CA’s Ethnic Vote in 2010: Powerful Yet Unpredictable

CA’s Ethnic Vote in 2010: Powerful Yet Unpredictable

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If Barbara Boxer holds onto her U.S. Senate seat this November, it will likely be thanks to the state’s growing numbers of Asian, Latino and black voters. But the same voters could also doom the initiative to legalize marijuana.

California’s ethnic voter might well be the state’s new kingmaker. But it’s no monolith. A recent multilingual Field Poll suggests that when it comes to hot-button social issues, age might trump ethnicity.

Kenny Phan is a 23-year-old Vietnamese-American college student, a nursing major in Westminster. He’s thinking about voting for Carly Fiorina, the Republican candidate for senator. But he also supports same-sex marriage. “I dislike it myself,” Phan says. “But people have their own rights.”

Jeannie Kang, a 26-year-old Korean-American attorney in Los Angeles, is considering voting for Republican Meg Whitman for governor. But Kang supports legalizing marijuana. “I don’t smoke pot, but come on—everyone can get it anyway,” she says. “So why not just regulate it?”

On the other hand, there is Ruth Brooks, 62, a childcare provider in Inglewood. The African American has been a loyal Democrat all her life. She intends to vote for Jerry Brown because, she says, “we’ve already got one Republican messing things up in Sacramento, and my job is one of the ones he wants to cut.” But when it comes to same-sex marriage, Brooks is equally adamant. “I do not believe in it,” she says firmly. “God didn’t intend men to marry men.”

Phan and Kang are, in many ways, bucking their own ethnic group, says Mark DiCamillo the Field Poll’s director. Unlike Kang, 72 percent of Korean Americans oppose legalizing marijuana. In contrast to Phan, 64 percent of Vietnamese-American voters disapprove of same-sex marriage.

“It’s as if the ethnic voter under 40 is siding more with their own generational colleagues, their own cohort, on these issues, rather than their parents and the cultures in which they have been raised,” DiCamillo says.

David Lee, executive director of the Chinese American Voter Education Committee, is not surprised. “Age is one of the most powerful indicators of political perspective,” says Lee, who also teaches political science at San Francisco State University. The generational split, he says, tends to be widest over social issues.

“Issues like abortion, women’s rights, defined the ’80s and ’90s but are no longer as polarizing,” he says. “In many ways, gay marriage has replaced abortion as the hot-button issue.”

Some 71 percent of California voters are pro-choice, according to the Field Poll, and that includes majorities within every ethnic group.

The generational divide and ethnic mix are helping upend political stereotypes in California. According to the Field Poll, non-Hispanic whites are narrowly supporting Republicans Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina for governor and senator, respectively. But that same group also supports same-sex marriage (53 percent) and opposes suspending the state’s landmark greenhouse gas–emissions laws (51 percent).

Ethnic voters, meanwhile, are still largely behind the Democratic candidates for governor and senator, but are much softer in their support for the greenhouse-gas laws and much more staunchly opposed to same-sex marriage.

Apart from African Americans, who solidly support Democrats, the ethnic vote could well be up for grabs. More Asians register as Democrats than Republicans, but “party identification for the Asian community has always been soft,” David Lee says. For example, 49 percent of Chinese Americans describe themselves as nonpartisan or “other.”

The Latino vote had been more reliably Democratic, especially after former Gov. Pete Wilson pushed through Proposition 187 — which sought to bar illegal immigrants from using health care, public education, and other social services— in 1994. (The law was later ruled unconstitutional.) Pundits said that measure had cost the GOP Latino support for generations.

But DiCamillo says his data suggests Whitman’s Spanish-language ad blitz is bearing fruit. She is only 11 points behind former Gov. Jerry Brown among Latino voters, even though Wilson is her campaign chair. “Jerry Brown is well known to older voters, but younger voters— and that includes many ethnic voters—really have no idea who [he] is,” DiCamillo says. Only 28% of white voters are under 40 compared to 55% of Latinos. “Meg Whitman has been first in the door (to Latinos) introducing herself with feel-good ads,” DiCamillo says.

This PR barrage has been working for Chelsea Blackburn. The 26-year-old irrigation analyst from Bakersfield says she does not know much about Brown, who has had stints as governor (1975-83), Oakland mayor (1998-2006), and now attorney general. “But I like that Whitman is opposed to the Arizona law, because I don’t believe in racial profiling,” says Blackburn, who is of Latino heritage but prefers to be called “just American.”

Ethnic voters like Blackburn could be Brown’s downfall if he does not enter the fray before they make up their minds. During the past 20 years, California’s registered voters have increased by 3.5 million; 90 percent of that increase has come from ethnic voters.

The huge boom in ethnic voters has made California politics a lot more unpredictable. For example, on illegal immigration, most ethnic groups other than Latinos show considerable support for Arizona’s new law, SB1070.

The Field poll found that 53 percent of African Americans support the law, as do 61 percent of Vietnamese Americans. If California as a whole seems more evenly split on the issue, it’s only because Latinos at 71 percent overwhelmingly oppose the law. That in itself, DiCamillo says, points to the power of the ethnic vote. “But it also means that in the future, some form of Arizona’s immigration law will appear on the California ballot and it will be hugely polarizing,” he predicts.

For those who fear this means California is doomed to a fractious and fractured political future, there is hope. Californians are still capable of arriving at a consensus. Arnold Schwarzenegger strove to be California’s first post-partisan governor, someone who could unite Californians of all shades and political stripes. According to the Field Poll, he has succeeded, though not in the way he intended. Republican or Democrat, Latino or Asian, young or old, Californians across the board are unified in giving him a 22 percent approval rating, tied with Gray Davis as the lowest of any governor in the Field Poll’s history.

The Field Poll interviewed 1,390 registered voters by telephone from June 22-July 5. It was conducted in English and five languages–Vietnamese, Spanish, Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese. The survey was done in partnership with New America Media, which provided supplemental funding through grants from the James Irvine Foundation, the PG&E Foundation, the Blue Shield of California Foundation and the San Francisco Foundation

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