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Asian Americans flex growing political muscles

When Hillary Clinton came to San Jose's Dynasty Restaurant for a $1,000-a-head dinner last summer, local activists saw it as a sign they had arrived.
By DPA | None, San Francisco
UPDATED ON FEB 08, 2008 03:43 PM IST

When Hillary Clinton came to San Jose's Dynasty Restaurant for a $1,000-a-head dinner last summer, local activists saw it as a sign they had arrived.

"This is a big step for us, a presidential candidate coming to the heart of the Vietnamese community," said Michael Luu, a community activist.

Fast-forward to the primary elections Tuesday and the fruits of that effort appear to have paid off handsomely for Clinton. The former first lady won California, the biggest prize of Super Tuesday thanks to her overwhelming support among Latino and Asian voters, who together make up more than a third of registered Democrats in the state.

Exit polls after the vote indicated Senator Clinton won 60 per cent of the Latino vote, and a disproportionate share - 70 percent - of Asian voters. Together with her impressive share among women voters, it was enough to beat her rival Senator Barack Obama, even though he won 73 percent of the black vote and had a seven-point lead among whites.

"Asians were a surprise," said Bruce Cain, director of the University of California's Washington Centre. "It's the first election we have seen where Asian voters were a big factor. They are about eight percent of the Democratic electorate.... The two major immigrant groups voted for Clinton as opposed to the candidate who has the immigrant background."

The results did not surprise Professor Don Nakanishi, director of the University of California Los Angeles Asian American Studies Centre, who has been tracking the rising political power of Asian-Americans since 1965, when there were only 1.5 million Asians in the country.

Now they number an estimated 14 million - with the vast majority concentrated in key, delegate-rich states.

"There are five million in California. New York is second and that also went to Clinton," Nakanishi said. "In the upcoming primaries there are also significant numbers in Texas, Maryland and Virginia."

Clinton and her husband have been adept at cultivating their ties with the Asian community since Bill Clinton occupied the White House from 1993-2001. Hillary Clinton also wrapped up important endorsements from Asian-American politicians, who campaigned for her enthusiastically, and ran effective ads in ethnic newspapers.

"Obama has a lot of catching up to do," Nakashini said.

"Asians tend to run to the mainstream in the voting population on the Democratic side. They tend to vote more for the traditional candidate, and Hillary is that more traditional candidate," said Jaime Regalado, a political science professor at California State University, Los Angeles.

With the Asian-American community becoming increasingly politically active, they are likely to prove a key constituency in the remaining primaries and in Nov 4 general elections, Nakanishi predicted. They will provide candidates not just with votes - Asian Americans are also renowned for their financial contributions.

It will also present a challenge for the Republican presidential candidate, as the Asian community is mainly Democratic.

"The emphasis on civil rights, their stronger views on race and immigration policies gives the Democrats an advantage," Nakanishi said.

It's not hopeless for Republicans however. "Asian-Americans are drawn to them because of their entrepreneurialism, and their belief that they have a stronger foreign (policy) and are more anti-communist," he said.

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