Dissertation Project

The New Democrats: On the Social Roots of Asian American Partisan Political Behavior

Exit poll data from the  Roper Center

Exit poll data from the Roper Center

Asian Americans are increasingly voting for Democrats in national elections. For example, exit polls report that approximately 73% voted for Obama in 2012, and between 65% and 79% voted for Clinton in 2016 (Roper Center). This strong contemporary preference for Democrats among Asian Americans is a puzzle in view of the fact that many are of high socioeconomic status, immigrated from countries with a communist or authoritarian history, or identify as Evangelical – traits that typically correlate with Republican vote choice (Cain et al. 1991; Murray 2012; Wong 2015). 

Why do Asian Americans support Democrats, despite these conservative predispositions? More generally, how do Asian Americans develop partisan preferences? I seek to answer these questions in my dissertation. I consider existing theories and advance a new “theory of social transmission,” grounded in peer influence. My theory predicts that in the absence of strong parental political socialization, Asian Americans develop partisan preferences through the diffusion of political views from peers in local contexts. This theoretical perspective is motivated by the fact that standard theories of familial socialization do not explain partisan acquisition in immigrant households, in which American politics is rarely discussed. I test these theories using national surveys, qualitative interviews, a large longitudinal dataset of college students, and an original experiment.

Analyses of national surveys in the first chapter show that local political context is a moderately-sized predictor of vote choice among Asian Americans. Accounting for local partisan context also reduces the partisan gap in vote choice between Asian Americans and whites by about 25%. These effect hold after controlling for alternative explanations and across several tests for selection effects.

In the second chapter, qualitative interviews with Asian Americans in Houston, Texas explore the mechanism behind this effect. I find that Houston-area Asian Americans develop Democratic preferences through the diffusion of partisan attitudes within peer networks. While the first-generation discusses politics within immigrant communities, their children grow up without much political conversation at home, making them open to the political influence of peers in schools and college.

In the third chapter, I use a large panel dataset of college students to test whether Asian Americans develop partisan views through peer influence. I find that interactions with peers of a different race and participation in social activities with racial minorities have moderately-sized liberalizing effects on senior-year political views. These results control for freshman-year views and are larger for Asian American than white students.

The final chapter presents the results of an experiment, which provides a direct causal test of social transmission. In the experiment, I exposed Asian American and white college students to pro-Democratic social media posts, randomly varying whether the partisan message was contained in a news headline (control) or in an identical headline alongside comments attributed to some of their actual friends (treatment). Relative to posts with partisan messages in headlines, I find that posts with partisan messages attributed to friends have mostly null effects. However moderately-sized effects emerge for some partisan outcomes. Most notably, treatment posts increased perceptions that Democrats are inclusive among Asian Americans and decreased ratings of Republicans among whites.

As the American electorate becomes more diverse, many standard assumptions about the dynamics of political socialization no longer apply. This research develops a novel explanation for immigrant political socialization and finds that it contributes to partisan acquisition among Asian Americans.


Peer-Reviewed Publications

Raychaudhuri, Tanika. 2018. "The Social Roots of Asian American Partisan Attitudes." Politics, Groups, and Identities 6(3): 389-410.

Link to Publisher's version

Abstract: An important question in the study of Asian American political behavior is why members of this group, who have some Republican predispositions, are strong Democratic supporters. How do Asian Americans develop preferences for the Democratic Party? This paper considers this question through a theory-building case study of political socialization in Houston, Texas, a mixed-partisan area where many Asian Americans support Democrats. Using qualitative interviews and supplemental survey data, I examine voting behavior and partisan identification, developing a socially-based explanation for high levels of Democratic support. I argue that Asian Americans develop Democratic preferences through interactions within peer groups. These peer groups vary in composition by generational status, leading to different reasons for Democratic support across generations. I find that first-generation Asian Americans primarily interact with fellow Asian immigrants. Relative to their children’s generation, they develop positive attitudes about conservative ideology but vote for Democrats because they perceive contemporary Republicans as ideologically extreme. In contrast, transitional-generation and second-generation Asian Americans have racially diverse peer groups. Rarely discussing politics at home, they develop pro-Democratic attitudes through interactions with liberal friends in educational settings.


Selected Working Papers

"Socializing Democrats: Examining Asian American Vote Choice with a National Surves." (Invited to revise and resubmit).

