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
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
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
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.
Emergent groups are highly sensitive to perceived snubs. The so-called
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.
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