Asian-American voters represent about 5 percent of the population, or about 15.4 million people, but their communities are scattered around the country and harbor deep cultural and geopolitical differences that bleed into their voting behavior and ensure that many remain independent, harder to court. Obama's Asian-American half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, represents yet another aspect of Obama's identity that makes him unique as a presidential candidate, although it has been underplayed amid the excitement surrounding his shot at becoming the first black president. Maya is one of the featured speakers at the Democratic National Convention.
Discussion of those ties has taken a back seat to the Obama campaign's efforts to win the Hispanic vote and his ability to rouse young and black voters. In spite of the drawn-out primary season, many voters have heard little about Obama's years in Jakarta – ” he lived there between 1967 and 1971, while his mother was married to Soetoro-Ng's father, an Indonesian businessman – ” or about his years in Hawaii, where Asian-Americans are a majority.
Soetoro-Ng and Obama have different fathers and the same mother. Her father is Indonesian, his is Kenyan. Her husband is Chinese-Canadian.
Watch a great video of Maya Soetoro-Ng
That cultural variety is among the reasons Asian-American and Pacific Islander voters have gotten less attention than other ethnic groups from the media – ” or even from the Obama campaign – ” during the primary season.
FYI – In 2004, 56 percent of Asian-Americans voted for Democrat John Kerry and 44 percent for President Bush, according to exit poll data.
Despite these barriers, said Gautam Dutta, executive director of the Asian American Action Fund, the UCLA analysis signals that Asian Americans can play a critical role in the 2008 presidential election, as they have in state contests.
In addition to helping Hillary Clinton in California, where 71 percent of Asian American voters, who represent an estimated 12 percent of the state's electorate, cast ballots for the former first lady, Asian Americans have played a pivotal role in other nationally significant contests. In 2006, for instance, 76 percent of Virginia's Asian American and Pacific Islander voters went for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jim Webb, Dutta said. Webb's win helped tip the balance in the Senate in favor of the Democrats.
“Without their votes, Senator Webb would not have pulled off his razor-thin, upset victory over former Senator George Allen, and the Democrats would not have retaken the United States Senate,” said Dutta, who represents a group that works to increase the number of Asian American elected officials. “Similarly, the Democratic presidential nominee cannot win the major battleground states without the Asian American vote.”
Alice Mong, executive director of Committee of 100, an influential Chinese American nonprofit organization, said the report reveals the impact Asian Americans can have on Election Day and how their electoral power has global implications.
“Although Asian Americans are only 5 percent of the population in the U.S., Asian Americans have links to more than 60 percent of the world's population through our ethnicity, culture and roots,” Mong said. “It is vital that we play our role and exercise our civic duty as Americans to become informed voters.”
Census numbers show their growing importance. The Asian-American population grew 3 percent between 2004 and 2005 – ” more than another other group. And the Census projects the population will grow 213 percent by 2050, to 33.4 million.
In some key states, their weight is already considerable. Besides Hawaii, where Asian-Americans are 57.5 percent of the population, and California, where they're 13.5 percent, Asians are 7.7 percent of New Jersey and Washington, and 7.2 percent of New York.