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Overlooked Asian-American Vote Could Factor in Nevada, Other Battleground States

July 31, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
As the fastest-growing minority in the country, could Asian-American voters make a difference in a close presidential election? In key battleground states like Nevada, where Asian-Americans are nearly 10 percent of the population, the campaigns are beginning to pay attention. Hari Sreenivasan reports.
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GWEN IFILL: Next to the presidential campaign.

Asian-Americans, the nation’s fastest-growing minority, surpassed Latinos last year as the largest group of new immigrants. And politicians are beginning to pay attention.

Hari Sreenivasan reports from the battleground state of Nevada.

WOMAN: Well, go ahead and fill it out.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Newly-minted citizen Genevieve Ackerman (ph) is registering to vote for the first time.

WOMAN: This is my first time being a U.S. citizen, so it’s exciting for me.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Ackerman lives in Clark County, Nev., where this year ballots and election materials will be available in Tagalog, her native Filipino language.

Filipinos are now the second largest minority group in the county, behind Latinos. Their numbers have passed the threshold required by the Voting Rights Act to have ballots printed in a language other than English.

Voter registration drives are happening at places like this ethnic grocery store in Las Vegas frequently, because Asians and Pacific Islanders make up 9.9 percent of the population in the county.

Amie Belmonte organized this registration event.

AMIE BELMONTE, organizer: I think, sometimes, they don’t understand the electoral process. They don’t want the candidates stand for. They don’t want to vote.

HARI SREENIVASAN: One challenge is the language barrier. It’s far easier for the presidential campaigns to produce ads in Spanish than to communicate with voters in a dozen or more Asian languages.

Between 2000 and 2010, the population of Asians in Nevada has more than doubled. Along with that population has come another Las Vegas strip. Along this four-mile stretch of Spring Mountain Road, there are Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, and other Asian businesses. And they’re all going after the Asian-American dream.

Hyung Lee has reached that dream. He immigrated to Las Vegas from South Korea 32 years ago and opened one liquor store.

So you own the travel agency, the water company, the food court and this entire mall?

MAN: Yes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: He is now one of the largest minority liquor retailers in the U.S. and is the godfather of an unofficial Korea Town. While Lee has supported Democratic candidates in the past, this time, he says his pro-business vote is squarely behind Mitt Romney.

MAN: I like Republican policies right now for supporting businesspeople. The last four years, a very tough time for some business here.

WOMAN: Here’s a little information on Mitt Romney. Are you a fan? Good.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The Romney campaign is trying to appeal to Asian small business owners’ concerns over the economy.

Swati Singh is the campaign’s Nevada coalitions director.

SWATI SINGH, Romney Campaign: With 11.6 percent unemployment here in Nevada, it’s very important to reach out to the Asian-American community and work with them and have them support Governor Romney, because he’s free market. He understands what the Asian-American community needs.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We caught up with Ms. Singh on board one of the Romney campaign buses which briefly came through town.

JON RALSTON, The Las Vegas Sun: Today, the Romney bus wooed Asian voters. Just by coincidence, a PBS NewsHour crew was in town researching a piece on the presidential campaigns’ outreach to Asian voters. Hmm.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Jon Ralston has been covering politics in Nevada for more than 25 years. And he says, in all that time, campaigns have not paid much attention to the Asian vote.

JON RALSTON: So, I think the focus has been on — of the two most obvious minorities here, the African-American community and especially the burgeoning Hispanic community, which has just exploded here. And Asian-Americans are not as well-organized.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This lack of organization leads to one of the lowest voter turnout rates of any minority group, a challenge Amie Belmonte faces as she tries to mobilize this community.

AMIE BELMONTE: In the Philippines, it’s corrupt and over here, it’s procedural. There is a protocol that you need to do. And so that’s quite intimidating for them, because they’re not used to that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Ralston says President Obama, who won two-thirds of the Asian vote nationwide in 2008, may have a slight edge in Nevada because of the work done by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s come-from-behind campaign in 2010.

