Pacific-American Public Opinion and Political Participation
PS: Political Science and Politics, September 2001.
Pei-te Lien, University of Utah
Christian Collet, University of California, Irvine
Janelle Wong, University of Southern California
S. Karthick Ramakrishnan, Princeton University
Asian-American politics with public opinion data is a relatively
new phenomenon. Only in the last decade have a number of surveys
(collected mostly at the local or regional level) been taken,
reflecting expanded interest in the growing Asian-American population
and the development of ethnic sampling and interviewing techniques.1
While most research on Asian-American political behavior focuses
on voting, some work examines other forms of political participation.
Recent scholarship concerns not only individual characteristics,
but also contextual and institutional factors.
A central goal of the literature is to explain the extent and
sources of participation. How active are Asian Americans in
the political process? What factors account for their involvement?
What explains the puzzle of low participation in the Asian-American
populationa community that, prima facie, based on average socioeconomic
resources, would be expected to participate at much higher levels
(Brackman and Erie 1995; Lien 1997; Nakanishi 1986, 1991; Uhlaner,
Cain, and Kiewiet 1989)?
Participation as a Three-Step Process
For as many as three-fourths of voting-age Asian Americans
who were born outside of the United States, the simple act
of voting may not be so simple at all (Dalton and Wattenberg
1993; Kelley and Mirer 1975). In order to cast her ballot, a
potential voter must engage in a three-step processnaturalization,
registration and turning outthat involves, at each turn, a
set of costs. Time and information gathering, as Downs (1957)
argued, are perhaps the most significant; becoming a citizen
requires a minimum of five years; registering to vote and going
to the polls may require an extraordinary amount of information
and resources. This may be particularly onerous in a state such
as California (with its many ballot initiatives), where it is
estimated that 40% of the Asian-American population resides.
When one adds to the Downsian equation factors such as language
barriers, lack of familiarity with the U.S. system, social discrimination,
and economic hardship for working-class immigrants, it comes
as little surprise that Asians have one of the lowest citizenship,
voting registration, and turnout rates among voting-age Americans.
To conclude that Asians are politically inactive overlooks the
role of institutional barriers to Asian-American political incorporation.
In other important ways, Asians demonstrate a substantial desire
to be engaged in American society. Immigrants from Asia become
naturalized much earlier and at rates much higher than immigrants
from other parts of the world. In 1997, among immigrants who
entered the United States in 1982, the rate of naturalization
for Asians was at least twice as high as that for immigrants
from Canada, Mexico, and the United Kingdom (U.S. Immigration
and Naturalization Service 1998, 1999). Except for immigrants
from Korea and Laos, each Asian group also has a naturalization
rate that compares very favorably to the rate among Cuban immigrants,
who demonstrate some of the highest rates for any ethnic group
in the United States. Asians possessed the highest growth rate
of citizenship of all racial groups during the 1990s (Lien 2001).2
Furthermore, among Asians registered to vote, turnout is higher
than for Latinos and comparable to non-Hispanic whites in off-year
elections; turnout rates are three to four percentage points
lower than whites in presidential elections. Clearly, naturalization
and registration are critical to raising voting participation
rates for these new Americans.
While Asians show substantial increases in citizenship rates,
registration is a different story. During the 1990s, the rate
of registration among Asian-American citizens was substantially
lower than the rate of registration among white and black citizens
Table 1). Moreover, this gap in registration grew for both
presidential and midterm elections, especially in 1998. This
dip reflects perhaps both the extraordinary growth rate of new
citizens and the negative influence of campaign-finance investigations
against Asians after the 1996 presidential election.3
Analysis of the first two immigration generations (using the
census datasets cited in Table 1) identifies substantial interethnic-group
differences in participation rates (Lien 2000, 2001). Between
1994 and 1998, Filipinos consistently achieved the highest citizenship
rate and Asian Indians scored the lowest in two out of three
elections. Generally, Japanese Americans are the most likely
to register and to vote; Vietnamese and Korean Americans rank
consistently among the lowest. Widespread differences in the
length, condition, and demographic makeup of ethnic immigration
and settlement may account for the observed ethnic gaps (for
a review of multiethnic history and development, see Chan 1991;
Kitano and Daniels 1995; Min 1995; Takaki 1989). Japanese Americans,
for instance, are the only Asian-American group in which a majority
was born in the United States. Nevertheless, after controlling
for differences in socioeconomic status, demographic background,
social connectedness, and political context, citizens of Chinese
ancestry are still estimated to register at lower rates and
Korean Americans less likely to turnout than other comparable
Participation Beyond Voting
Another way to examine the political activism of Asians is
to look at the extent of their participation beyond voting.
