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Awakening the Sleeping Giant: Campaign Strategies, Political Parties, and the Puzzle of Asian American Under-participation in Electoral Politics


Asian Americans' peculiar combination of high levels of socioeconomic attainment, high rates of citizenship acquisition, and low rates of voting defies conventional sociological theories of assimilation, which tend to view political integration as occurring in step with socioeconomic integration; and traditional political science theories of political engagement, which emphasize socioeconomic determinants of participation. It also complicates the position advanced by some social scientists that Asian Americans are "becoming white." Beyond the theoretical puzzle, low rates of electoral participation from one of the fastest-growing segments of the American population have sobering implications for the practice of democratic self-governance and the representativeness of public policies.

In this dissertation, I approach the puzzle of Asian American under-participation in electoral politics from a contextual perspective by investigating how different political contexts change the extent to which Asian Americans under-participate in the electoral process. I employ a multi-method research design, beginning with statistical analyses that identify the correlates of under-registration and under-voting among Asian American citizens. I find that it is at the registration stage where Asian American "exceptionalism" in the sense of an unusually large and unexplained degree of under-participation in electoral participation occurs. I then perform an in-depth comparison of two California counties that differ substantially in their magnitude of Asian American under-registration relative to whites, and in their values of the correlates.

I find that the incentives for electoral candidates and political parties to target Asian Americans for registration differ substantially between the two counties, and that the mobilization strategies that follow from those uneven incentives are what accounts for the difference between the counties in the degree of Asian American under-registration. I conclude that, when political agents are incentivized to target Asian Americans for mobilization, the gap in voter registration between socioeconomically comparable Asian and white American citizens is significantly reduced. The missing piece in the puzzle of Asian American under-participation in electoral politics is political mobilization.

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