Among Latino and Asian American circles, Super Tuesday brought a sense of giddiness. Thanks to the central importance of California to the primary elections, here was a chance to not just be heard, but to be recognized as a voting bloc right up there with the privileged masses of Iowa or New Hampshire. Boy, did they make some noise.
In California, while Obama took a plurality of white voters (including white males) and the overwhelming majority of African American voters, Hillary won the popular vote by 8 points. So how did Hillary make her 10% margin of victory? A big part of the answer was in the Latino and Asian American votes. A CNN exit poll last night indicated that Latinos in California went for Hillary by a 2-1 margin, and Asian Americans went for her 3-1. Democratic polls showed Hillary winning Latinos by 3-1.
Soon we'll be hearing a number of crackpot theories as to why this was so. Are Latinos and Asian Americans in fact slightly more conservative on immigration issues than everyone previously thought? Ridiculous. Are Latinos and Asian Americans unwilling to bring themselves to vote for a Black man? Get out of here with that.
The reason Hillary won is because the Latino and Asian American votes remain emergent, not yet insurgent.
Emergent voting blocs respond to leaders in their community. If the candidate wins the leader, she wins her followers. Insurgent voting blocs instead respond to calls for change, and may focus more on single issues or agendas. If a candidate stakes out a good position, she captures the community. Hillary played the politics of emergence.
Early, she locked down important leaders in the Latino and Asian American communities. In Los Angeles, that meant securing Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's support, and the predominantly Latino unions that have supported him. She also landed the support of Fabian Nunez and Dolores Huerta. In San Francisco, that meant seizing on Mayor Gavin Newsom's popularity amongst Asian Americans. She also captured a who's who of Asian American elected officials starting with Controller John Chiang and moving on down. Just as important, Hillary's campaign locked up a huge number of the leading Latino and Asian American party operatives--the people who actually deliver the voters.
All of them--from Villaraigosa to the Asian American precinct captain--were responding to what might be called aspirational politics. The individuals become proxies for the community. You hear them say in their campaigns, "When I win, you win." Clinton's main advantage is that she has the access to power and the party structures that deliver promises to officials and operatives. Obama doesn't. Emergent politics favors individuals seeking power. Think of it this way: Hillary, the woman candidate, is bringing Latino and Asian American leaders into the old-boy's network.
These leaders, in turn, deliver votes via their community's structures of power: business groups, labor unions, voter groups, community organizations. Those groups tend to deliver an older voter who is already "in the game", who can directly benefit from the opening of the old-boy's network. "Experience" really is a cover for "access".
Latinos and Asian Americans in California are overwhelmingly Democratic, and will likely remain so for a very long time because of Reep immigration demagoguery. But they also tend to be more mainstream and conservative. Remember that, to the great embarrassment of many Asian Americans, it was the influential Chinese American Democratic Club in San Francisco that sponsored anti-affirmative attacks on the prestigious Lowell High School. It's also possible Obama's call for change is received differently even among dissatisfied immigrants. Who better understands the disruption and dislocation that change can bring?
And finally, one should never underestimate the ability of Democratic party operatives to screw up a good thing. Although Obama is from Hawai'i, has Asian family members, and is beloved there, his largely white campaign staff blew it big time early in the campaign last year. After circulating an anti-outsourcing memo to the media that called Hillary "the Democrat from Punjab", Obama was forced to apologize and distance himself from his staff. The episode barely rippled outside of the community, barely inside of the community, to be fair. But it had a number of Asian American political insiders and campaign donors bolting for Hillary's camp.
Emergent groups are highly sensitive to perceived snubs. The so-called 80-20 Initiative, an effort led by former Delaware lieutenant governor S.B. Woo (a Democrat) to unite 80% of the Asian American electorate "defeat Obama", began when Obama staffers answered a yes-no questionnaire with a "well, yes but..." on a question asking whether he'd promote affirmative action for Asian Americans. Hillary's campaign, with ample access to Latino and Asian American leaders, never made any of these mistakes.
So Hillary won by old party-style top-down appeals to Latinos and Asian Americans. Dems shouldn't rest thinking that this strategy will hold for long. Younger Latino and Asian American voters were energized by Obama, and formed a visible and crucial part of his GOTV ground troops. They had an impact. Roberto Lovato notes that Obama was able to bring down Hillary's overall 4-1 advantage among Latino voters to a 3-2 advantage by Super Tuesday. It could be argued that Obama's bottom-up machinery hasn't yet taken full advantage of the pent-up energy amongst young Brown and Yellow voters.
When that power is unleashed, it will be unpredictable. The 1.5 generation, young Latino and Asian Americans from the ages of 16-40 who were born elsewhere but raised multilingual and multicultural in the U.S., represents a massive demographic bulge in those communities only beginning to feel itself. Before long, they will turn their communities' emergent vote into an insurgent vote. And then the country will really discover not just the necessity of the Latino and Asian American vote, but what it is that they really want.
Jeff Chang writes on popular culture, politics, race, and music. He wrote a cover story on Barack Obama for Vibe Magazine. He is the author of Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of The Hip-Hop Generation, and editor of Total Chaos: The Art & Aesthetics of Hip-Hop. You can find him at: www.cantstopwontstop.com/blog
Follow Jeff Chang on Twitter: www.twitter.com/zentronix