FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AP) — At a shopping plaza in the Washington suburbs, the flag of the long-defunct South Vietnam flies beside the Stars and Stripes. Former refugees who congregate there hold fast to their roots, but their political allegiances are changing.
Though they are regarded as the most conservative of Asian-American voters, the Vietnamese are increasingly shifting their support to Democrats. That reflects a broader shift among Asian-Americans from being majority Republican supporters to overwhelmingly Democrat. Donald Trump’s polarizing rhetoric on issues like immigration could accelerate the trend.
That shift could have an effect on the presidential race. Though Asian-Americans represent only about 4 percent of the electorate and tend to have low turnout, they are a potentially significant bloc in battleground states like Nevada, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Asian-Americans comprise an array of ethnic nationalities: Chinese, Indians, Filipinos, Koreans, Japanese and others. Most of the Vietnamese arrived after the communist takeover of their homeland in 1975 and have settled mainly in California and Texas. But there’s a significant number in Fairfax County — a district in northern Virginia where nearly one-fifth of the population is of Asian origin.
At the Eden Center, a plaza of Vietnamese shops and restaurants, seniors who once supported the Republican Party for being strong on national security and fighting communism are increasingly leaning Democrat — as their more progressive children who were born in America tend to do.
Former teacher Kim-Ha Ly, 67, recounted that when she migrated to the U.S. in the early 1990s, she voted Republican like her husband who had arrived as a refugee one decade earlier. But she changed to the Democrats because she said that party was more in tune with the priorities of immigrants. In this election, she is volunteering for a group called Vietnamese-American Women for Hillary.
“If we vote Democrat we can build a fairer and better country,” she said.
Her husband, Xuan Ly, 72, an electrical engineer who was interned in a camp after the communist takeover and later fled the country by boat, is now Democrat too. As the couple watched a non-partisan voter registration event in the plaza’s parking lot, where activists were urging fellow Asian-Americans to become politically engaged, Xuan spoke dismissively of Trump’s “bad behavior” and lack of government experience.
There’s still a diversity of political outlook among Asian-Americans, with Vietnamese, Chinese and Filipinos, for example, viewed as more conservative than Indians and Koreans. But Karthick Ramakrishnan, director of the National Asian American Survey, said that Asian-Americans, broadly speaking, back a liberal agenda supporting more social spending and universal health care.
Taeku Lee, a professor of political science and law at University of California, said there has been a change over time from Vietnamese viewing politics through “a post-Cold war lens” where strength in foreign policy was especially important to focusing more on domestic issues like education and health care. That makes them more likely to vote Democratic, even if they don’t have a strong allegiance to the party.
Today, Asian-Americans are often perceived as high achievers, but language and cultural barriers persist. In the 2012 election, turnout by Asian-American voters was just 47 percent — 17 percentage points less than the turnout among non-Hispanic white voters, according to a Census Bureau survey.
Still, it is one of the fastest-growing segments of the electorate.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign is running multi-lingual phone banks and sending volunteers from neighboring states to help out in battlegrounds like Nevada and Pennsylvania. The Clinton website carries campaign material in 11 Asian languages: Cambodian, Chinese, Gujarati, Hindi, Korean, Tagalog, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Urdu and Vietnamese.
The Republican party has also stepped up outreach to Asian-Americans to reverse a generation of Democratic gains. When Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992 he won just 31 percent of the Asian vote. When President Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012, he won 73 percent.
“I’m a big believer that the core beliefs of a lot of Asian-American communities are similar to the Republican Party’s core principals,” said Jason Chung, who leads the Republican outreach effort and cited as evidence an even split between the parties for the Asian vote in 2014 congressional elections.
Trump’s hard line on immigration is likely to be a significant turn-off to that same constituency, as could allegations of inappropriate conduct toward women.
Staunch Republican voter Hong Nguyen, 66, a former service member of the South Vietnam air force, is undeterred. He’s backing Trump to be strong on defense, immigration and the economy. He said the groping allegations against Trump won’t alter that.
“It happened a long time ago,” Nguyen said. “Why did these women wait 10, 15 years to talk?”
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