The nonvoting activity most frequently associated with Asians
has been campaign donations. Yet, surveys have found anywhere
from 10% to 18% of Asian Americans having given a campaign donationgenerally
lower rates than for whites and blacks (Lien 1997; Uhlaner,
Cain, and Kiewiet 1989). Furthermore, Cho (1999a), using data
from the Federal Election Commission, finds that when Asians
make donations, they typically prefer candidates of shared ancestry
who have little chance of winning and are likely to reside outside
of the donors districts. Her findings help illustrate the strength
of ethnic identity in shaping Asian-American political behavior.
There is also little evidence that Asians are more likely to
contribute than to engage in other forms of participation. Asians
in a 1984 California survey report higher frequencies of contacting
officials (26%), contacting media (25%), and in working with
others to solve community problems (24%) than donating to campaigns
(Uhlaner, Cain, and Kiewiet 1989). In a 1993 Los Angeles Times
poll, nearly as high a percentage of Asians (11%) report having
contacted officials (Lien 1997). In the 20002001 pilot study
of the National Asian American Political Survey (PNAAPS), donating
money to a political campaign is the only the fourth most frequently
reported nonvoting activity (12%), following community work
(21%), signing a petition (16%), and attending a public meeting
or rally (14%) in the past four years (
And, contrary to stereotypes that portray Asians as politically
quiescent, there is a history of Asian-American protest dating
at least to Asian Americans nineteenth-century involvement
in mining and railroads (see Chapter 1 in Lien 2001 for a review
of the pluralistic means of political participation adopted
by Asian Americans prior to 1965). In 1968 and 1969, San Francisco
State College and the University of California, Berkeley were
the sites of Third World strikes, which prompted panethnic political
consciousness among Asian-American students and helped give
rise to Asian-American Studies programs and other professional
organizations such as the Asian Law Caucus (Espiritu 1992; Wei
1993). During the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, more than 30,000
marched in Koreatown to denounce both the police brutality that
ignited the incident and the violence that had turned on the
Korean-American community (Zia 2000).
Communities differ in their favored modes of participation
beyond voting. In the PNAAPS, a higher percentage of South Asians
than other Asians report having worked with others to solve
a community problem (36%), written or phoned a government official
(17%, tie with Filipinos), or contacted media (14%). A higher
percentage of Japanese signed a petition (24%), attended political
gatherings (22%), or donated money to political campaigns (20%).
And a higher percentage of Vietnamese participated in political
protest and demonstration (14%) than other Asian American groups
(Table 2). Two media surveys of the Vietnamese in Orange County,
California and San Francisco Bay Area report similar findings.4
For example, 50% of respondents in Orange County and 28% in
the Bay Arealocalities that have seen large-scale protests
in the Vietnamese community in recent yearsreported participation
in a demonstration.5
Explaining Voting ParticipationIndividual
and Contextual Factors
To a certain extent, voting-behavior theory developed from
observations of non-Asian Americans (e.g., Abramson, Aldrich,
and Rohde 1998; Conway 1991; Rosenstone and Hansen 1993; Verba
and Nie 1972; Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995; Wolfinger and
Rosenstone 1980) may be used to understand the behavior patterns
of Asians (Junn 1999; Lien 2000). In general, voting participation
may be influenced by five sets of variables: socioeconomic factors
such as education and income; demographic factors such as gender,
nativity, age; social connectedness or ties such as those indicated
by residential mobility, marital status, and employment status;
and political connectedness such as association with a party,
union, church, or other organized social group that enhances
awareness and participation. In addition, registration and turnoutparticularly
the lattermay be affected by the amount of campaign stimuli
in the political context: media coverage, candidate and party
evaluation, significance of office, issue salience, and certainty
of outcome (Collet, Grofman, and Griffin 1998; Jackson 1996).
