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Asian Americans Are Often Invisible in Polling. That’s Changing.



When Dr. Michelle Au ran for State Senate in Georgia in 2020, an experienced political operative told her: “Don’t waste too much time talking to Asian voters. They don’t vote.”

That same year in Georgia, turnout among Asian American voters, who as a group rarely receive dedicated attention from politicians, nearly doubled, according to data from Georgia’s secretary of state. Dr. Au, a Democrat, became the first Asian American woman to be elected to the State Senate. Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state since Bill Clinton, in 1992.


“People really started to realize that there is a large and growing and quite powerful Asian electorate in Georgia, but one that people have, up until now, not been paying attention to at all because of this sensibility that the Asian population is too small to make a difference,” said Dr. Au, who is now serving in the state’s House of Representatives.



Pollsters face a population problem when gathering public opinion research on Asian Americans: They are the fastest-growing racial group in the country but still make up a relatively small share of the population, so it is rare for pollsters to reach enough respondents in a typical poll to warrant breaking the group’s responses out as a distinct category.


Asian American is itself a broad umbrella term used to describe people from multiple countries and vastly different cultures. Polling such a diverse group while accurately reflecting the difference in opinion within the community has traditionally been expensive.


Few pollsters have made this investment, leaving Asian Americans without a voice in public opinion polls, which are seen as a key part of the democratic process. Without survey data, there’s little information about what issues matter to Asian Americans.

“When you have communities that effectively have been under-voiced in that vehicle, then the fear is, of course, that has an impact on that community,” said David Dutwin, a senior vice president at NORC at the University of Chicago, a nonpartisan survey research organization with clients including The Associated Press.


A new project at NORC has established a survey panel made up of members of the A.A.P.I. community: Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. The initiative, called Amplify A.A.P.I., is hoping to provide a greater level of detail into a group that is growing by the year, making political parties and candidates take notice.

AAPI Data, a research organization that focuses on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, has started to use the panel to publish monthly surveys on political views, hate crimes, the economy and the Israel-Hamas war, often replicating questions asked in NORC’s surveys of the general population.


AAPI Data, one of the funders of the project, wants to bring Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders on an equal footing with other racial groups when it comes to the wealth of available survey data.


Comparing public opinion by race has been used to better understand American society for decades, according to Karthick Ramakrishnan, the founder and executive director of AAPI Data. As the demographic makeup of Asian Americans changes partly because of immigration, surveys help understand the evolving electorate.


“We cannot take it for granted that how we understood the population five years ago is the same as today,” Mr. Ramakrishnan said.


Why Asian Americans Are Often Invisible in Surveys

The difficulty of capturing the opinions of Asian Americans is in part because they make up a relatively small share of the American population, but there are other challenges that have driven up costs for efforts to be comprehensive and accurate.

A typical, high-quality national survey might interview 1,000 randomly selected Americans — a large enough sample to yield results with a margin of error of about plus or minus four percentage points among all Americans. This allows researchers to look specifically at views of groups like white, Black, Hispanic and young Americans with a larger, but still acceptable, margin of error.

But Asians are about 6 percent of the national population and make up an even smaller share of voters. This means that there will be too few Asian respondents in a similarly sized poll of the overall population to arrive at statistically meaningful conclusions about the community.


The smaller the survey sample, the higher the margin of error

As a result, many national surveys typically report three main race and ethnicity categories: white, Black and Hispanic. Asian Americans are folded into a catchall “other” category, along with Native Americans and others who don’t identify under the three big categories.


In order to report Asian Americans as their own group — and to allow research into subgroups of the community — pollsters typically rely on a strategy known as oversampling, in which they use various methods to reach more people in a group and then adjust their numbers in the overall poll so they are not overrepresented.

But oversamples can substantially increase the cost of a survey — sometimes doubling it or more.


Translations also drive up expenses. To ensure accurate representation of the community’s views, surveys need to be available in languages such as Mandarin, Korean and Vietnamese. Phone polls require interviewers who speak those languages, too.

With funding from multiple organizations, NORC picked up the seven-figure tab for the most expensive part of a survey: recruiting people to answer surveys every month. Questionnaires are being fielded in English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, and Korean. While participants are given the option to complete the survey over the phone, most choose to answer the questions online.


Instead of trying to create a new survey, organizations can use the NORC panel to field their own polls. Such surveys may provide the data that grass-roots groups say is crucial for Asian Americans to have their voices heard.


“There’s a lack of understanding of what A.A.P.I. voters want, what their policy positions are, what issues they care most deeply about,” said Lily Trieu, the executive director at Asian Texans for Justice, a nonprofit that serves the needs of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.


The organization received funding to conduct a poll in Texas in 2022 that included a large sample of Asian Americans. They used this survey data as evidence to make policy recommendations on topics including voting rights and education in the state’s 2023 legislative session.


“When you talk about polling data, because A.A.P.I. data is so limited, any level of data you can make available helps with the entire democratic process because it gives people a voice,” Ms. Trieu said.

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