An Interview with Karthick Ramakrishnan: Surveying Asian American Votes and Political Behavior

Rohan Mascarenhas, Russell Sage Foundation
October 31, 2011

Karthick RamakrishnanKarthick Ramakrishnan, a political scientist at the University of California at Irvine, studies civic participation, immigration policy, and the politics of race, ethnicity, and immigration in the United States. Currently a Visiting Scholar, he is the co-author of Asian American Political Participation, the most comprehensive study to date of Asian American political behavior, including such key measures as voting, political donations, community organizing, and political protests.

Q: Your book details results from a survey you and your colleagues conducted on the political behavior and attitudes of Asian Americans. How does this new dataset improve upon previous surveys on this area? What gaps in our knowledge does it address?

A: Surveys of the Asian American population are rare to find, and those that do it in Asian languages are even more so. We found that, even among adult U.S. citizens, close to 40% of our interview respondents took the survey in an Asian language. So exit polls like the national polls done after presidential elections have inaccurate measures of the Asian American vote because those interviews are done only in English and Spanish.

And the biggest improvement over previous surveys done in Asian languages is the fact that we have a nationally representative sample of the Asian American population, with large enough numbers of the major national origin groups to make meaningful comparisons.

Q: Early in your book, you write that one of your goals was to help "inform public debate and news coverage of Asian Americans during the 2008 presidential election." In what ways does the media typically fail to accurately cover the political participation of Asian Americans? What misconceptions do you think your book clarifies thanks to the data you collected?

A: There are a lot of assumptions made in the news media about how Asian Americans vote, without any good survey data to provide support for anecdotal evidence. For instance, there was widespread speculation during the 2008 primaries that racial prejudice was a major factor that explained why Asian Americans voted in such low numbers for Obama during the primaries. We analyzed our survey data and found that racial considerations played a very minor role.

Our book also shows that, contrary to the fears of some commentators, the involvement of Asian Americans in home country politics is not a drag on their involvement in U.S. civic or political life. In fact, we find that people involved in their home countries are also more active in U.S. politics.

Q: Is it possible to study Asian Americans as a group, when, as you note in your book, this category includes such a diverse population? Can you cohesively study, say, Japanese-Americans in California and Asian Indians from New York City?

A: Given that Asian Americans are the most heavily immigrant group, it stands to reason that country-of-origin differences will be significant. Still, we were surprised to find how much commonality there is, especially on political and policy issues. Of course, Vietnamese Americans tend to differ from others in their partisan leanings (they favor Republicans over Democrats), but even for this group, you find high levels of support for universal health care--something they share with other Asian American voters. It is also important to note that, as the second generation grows older, national origin differences matter even less.

As for where people live, we find that it matters much less than we think. So, for instance, a lot is being made of immigrants moving to new destinations. While the local community may treat immigrants differently in these areas than in traditional gateways, we find very little difference in the political participation or political attitudes of those living in places like New York versus those living in, say, the Atlanta metro area.

Q: Your data contradicts or amends certain robust models of political behavior. For example, it's widely argued that those with more socioeconomic resources tend to have higher levels of political participation. But you say this correlation may not exist for Asian-Americans?

A: Well, socioeconomic resources do matter at the individual level, so even for Asian Americans, those with more education or higher incomes tend to participate more. Still, we are left with puzzles at the group level--Asian Americans as a group tend to have high levels of education, but low levels of political and civic participation. Much of this is because Asian immigrants (who are close to 80% of adult citizens in this population) have done most of their education outside the United States, and so the socialization into political participation isn't as strong for immigrants as it is for those born in the U.S. Also, Vietnamese Americans tend to score lowest on socioeconomic resources among the major Asian groups, but they tend to have high rates of political participation. So, with group-level comparisons, the resources model is severely limited in explaining participation.

Q: In Chapter 4, you and your co-authors look at party identification among Asian-Americans. How should we think about this issue, and why are the standard models not helpful?

A: You see some journalists that still hold on the mistaken belief that one-third of Asian Americans are Democrat, one-third are Republican, and one-third are Independent. We find that a majority of Asian Americans haven't made up their minds about the political parties, so this version of non-identification is very different from what you find among typical Independents, who know the parties all too well, and reject the ways that they structure issue choices.

Q: Asian-Americans only account for 5 percent of the U.S. population. Why do you think scholars and political parties should pay more attention to this group? What challenges will politicians face as they try to court these voters?

A: For scholars, the justification is easy. We know that the experiences and behavior of immigrants have prompted a re-examination of many standard models in the social sciences. Given that Asians are the racial group that is the most heavily immigrant, by a large margin when compared to even Latinos, it is imperative to have more studies of this group.

Asian Americans are also a rapidly growing and changing population. They were the fastest growing racial group between the 2000 and 2010 Census, and indications are that they will continue to grow in importance in the coming decades. They are already important in states like California and New Jersey, and in cities like New York and San Francisco.

At the same time, parties and interest groups are not doing as much as they should to reach out to these voters. We find that, even among super-participants who engage in a wide range of political activities, they are not getting contacted by politicians for campaign donations, votes, or volunteer efforts. The problem is even worse for occasional participants. Given the growth of the population, these missed opportunities could actually be costly for candidates, particularly in elections that are close.


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