Hmong Americans are up for grabs in the 2020 presidential election

BY YANG SAO XIONG

As Asian Americans gear up for what some anticipate will be one of the most consequential, most contentious presidential elections in U.S. history this November, it is important to consider which individuals within the Asian American electorate are most up for grabs.

Surprisingly, Hmong Americans are a group that stand out in terms of fitting this category. Of the Hmong respondents surveyed in the 2016 Post-Election National Asian American Survey (NAAS), a majority (80%) rejected both the Democratic and Republican labels, choosing instead to identify as either Independent, or to say they “don’t know,” or “do not think of themselves in terms of political parties.”[1] What characteristics are associated with Hmong Americans who do not identify with either major political party? What might account for Hmong Americans’ relative lack of political affiliation and how might this matter in November?

Although all Hmong American eligible voters are potentially up for grabs, let us focus on the category of Hmong American adults who are U.S. citizens and identify as other than Democrat or Republican. For simplicity, this category is referred to as “Nonpartisan Hmong Americans” or NPHAs. A majority (56%) of NPHAs are male; 46% are between 18 and 35 years old and 54% are 35 or older. Forty-seven percent are married. The education backgrounds of the NPHAs are quite diverse. In terms of educational attainment, 30% of NPHAS had completed no schooling; 18% had completed some schooling but not a high school or GED degree; 13% had completed high school; 25% had completed some college; 10% had completed a college or BA degree; and 6% had completed a graduate or professional degree.

Most NPHAs are foreign born (75% were born outside of the U.S.) Eighty-two percent of NPHAs identify with a religious affiliation. Among the religiously affiliated, about 65% identify themselves as non-Christian and 35% identify themselves as Christian.

Nonpartisan Hmong Americans reported distinct opinions from the general U.S. population with regard to major political figures and social movements, as shown in Table 1. More NPHAs (41%) held unfavorable views toward Trump compared to NPHAs who favored him (28%). More NPHAs held favorable views toward Clinton (51%) than disfavored her (20%). The vast majority (81%) of NPHAs held favorable views toward Obama. Overall, NPHAs tended to view the Black Lives and DREAMER movements more favorably than the Tea Party movement. That said, there is a sizeable group reporting “no opinion” toward major political figures and issues.

Somewhat consistent with the data presented in Table 1, the NAAS shows that during the November 2016 presidential election, 68% of Nonpartisan Hmong Americans who were registered voters voted for Clinton while 26% of them voted for Trump, and 6% of them voted for some other candidate. Does this mean we can count on NPHAs to be more liberal when it comes to voting? Not necessarily.

Data from the 2016 Post-Election NAAS reveal that 74% of Hmong American registered voters voted for Hilary Clinton, while 21% of voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.[2] This result might lead to the assumptions that Hmong Americans’ political party identification corresponds with their voting choice, or that one of the major political parties has done a better job than the other at recruiting Hmong American voters. Evidence from the 2016 Post-Election NAAS reveals a much more complicated story, suggesting that perhaps neither of these assumptions holds true.

Political Party Identification and Presidential Vote Choice

Hmong Americans’ presidential vote choices do not seem to correspond tightly with their political party identification. Although 93% of Hmong American Democrats voted for Clinton, only 31% of Hmong American Republicans voted for Trump. Sixty-six percent of Hmong American Republicans voted for the Democrat, Clinton. Further, the distribution of partisan identities indicated by each major party candidate reveals some interesting patterns.

87% of Hmong Americans who voted for Trump identified as Independent/Other (while only 9% of those who voted for him identified as Republican and 4% identified as Democrats).  About 64% of Hmong Americans who voted for Clinton identified as Independent/Other (while 31% identified as Democrat and 6% identified as Republican). These data suggest, once again, that nonpartisan Hmong Americans are the group most likely up for grabs.

Contact by Partisan and Nonpartisan Groups

Given that a clear majority (74%) of Hmong American registered voters supported Clinton, could this mean that the Democrats have done a better job at reaching out to Hmong American voters? The 2016 Post-Election NAAS provides us with some clues. Hmong Americans were less likely to be contacted by a political party compared to Asian Americans as a whole and most other Asian American subgroups (17% for Hmong Americans vs. 29% for Asian Americans). There is a slight difference between Hmong American Democrats and Hmong American Republicans in terms of contact by a political party: 33% of the former and 22% of the latter reported being contacted. Note that data were not collected on which party contacted these individuals.

Compared to Hmong Americans as a group, nonpartisan Hmong Americans reported an even lower level of contact by the two major political parties: only 13% of NPHAs had been contacted by a political party. Only 6% of NPHAs, 13% of Hmong American Democrats, and 9% of Hmong American Republicans had been contacted by a nonpartisan organization.  Lack of identification with a major party is associated with less, not more, mobilization.

