Latinos, Asian Americans square off in political races

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Posted on December 23, 2013
SF Gate

Dave Gilliard has seen a lot in 25 years of coordinating political campaigns in California, a resume that includes the 2003 recall of Gov. Gray Davis. But even he doesn’t know what to expect in two legislative races he’s running that are a window into the future of state politics.

That’s because both Orange County races feature an Asian American running against a Latino. As the 2014 campaigns gain momentum, Gilliard isn’t sure what role, if any, race and ethnicity will play in districts that are split among Asians, Latinos and whites. Will voters side with – or against – a candidate because of their race?

“And how will Caucasian voters react to not having a Caucasian on the ballot for the first time?” said Gilliard, who handles Republican candidates and causes. “There’s a lot we don’t know about here. This is uncharted territory.”

Asian Americans and Latinos are the two fastest-growing slices of the electorate in both California and nationally, and their swelling numbers are reshaping the way campaigns are run.

Peek at the future
In 2014, California will be well ahead of the curve, as several races will feature Asian American candidates running against Latinos. Among them are the state races for controller and secretary of state, and an Assembly contest in San Francisco pitting Supervisor David Chiu against fellow Supervisor David Campos.

“This is a reflection of the future,” said Lisa García Bedolla, chairwoman of the Center for Latino Policy Research at UC Berkeley. “This is happening here 20 years ahead of the rest of the country.”

Thirty years ago, not only did few Asian Americans run for office, “there weren’t even many on the legislative staffs in Sacramento,” said Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book, which tracks state legislative and House races.

Party identity remains the prime predictor of how someone will vote. But with 21 percent of California voters declining to state a party preference, a large chunk of the electorate is looking for other ways to identify with a candidate.

Life experience
“Most people don’t trust people running for office. Period,” García Bedolla said. But absent any knowledge of the candidates or their records, some voters may feel that “if this one actually has a life experience similar to mine, it’s more likely that they’ll think of me when they get into office.”

That’s where the race or ethnicity of a candidate could influence a voter.

But the political science is mixed on how much race matters. On a statewide basis, there is relatively little “voting for the Asian candidate just because they’re Asian or voting against them because they’re Asian,” said Paul Mitchell, vice president of the analysis firm Political Data and an expert on the state’s demographics and voting trends.

For example, Mitchell said, “it’s hard to find places in the state where people voted for (state Controller) John Chiang because he was Asian, or against him because he was Asian.”

Besides, Mitchell cautioned, “treating (Asian Americans) as kind of a monolithic, racial bloc vote is overstating it, and might even be something that’s a little bit offensive to some Asian American community members.”

“You can’t just put an Asian American candidate on the ballot and expect to get all the Asian American votes,” Mitchell said.

Some exceptions
Still, Mitchell has found pockets of more racially polarized voting among some Asian American subgroups – like in Garden Grove (Orange County), where 28 percent of the residents are Vietnamese American. There have been instances in Garden Grove where a Republican Vietnamese American candidate has won 60 percent of the Vietnamese vote one year and a Democrat the same total the next go-round.

“Meaning that they’re literally voting for the Vietnamese name, not the party,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell found more racially polarized statewide voting when it comes to Latinos.

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