On the way to losing her reelection bid for Chicago mayor last month, Lori Lightfoot lost something else: Asian American voters. In Ward 11, Chicago’s only majority Asian American ward, 58 percent of the vote went to her opponent Paul Vallas, a center-right candidate who allegedly once called himself “more of a Republican than anything else.” Lightfoot isn’t alone in her struggles to secure Asian American votes. Democratic candidates have fared relatively poorly with this constituency in New York and San Francisco in recent elections, as well. Indeed, the shifting of this electoral grouping may be one of the most important political trends of our time.
These electoral developments represent a profound departure from the Democrats’ 30-year pattern of success with the Asian American community. In 1992, when the New York Times first added Asian American as a classification to its exit poll, 55 percent of the group reported voting for George H. W. Bush over either Ross Perot or Bill Clinton. But by 2008, exit polls showed Barack Obama winning between 63 percent and 76 percent of the Asian American vote. Obama’s 2012 win over Mitt Romney, with 71 percent of the Asian American vote, appeared to cement the trend.
Today, the Asian American population has grown large enough in some jurisdictions that group voting patterns (recorded only by exit polling) can be inferred from jurisdictional patterns. In Chicago, the creation of Ward 11’s current borders in 2022 marked the first time that Asian Americans, primarily of Chinese descent, had been grouped together to form a majority in any of Chicago’s wards. Clearly, Vallas’s campaign appealed to Ward 11 voters: the number one bullet point on his website is “getting crime under control.”
The outcome of Ward 11’s aldermanic primary race provides additional evidence that public safety has pushed Asian American voters rightward. The incumbent, Nicole Lee, seemed to have everything going for her. She is Asian American, was appointed by Mayor Lightfoot, and was endorsed and financially supported by former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s family and the remnants of the Daley machine. But on Election Day, Lee came in second to a police officer, Tony Ciaravino, who characterized her as soft on crime and was endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police.
In New York’s gubernatorial race last year, Asian neighborhoods swung an average of 23 percentage points from Democrats to Republicans, compared with the 2018 election, according to the New York Times. A Times analysis identified multiple Asian American precincts across Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan that swung by varying degrees—some dramatically so—toward the Republican candidate.
Public safety and education likely drove these voters away from the Democrats. While Governor Kathy Hochul remained largely silent on many educational issues during her recent reelection bid, her opponent, Republican Lee Zeldin, was fulsome in his support for merit-based admissions. On public safety, Hochul also kept mostly quiet, other than to call for stronger gun control. Meantime, the top issue on Zeldin’s campaign website was “securing our streets.” His platform included rescinding cashless bail reform and replacing Manhattan’s progressive district attorney.
In San Francisco, public safety and fairness in education have been the two main issues pushing Asian American voters to the right. A San Francisco Standard poll conducted a month prior to the Chesa Boudin recall election in June 2022 reported that 67 percent of Asian Americans supported the recall, compared with 51 percent of whites, 52 percent of Latinos, and 34 percent of African Americans. To understand what was driving the anger against Boudin, look to a June 2022 KQED/San Francisco Standard analysis of 12 high-profile attacks against Asian Americans in 2020 and 2021, including robberies, beatings, and murders, which discovered that none of the cases had gone to trial, and that in only two of the cases did prosecutors intend to file hate-crime charges. In one case that received international attention, an attacker threw a Thai immigrant grandfather to the ground, killing him; Boudin publicly dismissed the incident as a “temper tantrum.”
Multiple factors drove the February 2022 recall of three school board members: Covid shutdowns, an ill-informed effort to rename schools, and a push to change admissions to San Francisco’s most prestigious public high school from one focused on individual achievement to a lottery, for the express purpose of reducing the number of Asian American students.
Republicans have an opportunity to win voters in these and other American cities by focusing on safe streets and equality of educational opportunity. If they do so, Asian Americans may reward them at the ballot box for years to come.
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