Trump risks alienating Asian-Americans, a rising voting force

PHILADELPHIA — Stephanie Murphy's family escaped Vietnam on a boat, eventually making it to the United States with aid from an American Navy ship.

Now, the 37-year-old businesswoman and defense expert is running for a House seat in Florida as a Democrat. Murphy said she would be proud to become the first Vietnamese-American woman in Congress, but even prouder that her election would mark another step toward lawmakers reflecting the diversity of the U.S. population.

"I think whether it's in the halls of Congress or a boardroom, we need to reflect the diversity of this nation," Murphy told CNBC at the Democratic National Convention.

The American voting population is also slowly shifting to match the country's demographics. The Asian-American population has grown particularly fast, boosting its sway as a voting bloc. That growing demographic has shifted to the left in recent presidential elections and may stay there for the foreseeable future.

Asian-American Democratic officials see advantages to those trends in 2016, especially with Donald Trump as the Republican presidential nominee. His jabs at immigrants and pledge to discard the Affordable Care Act clash with the priorities of Asian-American voters as they become a larger part of the electorate, lawmakers said at the Democratic National Convention.

"We see a trend with Republicans where they've become more and more extreme and where there's increasingly xenophobic kind of rhetoric, and certainly that's exemplified in Trump," Rep. Judy Chu of California, chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, told CNBC.

But Republican Party spokesman Ninio Fetalvo said GOP efforts to actively engage Asian-American voters after the 2012 election have started to pay off.

Exit polls showed Asian-Americans were almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats in the 2014 midterms. However, it remains to be seen if those gains will hold up in the presidential election, where turnout is much higher.

Trump's rhetoric on immigrants will not hurt the GOP because he appeals to Asian-Americans on other issues like jobs and national security, Fetalvo said.

"I think it's really important to know this is why Asian-Americans are looking for change and looking to Donald Trump," he said. "I don't think you can necessarily say that immigration is an issue for all Asian-Americans across the country."

Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Chair, U.S. Representative Judy Chu (D-CA), speaks on the third day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, July 27, 2016.
Mike Segar | Reuters

The Asian-American population grew by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2010, the largest increase of any demographic group and more than four times that of the 9.7 percent growth in the broader population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Asian-Americans made up only 2.9 percent of voters in 2012, but that figure rose from 1.7 percent in 1996 and is expected to keep climbing, said Taeku Lee, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and an Asian-American politics expert.

Roughly three-fourths of Asian-American voters backed President Barack Obama's re-election in 2012, according to exit polls. That rose from about one-third who supported former President Bill Clinton in 1992.

Lee described the shift as a mix of "push and pull" from the two major American parties. The Democrats have backed policies like immigration reform, expanded health care access and affordable college and made visible appointments of Asian-Americans in key posts. Republicans have acted in ways that are "clearly unwelcoming" to Asian-Americans in those same policy areas, Lee said.

That allegiance shows in Congress. Thirteen Asian-American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), including nonvoting delegates, are members of Congress. A record 14 AAPI members served before Rep. Mark Takai of Hawaii died of pancreatic cancer last week.

All but one are Democrats, and Chu hopes three more, including Murphy, will get elected in November. As the Asian-American population gains more voting sway, Chu and other AAPI lawmakers believe Trump hurts the GOP with the demographic.

"Donald Trump makes racist statements, and when a candidates says a federal judge can't be fair because of his race, Asian-Americans notice that," Rep. Ted Lieu of California told CNBC. "If someone's racist, it's not just to one group, it's to every group. Many Asian-Americans immigrated here. They surely don't believe in building walls."

In fact, about 40 percent of registered Asian-American voters said they would not support a candidate whom they agreed with on some issues but had "strongly anti-immigrant views," according to an April poll by APIAVote and Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment on its efforts to engage with Asian-American voters.

Asian-Americans still face issues in mobilizing voters and making gains in Congress. The eligible voter participation rate is lower among Asian-Americans than among African-Americans and Latinos. Naturalization and voter registration, among other factors, pose barriers to some voters.

Chu also noted that the proportion of Asian-Americans in Congress is lower than the demographic's overall share of the U.S. population.

In remarks to the convention Wednesday, Chu endorsed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. She cited in part Clinton's support for access to translated and absentee ballots, as a majority of Asian Pacific American adults are foreign-born.

Berkeley's Lee noted that Republicans have made inroads with some voters on fiscal policy. Asian-American voters who made the budget deficit a priority in 2012 were roughly split on whether Obama or Mitt Romney would handle it better, he said.

Two Asian-American groups — Vietnamese and Filipinos — approach nearly split partisanship, Lee added. But Asian-American voters lean heavily Democratic in most battleground states.

A city councilwoman here, the most populous city in swing state Pennsylvania, said Asian-American issues reflect the broader problems in American urban centers. Councilwoman Helen Gym, a Democrat who has worked for community organization Asian Americans United for two decades, said profiling, immigration difficulty and economic inequality have hit Asian-Americans just like other minority groups.

She contended Republicans have failed to hit the "touchstone issues" in those communities.

Said Gym: "There is a very, very small and limited place for us within today's GOP. Whatever happened (at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland) does not reflect the values of a U.S. that's highly different."

UPDATED: This story was updated include include comments from the Republican party.