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CEPEDA: The overlooked voting bloc: Asian Americans

CHICAGO — With less than a year until Election Day 2012, candidates for political office should be making sure they're not neglecting the most affluent, independent and now the fastest growing racial group of voters simply because they have routinely been overlooked in past elections.Pity the candidates and political parties who haven't yet figured out that Asian-Americans are coming into their own and that failing to acknowledge their rising political power may someday prove to be perilous.

Sure, some might scoff, there are only about 18.5 million Asian-Americans and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders living in the country. But they rival the much-larger Hispanic community, counted by the Census Bureau as an ethnic subgroup, in the rate of growth.

In 2007, the Asian community accounted for about 6 percent of business owners, almost on par with Hispanic and African-American entrepreneurs. They employed nearly 3 million Americans in 2007 and spent about $80 billion on payroll, more than businesses owned by any other racial group except for non-Hispanic whites.

As of 2009, Asian-American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders had about $509 billion worth of buying power, an 89 percent change from 2000.

Asian-Americans, in particular, are highly educated: 49 percent have attained a bachelor's degree or higher -- the greatest percentage of the entire U.S. population -- with whites trailing behind with only 31 percent college completion. This goes a long way to accounting for their household income, which like their educational attainment is tops among all U.S. residents -- about $13,000 more per household than whites.

Not only that, Asian-Americans and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders, with their relatively shorter time in the United States compared to other immigrants, are quick to engage in civic life.

"When I was growing up, it used to be that it wasn't until the second or third generation American-born Asians ran for office," Karen K. Narasaki, president and executive director of the Asian American Justice Center, told me. "Now in many cases Asians are running for office as (newly naturalized citizen) immigrants and they're winning.

"The interesting thing is that when Asian-American candidates run for office, the communities get really excited and involved, but that's not limited to Asian candidates. People saw what happened in Nevada, California, and Washington in 2010 -- Asians made the difference in major races there. (Sen. Harry) Reid in Nevada knew the impact Asian voters would have even before the census data came out. He did a lot of outreach, spent a lot of time meeting with our community, and it paid off -- almost 80 percent of the Asian community voted and, along with Latinos, we got him re-elected."

That's a particularly interesting aspect of the "Asian vote," since they are, as a recent statistical portrait called them, a "community of contrasts." In addition to their outsize educational and economic achievements, they have tended to lean Democratic simply because the Republican Party has largely ignored them, even though, as business owners, there is plenty of common ground with the GOP.

"Asian-Americans don't have solidarity with any party -- we are up for grabs because we tend to look more at individual candidates than party affiliation," said Narasaki. "Candidates would be surprised at how easy it is to reach out to us. Every town I've been to has an Asian ethnic press, and they get very excited when a candidate wants to speak to them."

It's true that they are small in number, but Asian-Americans have large, concentrated populations -- or the fastest growing populations -- in important battleground states such as Florida, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Multiple languages create some barriers to voting. Yet in counties with high concentrations of Asian voters in 11 states, including Michigan and Nevada, ballots are now being printed in Chinese, Korean, Tagalog and Vietnamese.

Study after study chronicles this community's hard-core commitment to voting. Although only 68 percent of the Asian-Americans old enough to vote are eligible, those registered voted at a rate of 86 percent. And, according to at least one study, they're the least likely to believe that their vote "wouldn't make a difference."

So speak your mind, hopefuls. Asian-American voters are ready to listen.

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.