginia and Wisconsin have significant Asian immigrant populations. But in the general election, Obama will probably be running against John McCain, whose liberal immigration message and perceived moderation will surely attract more Hispanics than a Romney or Giuliani nomination would have. If Obama does find himself facing the Arizona senator, he is going to have some work on his hands with immigrant communities throughout the country.
Isaac Chotiner is a frequent contributor to The New Republic.