There are additional considerations to bear in mind when studying
Asians, however. First, socioeconomic status, the cornerstone
of traditional theories of participation, does not adequately
explain patterns of participation among Asians. Past studies
either find educational achievement and family income to be
of no effect or of less effect on Asians than on whites or blacks
(Cho 1999b; Junn 1999; Lien 1994, 1997, 2000; Nakanishi 1986,
1991, 1998; Tam 1995; Uhlaner, Cain, and Kiewiet 1989). Second,
most Asian-American communities contain large numbers of immigrants.
Many of the studies cited above and new studies by Wong (2001)
and Ramakrishnan and Espenshade (forthcoming) find that immigration-related
variables such as English-language skills, citizenship status,
nativity, immigration generation, and length of stay in the
U.S. may have significant impact on the participation of Asians.
Third, the unique status of Asiansbeing simultaneously perceived
as nonwhite, affluent, and foreignmay shape their group interactions,
heighten their consciousness of group identity, and invite targeted
mobilization efforts by community elites and organizations (Espiritu
1992; Kim 2000; Lien 2000; Saito 1998; Uhlaner 1991; Wong 2000).
Asian immigrants exceptional speed of naturalization may be
attributed to the lack of proximity to the homeland, emigration
driven more by political than economic motives, high educational
and/or occupational background, and ability of U.S. citizens
to sponsor the emigration of family members (Jasso and Rosenzweig
1990; Portes and Mozo 1985). The acquisition of citizenship
by Asians may be influenced most by their length of stay in
the U.S. In their analysis of the 1994 census data, Ong and
Nakanishi (1996) also find that those who are younger, who are
proficient in English, and who have more education are more
likely to become citizens. However, the effect of education
diminishes after a bachelors degree, because immigrants with
advanced degrees are more likely to be in the United States
on temporary visas.
When education, family income, age, tenure in the same residence,
or membership in labor unions increases, the likelihood of Asian-American
voting registration increases as well (Lien 2001). Likelihood
decreases with foreign birth or midterm elections, but is not
influenced by gender, marital status, or residing in Hawaii
or California. Similarly, the probability of registered Asians
voting increases with education and age and decreases in midterm
electionsas it did most notably in 1998but is not influenced
by gender or employment status. Unlike with registration, however,
voting is more likely among those who are married or reside
in states with higher numbers of ethnic elected officials, such
as Hawaii and California; it is not influenced by income, nativity,
length of residence, or union membership. These results suggest
that voting turnout may be more influenced by contextual than
individual factors. Ramakrishnan and Espenshade (forthcoming)
find that participation increased from the first generation
to the second, but that the picture is less clear for later
generations. In 1998, participation increased in the third generation
and beyond, but those generations showed a decrease in participation
(compared to the second generation) in 1994 and 1996. They also
find that living in states or metropolitan areas with higher
percentages of Asians does not increase the likelihood of voting
among Asian-American citizens except for those in the third
and higher generation.
One interesting aspect of Asian Americans involvement in the
political system is the acquisition of party identification.
In the PNAAPS, 36% of the respondents identified as Democrat,
14% as Republican, and 13% as Independent, but 20% did not think
of themselves in partisan terms and 18% were either uncertain
about their party identification or refused to give a response
Table 3). Significant group differences exist in patterns
of party affiliation. For example, respondents of South Asian,
Korean, Filipino, and Japanese origins are more likely than
Chinese or the Vietnamese to identify as Democrat. Wong (2001)
finds that education and length of residence are two of the
strongest predictors of partisan identification for Asian Americans.
She attributes the influence of length of residence to experience
with the political system; such experience is often reinforced
through strong English-language proficiency, media exposure,
and the naturalization process. Contact from political parties
may increase identification, but only 41% of respondents in
the PNAAPS reported ever being contacted by parties, candidate
organizations, or other political groups in the previous four
years. Of those contacted, 60% reported receiving contact from
the Democratic party, which may explain the greater Democratic
affiliation noted above.
