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.

Abstract: How do partisan context and political messaging shape the political participation of Puerto Ricans on the U.S. mainland? Puerto Ricans are the second-largest national origin group in the U.S. Latino community. They hold a distinctive position in American society, as citizens who are disenfranchised in national elections on the Puerto Rican island, but who become immediately eligible to vote if they move to the U.S. mainland. This paper explores how local partisan context and informational messaging influence the political behavior of Puerto Ricans on the U.S. mainland. First, using observational data from the 2016 CCES, we show that partisan context and socio-economic factors shape Puerto Ricans' political participation. Second, we conduct an experimental test of group-specific political mobilization messages on a nationally representative Internet panel of Puerto Ricans on the U.S. mainland (N = 430). The experiment tests the effects of positive and negative frames about the group’s (dis)enfranchisement in national elections on political participation and efficacy. While neither message increases intentions to vote, we find that a positive informational treatment mobilizes Puerto Ricans to participate in forms of non-electoral political activity and increases feelings of political efficacy. The results are particularly strong for Puerto Ricans who live in swing states, suggesting that the local political environment is also relevant to the mobilization of members of this distinctive ethnic constituency.

"Understanding Asian American Vote Choice: Evidence from National Surveys."

Abstract: What factors explain Asian American vote choice in national elections? Recent scholarship and exit polls suggest that Asian Americans are increasingly voting for Democrats in national elections (Kuo et al. 2016; NYT Exit Polls). However, to date, studies of Asian American partisan preferences tend to focus on only a few explanations at a time. This paper presents a comprehensive set of theories that could explain Asian American vote choice in the contemporary period, including demographics, group consciousness, immigrant socialization, policy preferences, and a novel theory of social transmission, and tests them using nationally representative survey data from the National Asian American Survey (2008 and 2016) and the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (2012 and 2016). I find that existing demographic and group consciousness-based models provide incomplete explanations for Asian American vote choice. In contrast, under-explored explanations, like local social context and policy preferences, emerge as strong predictors. Asian Americans are most likely to vote for Democrats when they live in (or move to) Democratic partisan communities and have liberal policy preferences. These findings provide suggestive evidence that Asian Americans develop partisan preferences partly based on the social transmission of political views within local communities.

"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.