05/21/2012 12:27 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2012

Courting Asian Voters

There has been considerable attention paid to the courting of Hispanic voters by Presidential and Congressional candidates. While the size of that ethnic group is growing and quickly becoming a major political force in some parts of the country, other ethnic groups are also increasing in size. In particular, the number of Asians in the country is on the rise. Will this group of voters be courted by candidates to the same extent as other constituencies? And if so, in which races will their voice be heard loudest?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the ethnic category of "Asian" refers to those people who have origins in the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian Subcontinent. Today, within that broad category, the largest three self-identified ethnicities in the U.S. are Chinese American, Filipino American, and Asian Indian American. The Asian population grew in all fifty states over the last ten years, four times faster than the U.S. population in general, and Asians now make up 5.6 percent of the 308 million U.S. population. While Asians live primarily in the West -- California has 5.5 million Asian residents and Asians make up over 50 percent of the population of Hawaii, actual population growth has been largest in the South, up 69 percent since 2000.

Most important for the current presidential campaign is that three of the top ten states in terms of Asian population are also swing states (Florida, Virginia, and Pennsylvania) and all three had more than 60 percent growth in Asian residents over the last ten years. Nevada, often up for grabs in presidential elections, has had triple digit growth in its Asian population (+116 percent), resulting in 9 percent of the state's population.

But as old saw goes: all politics is local. Asians are concentrated in some key parts of the country. For instance, Asians make up a quarter of the population in Enterprise, NV, resulting from a 100% increase since 2000. In tandem with major increases in Hispanics living in Nevada, the state was recently awarded a fourth Congressional seat. This raises interest in the House race for Nevada's 3rd district. The seat was held by Republican John Porter from 2003-2009 then Democrat Dina Titus for just the 111th Congress before Republican Joe Heck narrowly won the seat back for the GOP in 2010. George Bush carried the district in 2004, but Obama won it handily in 2008. Filipino Americans make up 108,000 of the area, possibly the reason why Congressman Heck sponsored the Filipino Veterans Fairness Act of 2011 to recognize the unacknowledged contributions of Filipino World War II vets. The district will hold a primary in early June, and the November election is likely to be as close as in 2010.

While Asians make up a smaller percentage of the overall population in Texas, there are over two million Asians living in Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown area, and 110,000 Vietnamese Americans alone. Houston produced the first Vietnamese-American member of Congress, Joseph Cao, who was elected in 2008 from a district in neighboring Louisiana. Recent redistricting has resulted in months of contentious debate surrounding how to draw the new Congressional borders to add four new seats. The Houston-area seat of Congressman Ron Paul is up for grabs between nine Republicans seeking their party's nomination and several Democrats. While Hispanic voters are the largest non-White voting group in many Texas districts, Asians may soon generate special interest in certain state elections. Texas primaries will be held at the end of this month.

One of the most intriguing races in 2012 is the new sixth district of New York. It is made up nearly 40 percent Asians, the largest ethnic group in the district ahead of whites and Hispanics. Since Congressman Gary Ackerman decided not to pursue this newly carved district, local Democrats have begun to rally around Assemblywoman Grace Meng. Meng, a Chinese American, would be first Asian American representing a district in New York. Dan Halloran, also a member of the City Council, is the leading Republican candidate. The primary will be held in June.

What remains to be seen is exactly how Asian voters will participate in campaigns and elections in the 2012 and beyond? Research suggests that Asians have voted at lower rates than their socio-economic counterparts in other ethnicities. Will this low participation trend continue as the concentration of Asians in some districts increases beyond single digits, their votes are courted more intently by political parties, and candidates from the community, like Grace Meng, run for office?

Interest groups representing Hispanic Americans -- MALDEF and the National Council of La Raza to name just two -- have successfully fought many legislative efforts to redraw state political boundaries that would potentially violate the federal Voting Rights Act. In Texas, advocacy in the state legislature and the courts has resulted in the creation of several majority-minority Congressional districts that will greatly expand future Hispanic representation in Washington. Will Asian-American advocacy groups pursue a similar path in the future to enhance the voice of their community in state and national political affairs?

Note: Data for this article were drawn from the March 2012 U.S. Census publication, The Asian Population 2010.