JON RALSTON: He managed to get the endorsement of Manny Pacquiao, who is a very prominent Filipino boxer. And he was able, they believe, to bring votes to bear because of his prominence and almost status as an idol in the Filipino community.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Senator Reid still writes an occasional column for the Asian Journal newspaper. And, in 2008, Democratic supporters of President Obama were buying full-page ads in this paper, while the McCain campaign didn’t buy any.

MAN: My parents are so proud of the work that I’m doing for the campaign.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This year, the Obama campaign has launched an Asian-American and Pacific Islander, or AAPI, initiative online.

MAN: Asian-Americans will once again be an important part of the program here in Nevada.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And at call centers like this.

How long have you been at this, reaching out to Asian communities specifically here in Nevada?

YOLANDA LEONG, Obama supporter: I would say about a year-and-a-half now.

HARI SREENIVASAN: A year-and-a-half that you have been reaching out to fellow Asians in Nevada for Obama?

YOLANDA LEONG: Yes, absolutely.

Chinese-Hawaiian, that is my ethnic group. And I come from Hawaii. And so does our president.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Yolanda Leong and fellow Obama supporters hope to capitalize on the infrastructure Democrats have built here over the years.

JUAN SERAFICA, Obama supporter: At the end of the day, I would really like for the facts and the data to be able to say that Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders showed up to vote, and we made a difference in this election.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Hello, Nevada!

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

HARI SREENIVASAN: President Obama won Nevada by a wide margin in 2008, and Las Vegas was a Democratic stronghold. Mr. Obama has held the lead of a few points in every Nevada poll taken since last fall.

But both sides say they expect it to be close. Nevada isn’t the only battleground state where the Asian population has swelled. The 2010 census found higher-than-average growth over the past decade in Virginia, Florida, and North Carolina.

Asians tend to make up their minds late in the political process, says Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor at U.C. Riverside who studies race and politics and is co-author of the Asian American Survey.

KARTHICK RAMAKRISHNAN, University of California, Riverside: What we found last time was that about a month before Election Day, over 20 percent of the Asian-American population had not made up its mind. And that’s about triple the national average.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Ramakrishnan says, nationally, up to half of Asian voters have not decided on a political party.

KARTHICK RAMAKRISHNAN: Asian-Americans are a population that are very much up for grabs. So, you have a population that has relatively low party identification, has not heard enough about the different candidates.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Minddie Lloyd says she is on the fence and is surprised that campaigns have not been reaching out.

So, you don’t get phone calls?

MINDDIE LLOYD, Nev.: No.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You don’t get mailings?

MINDDIE LLOYD: No.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Nobody comes knocking on your door?

MINDDIE LLOYD: No. It’s surprising, right, that we’re not big — we’re not a big part of that national conversation to reach out to either presidential campaign. We are very educated. We focus on our kids, on going to high school, going to college, getting a degree.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Asian-Americans are on average more than educated than the rest of the country, according to a recent Pew Research Survey. Another undecided voter, Alan Dong, wonders why presidential campaigns don’t do more.

ALAN DONG, Nev.: When you have presidents and candidates shaking the hands of ironworkers, so why can’t you go to Chinatown or Korea Town and shake hands with people who don’t look like you and who actually can have an idea and have voting power?

Speaking from a Chinese-American standpoint, if you empower them, they will go out there, if you allow them — say, listen, back where you come from, there are no elections, now you have an election, you can make a difference.

HARI SREENIVASAN: An ideal and a responsibility that both presidential campaigns will have to sell if they hope to win the hearts, minds and votes of Asian-Americans in Nevada and beyond.

GWEN IFILL: You can go behind the scenes with Hari on his Nevada trip on our Politics page. And while you’re there, visit our 2012 Map Center for a county-by-county breakdown of the nation’s Asian-American population.