Republicans on Election Day had their best showing among Asian voters in decades, topping Democrats for the first time since the 1990s, according to exit polls that have analysts wondering if the GOP has found a way to make inroads with the fast-growing demographic.
The GOP won 50 percent of Asian voters compared to 49 percent for Democrats, according to the latest calculations — a stunning turnaround, given that they regularly get trounced by 20 points or more.
“Based on the exit polls, there is clearly a significant improvement,” said David Winston, a GOP pollster.
The last time Republicans cracked the 50 percent mark in exit polling was 1996, when Sen. Bob Dole won more Asian-Americans than President Clinton. The GOP’s worst showing in a presidential election was two years ago, when President Obama won 73 percent in his re-election bid.
In midterm elections, though, the GOP has shown steady gains, winning 34 percent in 2002, 37 percent in 2006 and 41 percent in 2010.
John McLaughlin, a GOP strategist, said part of the GOP’s performance among minority voters this year is likely tied to economic and foreign policy concerns, as well as general voter dissatisfaction with President Obama.
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“The clearest thing is that voters disapproved of the job that President Obama,” said Mr. McLaughlin. “If they disapproved of Obama, they voted 83-15 for Republicans. I think these folks were part of that trend, whether you are an Asian voter or a Hispanic voter. It is an opportunity for Republicans.”
But not everyone is convinced there’s been a major shift, and some analysts questioned the exit poll’s methodology, saying it didn’t sample enough Asians to get a clear picture.
Exit polls released Friday by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund found that Democrats still have a strong edge in party registration for Asian-Americans (59 percent Democrats vs. 26 percent for Republicans), and that Democratic candidates still won more Asian-American votes in tight races in states such as Virginia, Georgia and Michigan.
On Thursday, Asian American Decisions, a group dedicated to Asian-American political opinion research, released its own telephone poll taken on the eve of the election that predicted Asians would support Democrats by a 66 percent to 34 percent margin nationally. That poll found Asian voters approved of Mr. Obama by a 58-33 margin, and also supported Obamacare by a 52-37 percent margin.
But even that poll had warning signs for Democrats, as the Republican share of the Asian vote increased 7 percentage points since 2012, and the number of Asian Americans who identified as Republicans increased by 8 percentage points.
Taeku Lee, managing director of Asian Americans Decisions, said the jury is still on what can be read into the results of the 2014 election.
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“Asian-Americans might just be on the same national wave toward less Democratic voting,” he said. “It is also possible that, independent of the general mood of the country, the 20-year trend among Asian-Americans to become more and more Democratic with each election has slowed down and possibly reversed.”
Mr. Lee’s poll showed that Asian-Americans voters tend to be more liberal: There is broad support for affirmative action, raising the federal minimum wage and granting citizenship to illegal immigrants.
Mr. Lee, though, said the Asian-American vote is still up for grabs and said 40 percent of those surveyed didn’t identify with either Republicans or Democrats.
Asians don’t get as much attention as Hispanic or black voters because they make up a smaller portion of the electorate. The exit polls this year estimated they were 3 percent of voters. According to U.S. Census data, Asian-Americans represented 5.3 percent of the population overall in 2013, compared to 17.1 percent for Hispanics and 13.2 percent for blacks.
But in California Asians made up 11 percent of the vote — and Shawn Steel, a member of the Republican National Committee and former chairman of the California GOP, has long argued that the GOP could build a winning coalition in his state by winning them back to the Republicans.
Mr. Steel has pushed Republicans to recruit Asian candidates and he said that paid off this year. His wife, Michelle Steel, a Korean-American, cruised to victory in her race for a seat on the Orange County Board of Supervisors, while fellow Republicans Young Kim, also Korean-American; Ling-Ling Chang, a Taiwanese-American; and Janet Nguyen, Vietnamese-American, won seats in the state legislature.
“Direct personal engagement makes all the difference in the world,” Mr. Steel said, adding that the RNC is committed to engaging Asian voters on a year-round basis going forward. “The lessons learned in 2014 give hard evidence that the most flexible of all ethnic communities are Asian-Americans and [they] are the easiest to move toward Republican quality candidates.”