Implications

Hmong Americans have one of the highest rates of U.S. citizenship among Asian Americans. Of the 310,000 Hmong Americans in the U.S., 92% are U.S. citizens.[3] Additionally, the proportion of Hmong Americans who are eligible to vote is significant (45%). Given the many serious issues that are at stake in the 2020 election, it is important that Hmong Americans who are eligible to vote do register, become informed about the candidates and issues, and exercise their voting rights. It is equally important that parties and organizations reach out to the large and diverse group of Hmong American adults who do not identify with either of the two major political parties. Choosing to be nonpartisan has not meant that Hmong Americans lack political preference or that they are apolitical.

One primary explanation for the high levels of non-partisanship observed among Hmong Americans is very low outreach by partisan and nonpartisan organizations to Hmong American communities. The available evidence (more than 80% of non-partisan Hmong Americans do not report contacted by either of the two major political parties), suggests that neither political party made concerted efforts to target this group in 2016. Lack of mobilization to this group is especially surprising given that Minnesota, sometimes considered a Presidential Battleground state, is a major population center for Hmong Americans.[4]Although there may be sporadic, local efforts to reach out to Hmong Americans, there certainly has not been any recent national effort to actively mobilize the Hmong American electorate. Where does this leave us?

This leaves Hmong Americans with the burden of mobilizing themselves to engage with the political system. As such, grassroots organizing is crucial. Community-based organizations with political experience and sufficient discretionary resources to mobilize Hmong Americans will play very important roles in this effort.

Since the U.S. Secret War in Laos in the early 1960s, Hmong have had an asymmetric relationship with the U.S. government. Besides causing unimaginable loss of life, the Secret War caused more than two hundred thousand Laotians, including over 100,000 Hmong, to become displaced refugees outside of Laos. After their arrival to the U.S., Hmong’s asymmetric relationship with the U.S. has fluctuated from time to time depending on changes in U.S. bilateral and multilateral trade and political relations. As international political contexts changed over time, Hmong former refugees and their U.S.-born children have, at times, been treated as U.S. allies, but at other times, as aliens ineligible for public benefits, as second class citizens, as perpetual foreigners or, even worse, as terrorists.  With the exception of providing eligible permanent legal residents with time-limited public benefits, the federal government has seldom actively supported Hmong Americans with the opportunities and economic resources they need to meaningfully participate in the political process. It was not until 2000-2001 that eligible Hmong veterans of the U.S. Secret War—veterans who are still not recognized as veterans—were given limited accommodations to become naturalized U.S. citizens. Hmong American-led organizations or associations that have the potential to develop Hmong’s political capacity to influence the political system are often under-funded or seriously under-funded, if they receive public funding at all. Anecdotal evidence suggests that well-qualified Hmong American political actors who seek meaningful involvement in the political process by, for example, participating in local electoral campaigns and seeking partisan support from one major party or another, have sometimes been disappointed by the exclusionary, if not also racist practices of some members of the inner circles of established political parties. That Hmong Americans have the burden of democratic integration carries forward a past injustice.

 


[1] In this paper, calculations are based on the weighted sample of Hmong American adults from the 2016 Post-Election National Asian American Survey. The actual number of Hmong American adults interviewed in this survey was 351 (see Ramakrishnan, Wong, Lee, and Lee 2017). As discussed here, political party identification (variable pid4) includes “leaners”—those who initially did not identify with a party but said they felt closer to a party after being prompted. Ramakrishnan et al. 2017, in their report, list Hmong Americans’ party identification as 19% Democrat, 11% Republican, and 70% Independent/Other. See p. 16 of http://naasurvey.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/NAAS16-post-election-report.pdf. The discrepancy between my results and those reported in Ramakrishnan et al. 2007 are likely due to data cleaning that took place before the data were publicly available. Note that my analysis of the 2016 Post-Election NAAS data agrees with the figures listed for Hmong American party identification at the following AAPI website as, 15% Democrat, 6% Republican and 80% Independent/Other: http://facts.aapidata.com/nationaldata/

[2] Ramakrishnan, Karthick, Janelle Wong, Jennifer Lee, and Taeku Lee. 2007. “2016 Post-Election National Asian American Survey.” Available at: http://naasurvey.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/NAAS16-post-election-report.pdf

[3] U.S. Census Bureau, 2017 American Community Survey. Since 1990, the percentage of Hmong American eligible voters (18 years and older with U.S. citizenship) has increased significantly: from 13% in 1990 to 45% in 2010.