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 75% voted for Obama in 2012, and between 65% and 79% voted for Clinton in 2016, compared to only 31% in 1992 (Roper Center). This strong contemporary preference for Democrats amongst Asian Americans is a puzzle in view of the fact that many are of high socioeconomic status, come from countries with a communist history, or identify as Evangelical Christians – traits that typically correlate with Republican vote choice (Cain et al. 1991; Murray 2012; Wong 2015). 

Why do Asian Americans, voters with some Republican predispositions, vote against those predispositions, for Democrats? And does that vote translate into stable identification with a party? More generally, how do Asian Americans develop attitudes about the political parties? In my dissertation I seek to answer these questions. I consider existing theories and develop a new theory, of what I label “social transmission,” grounded in peer influence. My theory of social transmission predicts that Asian Americans develop partisan preferences through the diffusion of the political views of their peers. This theoretical perspective is motivated by the fact that traditional theories of familial socialization are a poor fit for immigrant households, in which, extant research has shown, American politics is rarely discussed.

I test these theories using a variety of empirical data and methods, including qualitative interviews with Asian American residents of Houston, Texas, national political surveys, a longitudinal survey of college students, and an original social media experiment. The observational analyses show that independent of individual-level partisanship, local political context is a large and significant predictor of vote choice. My interviews explore the mechanism behind this effect, finding that 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, making them open to the political influence of friends. In the remaining chapters, I test the theory of the social transmission in causally-identified contexts, using a two-wave panel survey of Asian American college students, and an experimental design simulating online political discussions between Asian Americans and their actual friends.

As the American electorate becomes more diverse, many standard assumptions about the dynamics of political socialization no longer apply. This work contributes a novel explanation for the political socialization of new immigrant constituencies.

Peer-Reviewed Publications

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

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.

Working Papers


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

"Cues that Matter: Informational Messaging, Political Environments, and Puerto Rican Political Participation." with Andrew Proctor. (Under review).

Abstract: What motivates Puerto Ricans on the U.S. mainland to participate in politics? Puerto Ricans, the second-largest ethnic group in the U.S. Latino community, hold a distinctive position in American society. They are U.S. citizens who are disenfranchised in national elections on the Puerto Rican island, but become immediately eligible to vote on the U.S. mainland. This paper presents a theory of Puerto Rican group consciousness, built around their unequal citizenship status and disenfranchisement on the island. We test whether this distinctive form of group consciousness influences the political behavior of Puerto Ricans who live on the mainland, across different partisan contexts. Using observational data, we establish that receiving campaign messages and partisan context are associated with mainland Puerto Ricans’ political participation. As a causal test of our theory, we conduct a survey experiment, testing positive and negative campaign messages that prime this form of group consciousness on the political participation of Puerto Ricans on the mainland. These messages convey the enfranchised status of Puerto Ricans on the U.S. mainland (positive) and their disenfranchised status on the island (negative). While neither message increases intentions to vote, the positive treatment increases intentions to participate in non-electoral political activities and political efficacy. The results are particularly strong for Puerto Ricans who live in swing states, suggesting that partisan context is relevant to their political mobilization.

"Socializing Democrats: Examining Asian American Vote Choice with National Surveys."

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 some Republican predispositions? Existing tests of their partisan preferences have resulted in mixed findings. This paper presents a novel theory of social transmission to explain the partisan preferences of immigrant constituencies like Asian Americans. The theory predicts that in the absence of strong parental political socialization, Asian Americans develop partisan preferences through the diffusion of political views from peers within local contexts. I test this theory as an explanation for Democratic vote choice within the Asian American community and comparatively, in contrast to whites. The within-group analysis uses data from the National Asian American Survey (2008; 2016) and the comparative analysis uses data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (2016). In support of a theory of social transmission, local partisan context emerges as a strong predictor of vote choice in both analyses. These results hold across various tests for self-selection and when accounting for several alternative explanations including socioeconomic status, religion, group consciousness, discrimination, and national origin.

"The College Experience and Asian American Political Socialization."

Abstract: How do Asian Americans, a predominantly immigrant constituency, develop political preferences and habits of political participation? Traditional theories of “inter-generational” transmission are unlikely to apply to Asian Americans, who are often the first generation of their families in the US. To the extent that Asian Americans represent a gap in familial theories of partisan socialization, alternative accounts, such as experiences in schools, professional settings, neighborhoods, and friendship networks, must be considered. I develop and test one such account, focusing on the effects of experiences with diversity on political outcomes. College is an ideal social environment for testing theories about political socialization that are grounded in social experience because it is a diverse and immersive setting in which students live, work, and socialize. Using a unique longitudinal dataset of over 14,000 Asian American college students interviewed in their freshman and senior years, I analyze the effects of contextual and personal experiences with diversity on Asian American students’ (1) political ideology, (2) policy preferences, and (3) habits of political participation. While I find that racial context on campus has limited effects, personal social interactions with other Asian and non-Asian students make Asian American students more likely to have liberal ideological preferences and policy views. Social interactions with other Asian students also increase political participation.