By Janelle Wong, Senior Researcher, AAPI Data

With just under 11 months until the next U.S. presidential election, some campaigns are taking note of the fastest growing segment of the electorate — Asian Americans. In a polarized election landscape, growing numbers of Asian American represent potential new voters for campaigns to add to their coalitions. Yet, too often the approach used to mobilize and recruit Asian American voters is rooted in stereotypes, not data.

One of these stereotypes is the Model Minority Myth, based on the idea that Asian Americans are preoccupied with educational attainment. The way this plays out politically is the assumption that the best way to appeal to Asian American voters is to emphasize education policies. 

The Model Minority Myth is problematic because it does not consider selective immigration policies in shaping the current educational profile of Asian Americans as a group, instead attributing high-levels of educational achievement to abstract cultural traits. It also fails to acknowledge the barriers that some segments of the Asian American community face when it comes to education. And by suggesting that all it takes to overcome systemic inequalities is to adopt the cultural values of Asian Americans, it is used to deny the effects of two centuries of enslavement and contemporary anti-Black racism. 

The Model Minority Myth is also problematic as a political strategy. When candidates and campaigns fall into the trap of the Model Minority Myth, they assume education is the number one political priority for Asian Americans. 

Hilary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign illustrates the way these stereotypes feed into outreach strategies designed to win over Asian Americans. As she kicked off her campaign at a major event with an Asian American audience she sought to win them over with an appeal to “improve access to higher education.” Perhaps this approach reflects the media’s preoccupation with Asian Americans and affirmative action policies in higher education in the run-up to the high-profile case decided by the Supreme Court in the summer of 2023. Attention to Asian Americans, college admissions, and education reveals ignorance about the broader issues Asian Americans say they care about as we head into election season. 

A new poll from AAPI Data and AP-NORC on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders’ (AAPIs) top priorities in the coming year underscores the need for campaigns and candidates to break free from narrow ideas about what matters most to AAPI voters. AAPIs who participated in the poll were asked to name up to five issues that they wanted the government to address in 2024. These were open-ended responses, including in Asian languages that were translated to English, and then recoded to produce quantitative measures of frequency and priority.

Bar graph chart of public opinion data comparing top policy priorities for 2024 between AAPI adults versus U.S. adults, illustrating "inflation" as the top policy priority for AAPI adults, with 31% indicating that as a top priority.

“Inflation” was the most commonly raised concern, mentioned by 31% of AAPI adults. The next top concerns were immigration (29%) the environment and climate change (25%), general economic concerns (24%), and health care reform (23%). Education was not even in the top five issues, even though respondents had multiple opportunities to select it. It is worth noting, contrary to prevailing stereotypes, Asian Americans are no more likely to mention education as a top issue than Americans in general. Not that Asian Americans don’t care about education — it’s just not what distinguishes them. Other groups care about education, too. And, it is important to note that the Model Minority Stereotype is less often applied to Pacific Islander communities, who are subject to pernicious stereotypes tied to U.S. and European colonial powers in the Pacific. 

There are two lessons to draw from this data. First, AAPIs are “environmental voters” and “health care voters.” In fact, as the chart above shows, Asian Americans are slightly more likely to mention the environment/climate change and health care as top concerns than Americans in general. This is no surprise to those who follow Asian American public opinion. The second lesson here is that to better understand AAPI political priorities, we need to rely on data, not stereotypes. To connect with AAPI voters, campaigns and candidates should not put all their eggs in the education basket, but invest in a deeper understanding of our communities.


Methodology:

The nationwide study was conducted by The AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and AAPI Data from November 6–15, 2023, using the Amplify AAPI Monthly survey drawing from NORC’s Amplify AAPI® Panel designed to be representative of the U.S. Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander household population. Online and telephone interviews were offered in English, the Chinese dialects of Mandarin and Cantonese, Vietnamese, and Korean with 1,115 Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islanders aged 18 and older living in the United States. The margin of sampling error is +/- 4.4 percentage points. 

More information about the AAPI Data / AP-NORC survey series can be found at https://apnorc.org/topics/aapi-data/