Opinion

Republicans can win over Asian voters, if they try

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Opinion,Op-Eds

In the wake of Mitt Romney's narrow loss to President Obama, much has been said about improving Republican outreach to Hispanic voters. While that is true and necessary, there is another neglected voter demographic with whom the GOP can make more immediate and significant headway: Asian-Pacific Islanders.

In a national election decided by 4 points or less, tiny pools of voters are crucial. Asians are America's fastest-growing immigrant community, and Asian voters constitute 2 percent to 7 percent of registered voters in half of the traditional 10 swing states. This isn't exactly classified information, yet Team Romney seemed oblivious to it.

Shared conservative values make Asians the best potential citizens for rapid integration into Republican Party. For example:

» Economic achievement makes Asians the immigrant group most rapidly assimilated into the middle class in U.S. history.

» Asian-Americans enjoy longer marriages and have fewer children out of wedlock, and their families are more intact than the general population's.

» First-generation Asian-American voters generally distrust government due to experience in their homelands, where bribery was the local currency for getting permits and permission. Generally speaking, they frown on government regulation of their businesses.

The GOP is the middle-class party, and Asians would feel more welcome if properly engaged.

Meg Whitman's failed and spectacularly expensive gubernatorial campaign is a dramatic example of the negative consequences of ignoring the API vote, which is 10 to 12 percent of the California electorate. Yet Whitman's consultant did no outreach beyond token, last-minute appeals to this vital, sophisticated community. A fraction of the tens of millions of dollars she spent would have bought Whitman a massive presence in the state's Asian media, which includes hundreds of dailies and weeklies, scores of API radio programs and dozens of TV stations. (Korean soap operas, anyone?)

Yet Whitman's advisers were largely blind to this cost-effective means for communicate with 12 percent of California voters, and she finished with just 37 percent of the API vote.

Several Whitman campaign consultants landed with the Romney campaign, bringing this blind spot to an otherwise data-driven campaign. Not surprisingly, the results were similar: Seventy percent of Asian voters went for Obama, despite Romney having sufficient resources for targeted outreach that would have increased his API vote share.

That isn't speculation. I worked with consultant Stephen Fong on a modestly funded pro-Romney outreach campaign to the 7 percent of Nevada voters who are Asian-Pacific Islanders. In October, we produced two mailings to every registered Republican and independent Asian voter and retained former California Assemblyman Van Tran's group to call API voters in four languages (Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and Tagalog) up to five times, including on Election Day.

The results were measurable and impressive. According to exit polls, 45 percent of Asian-Pacific Islander voters in Nevada chose Romney -- a stark contrast to the 30 percent the GOP nominee averaged elsewhere.

Although Obama won Nevada, as he did in 2008, the lesson should be obvious:

» The Republican National Committee and state Republican parties, rather than actual and potential candidates, should be the ones organizing effective outreach to Asian-Americans;

» Communicate with the API media, and invite them to all Republican functions. You be surprised how rarely Republicans do this, in contrast to the Democrats.

» Nurture. Reach out to Asian-Americans who are registered Republicans but elected to nonpartisan offices. Fete them at party conventions and events. Talk to them. They serve as our messengers into their communities. Democrats are comfortable doing this; Republicans are not.

» Promote potential API leaders within the conservative Republican movement. Republicans can't wait for them to knock on our door. We must proactively recruit good prospects.

While Republicans are still in the postelection, lesson-learning mode, one crucial takeaway is that 2012 must be the last election in which Asian-Pacific Islander voters were not included in coalition.

Shawn Steel is California's National Republican Committeeman, and a former chairman of the California Republican Party.

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