LAS VEGAS — Cynthia Ameli stopped her car, shocked at what she saw: A group of young Asian-Americans waving Obama campaign signs on the side of a Las Vegas thoroughfare.
A Chinese-American who grew up in Chicago, Ameli was used to African-Americans and Latinos organizing for candidates, but not members of her own ethnic community. Even more astounding to her were how those signs in late 2012 announced the support of a community that had rarely spoken out about its politics — “Asian American Pacific Islanders for Obama.” Ameli leapt out of her car and asked for a sign.
Now Ameli, a 57-year-old pharmacist, keeps a collection of Asian-American campaign placards and buttons at her house, including new ones from the Hillary Clinton campaign, for which she volunteers.
As Clinton and Bernie Sanders scrap for every vote before Saturday’s Nevada caucuses, they are competing for support among members of the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic group, one that both parties are trying to win over. Asian-Americans comprise 6 percent of the U.S. population and their numbers have increased 56 percent since 2000. In Nevada, Asian-Americans are 9 percent of the population.
Asian-Americans encompass a diverse range of people, among them recent Chinese immigrants, Muslims from Pakistan, Filipino-American Catholics and U.S. citizens from Hawaii. Campaigns are paying attention.
“It’s a fast-growing population, it’s young, people are getting engaged,” said Shu-Yen Wei, who spearheads Asian-American outreach for the Democratic National Committee. “That’s why people are interested.”
Since the 1990s, exit polls have found Asian-Americans voting increasingly Democratic during presidential elections, with 73 percent backing President Barack Obama in 2012. Analysts attributed that to the GOP’s criticism of illegal immigration.
But in the 2014 midterm elections, Asian voters appeared to split evenly between Democrats and Republicans. Their numbers are small enough so that it’s difficult to rely on polling to determine their leanings. Most, analysts agree, do not register with a political party, and they have among the lowest turnout rates of any group.
“There’s a huge, unaffiliated voting bloc of Asian Americans,” said Jason Chung, the Republican National Committee’s director of Asian Pacific American Initiatives. “We’re working hard to grow our party and include Asian-Americans in our political process.”
Nevada’s Asian-American population shows why it’s so hard to sum up the community’s politics — it ranges from dedicated union activists to anti-abortion rights Filipino-American churchgoers, sprinkled with so many who have relocated from Hawaii that Las Vegas is often called “the ninth island.”
A Las Vegas financial planner, Derek Uehara underscores that diversity. A registered Republican, he’s sympathetic to Donald Trump and thinks others may warm to the real estate developer’s businesslike approach. “That can appeal to the Asian-American community, if the focus is on hard work and getting things done,” Uehara said. “There’s a huge opportunity here, but no one knows how to tap into it.”
As Nevada’s caucuses draw closer there’s been a surge in activity aimed at attracting Asian voters. Chung flew to Las Vegas to hold caucus trainings. The Sanders campaign held a “multiethnic” meeting Sunday that included Asian-American community leaders. But all agree the Clinton campaign, with a robust staff in the state for months, has had the most sustained outreach with a series of Asian-American themed events: dinners celebrating a Filipino holiday, Asian-American-themed phone banks and canvasses, and more.
Clinton last month kicked off her national outreach to Asian-Americans with an event in Los Angeles’ heavily Asian eastern suburbs with Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan. At a recent caucus training for Asian-American Democrats in Las Vegas, the Clinton campaign’s national director of Asian-American and Pacific Islander outreach, Lisa Changaveja, mentioned that Clinton’s longtime aide Huma Abedin and campaign finance chairman Dennis Cheng are both Asian-American.
Changaveja argued that the former secretary of state was uniquely positioned to appeal to Asian-Americans. “She’s been in Thailand more than I have, and my mother lives in Thailand,” Changaveja quipped.
Ameli, the Clinton campaign volunteer, sees Clinton as a natural fit. “Asians are very family-oriented and want everything for their families, and I believe everything Hillary is for, is for our families,” she said.
At the caucus training in Las Vegas, the Sanders campaign countered with an organizer who played a song about the Vermont senator on his ukulele, and a casino worker who is saddled with student debt and enthusiastic about the senator’s free college plan. They contend Asian-Americans will embrace Sanders.
“Asian-Americans, as they’re getting to know Sanders, they’re gravitating toward the campaign,” said Zaffar Iqbal, a physician who lives in Las Vegas and was drawn to Sanders by his call for a government-financed health care system. “This community has pretty much the same issues as any other community.”
The attention is thrilling for a group often overshadowed by Latino and African-American voters. Normally in Nevada, Asian-Americans “are the last to get any benefit,” said longtime activist Rozita Lee, 81. “We matter now, because we have the numbers.”