Abstract: Asian Americans are increasingly voting for Democrats in national elections. High levels of Democratic vote choice among Asian Americans are notable given that many have high incomes, immigrated from authoritarian countries, or are Evangelical Christians. Why do Asian Americans support Democrats despite these conservative predispositions? I develop a novel theory of social transmission to explain Democratic support among Asian Americans. This theory predicts that Asian Americans, who receive limited partisan socialization through the family, develop partisan preferences through the diffusion of political views within local contexts. This process leads to Democratic support because Asian Americans tend to settle in liberal areas. I test this theory as an explanation for Asian American vote choice using data from the 2008 National Asian American Survey (NAAS). In support of the theory, local partisan context emerges as a moderately-sized predictor of vote choice. Some measures of social integration into local communities heighten the effects of partisan context on vote choice. The results hold across various tests for self-selection and after accounting for several alternative explanations including socioeconomic status, religion, consciousness, discrimination, and national origin.

"(Dis)Enfranchised Citizens: Informational Messaging and Puerto Rican Political Participation." with Andrew Proctor. (Invited to revise and resubmit).

Abstract: Puerto Ricans are a growing population on the U.S. mainland. They hold a distinctive position in the hierarchy of American citizenship, as they are disenfranchised in national elections on the island, but immediately become eligible to vote if they move to the mainland. How can Puerto Ricans on the U.S. mainland be mobilized to participate in politics? In this paper, we explore whether campaign contact increases Puerto Rican political participation. Using observational data, we establish that receiving campaign messages is associated with mainland Puerto Ricans’ political participation. We also conduct a survey experiment, testing the mobilizing effects of positive and negative campaign messages that prime Puerto Ricans to think about their group’s distinctive political experiences. These messages convey the enfranchised status of Puerto Ricans on the U.S. mainland and their disenfranchised status on the island. While neither message increases intentions to vote, the positive treatment increases intentions to participate in non-electoral political activities and political efficacy relative to a pure control. The treatment effects are particularly strong for those who live in swing states and vary across levels of linked fate with Puerto Ricans.

"When poor students attend a rich school: Do affluent environments increase or decrease participation?" with Tali Mendelberg, Vittorio Merola, and Adam Thal. (Under review).

Abstract: College is a key pathway to political participation, and lower-income individuals especially stand to benefit from it given their lower political participation. However, rising inequality makes college disproportionately more accessible to higher-income students, creating many predominantly-affluent campuses. Do low-income students gain a participatory boost from attending college? How does the prevalence of affluent students on campus affect this gain Predominantly-affluent campuses may create participatory norms that elevate low-income students’ participation. Alternatively, they may create affluence-centered social norms that marginalize these students, depressing their participation. Using a large panel survey (201,011 students), controls on many characteristics, and tests for selection effects, we find that predominantly-affluent campuses increase political participation to a similar extent for all income groups, thus failing to close the gap. We test psychological, academic, social, political, financial, and institutional mechanisms for the effects. The results carry implications for the self-reinforcing link between inequality and civic institutions.

"The College Experience and Asian American Political Socialization."

Abstract: Asian Americans, the fastest growing immigrant group in the United States, are increasingly voting for Democrats in national elections. Since standard theories of familial transmission do not explain political socialization within immigrant constituencies, I develop a new explanation called the theory of social transmission. The theory predicts that in the absence of strong parental socialization, Asian Americans develop political orientations through the diffusion of political views from peers. I test this theory on Asian American college students. College is an ideal environment for testing theories of political socialization grounded in peer influence because it is a diverse and immersive setting in which students live, work, and socialize. Using a longitudinal survey of 8,052 Asian American and 151,268 white college students as a comparison group, I analyze the effects of peer influence on senior-year political views and participation. I find that entering college with a liberal freshman cohort, interacting with peers of a different race, and participating in group activities with racial minorities have moderately-sized liberalizing effects on the senior-year political ideology and policy views. In some cases, these experiences increase voting and campaigning. While these effects hold across racial groups, the liberalizing effects of cohort ideology and interactions with students of a different race are larger among Asian Americans. These results control for freshman-year views and hold across tests for self-selection and endogeniety. The findings have implications for the political behavior of Asian Americans who come of age in the United States, offering evidence that they develop liberal political preferences through peer influence in college.