Two indicators of political contextAsian-American candidates
and community-based organizationshave received extensive research
attention. According to the elite mobilization hypothesis (Bobo
and Gilliam 1990; Rosenstone and Hansen 1993), Asians residing
in localities with higher numbers of Asian-American candidates
may be expected to participate at greater rates than Asians
residing elsewhere. Although there is little data to allow direct
testing, individual-level analysis using census data supports
this: other conditions being equal, Hawaiian Asians participate
at higher rates than Asians in California who, in turn, register
and vote at higher rates than eligible Asians in all other states
(Lien 2001). Qualitative evidence using case studies also suggests
that Asian-American candidates in high profile elections are
not only able to mobilize non-Asian contributors and volunteers,
but also to build coalitions between diverse Asian-American
ethnic groups (Lai 2000). The mobilization function of ethnic
candidates cannot occur, however, without the assistance of
community elites (e.g., community activists, community-based
organizations, and the ethnic media) (Lai 2000, 41). These organizations
fill a representation void between community members and other
political leaders and institutions (Lai 2000, 43).
Based on her study of Chinese-American immigrants political
incorporation in New York and Los Angeles, Wong (2000) contends
that because mainstream institutions have not been committed
to incorporating nonwhite immigrant communities into the political
system, a new institutional dynamic is shaping immigrants participation.
In particular, labor organizations, religious institutions,
community-based nonprofits, and ethnic voluntary associations
have taken the leading role in immigrants political mobilization.
Some of these institutions are binational or transnational in
their orientation. Furthermore, though they sometimes act ambivalently
toward nonwhite immigrants, these institutions are responsible
for organizing a vast majority of political activities related
to immigrant incorporation and voter education. They also mobilize
participation in both voting and nonvoting activities such as
petitions, demonstrations, and protests.
Much of the puzzle of Asian nonparticipation may be explained
by viewing voting as a three-step process, considering the role
of institutional barriers and contextual elements, and examining
participation beyond voting. Asian Americans who are registered
are nearly as likely to vote as their white counterparts, and
Asians engage in many forms of political participation. Donating
to political campaigns is not the most common form of nonvoting
participation, and, contrary to media accounts, Asians are not
as active in making campaign donations as whites.
Our review finds that factors traditionally useful for studying
the mainstream electorate will need to be applied carefully
when studying Asians. Key independent variablessuch as income,
education, length of residence, and gendermay be insignificant,
or their influence may be greatly altered by Asian Americans
unique combination of relative affluence, recent immigration,
and nonwhite status. Political context, as measured by the presence
of ethnic candidates or the efforts of community organizations,
may increase participation by raising awareness, generating
interest, and creating linkages to and opportunities for participation.
One should take caution, however, when making generalizations
about the political participation of Asians. Not only is the
population internally diverse, dispersed, and in flux, but research
on Asian Americans has varied greatly in study sites, field
dates, coverage of ethnic groups, interview language, and interview
mode. Even the best studies often have a biased and small sample.
These problems create challenges, but they also present intriguing
opportunities for political scientists seeking to advance the
study of American ethnic political participation.
1. In this article, the terms Asian and Asian American
are used interchangeably.
2.The growth rate between 1990 and 1998 in the share of U.S.
citizenry was 89%. This is much higher than that of 54% for
Latinos, 49% for Native Americans, 21% for blacks, and that
of 5% for Anglo whites.
3. There are numerous media accounts of the Asian-gate scandal.
Analysis of the impact on Asian Americans can be found in articles
by Wu (1997) and Wang (1998).
4. The studies, of 600 Vietnamese Americans in both locales,
were conducted by Pacific Opinions, Inc., for The Orange County
Register and The San Jose Mercury News in January and July 2000.
Christian Collet, president of Pacific Opinions, directed both
5. For more on particular incidents in the Vietnamese community,
see Sanchez (1999) and Mangaliman (2000). The large discrepancy
in numbers between Orange County and San Jose may suggest that
nonvoting activities are affected by local political opportunity
structures and primary and secondary migration patterns that
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