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Survey of Hmong voters shows strong Democratic support, shifting demographics

By Marisa Helms | Monday, Nov. 3, 2008
A new survey of Minnesota’s Hmong voters shows a majority identify themselves as Democrats.

A new survey of Minnesota’s Hmong voters shows a majority identify themselves as Democrats. It also indicates strong Hmong support for Barack Obama’s presidential bid, and some advantage for Al Franken with Hmong voters in the U.S. Senate race.

The study of Hmong party affiliation is considered the first of its kind in Minnesota, if not nationally.

The survey was conducted by Pakou Hang, a Hmong-American political scientist and one-time candidate for St. Paul City Council. Hang’s survey was co-sponsored by TakeAction Minnesota, a progressive advocacy group, with a grant from the University of Minnesota Graduate School. Hang says she partnered with TakeAction because they have had a Hmong organizing program since 2001 and has the most accurate database of Hmong voters in the state. (Take Action’s organizing work qualifies for a 501c-3 nonprofit designation and is nonpartisan by law.)

Hang and volunteers gathered data for the survey by telephone from 124 Hmong voters throughout Minnesota over two nights in mid-October, just after the Wall Street bailout.

The Hmong survey also looked at the geographic makeup of Minnesota’s Hmong community and found a major shift of residents moving to the suburbs.

Hmong movement to surburbs strong
The 2000 U.S. Census reported that about 95 percent of the state’s approximately 43,000 Hmong residents — 41,000 — lived in the Twin Cities, primarily in St. Paul. So, Hang was surprised that her survey found that the number of Hmong living in the two cities has dropped to 52 percent, with the number of Hmong suburbanites shooting up to 41 percent. About 7 percent live in rural Minnesota.

(By the way, many in the Hmong community believe the census undercounted their numbers and that their population is closer to 70,000.)

The survey found that 57 percent of Hmong voters identify themselves as Democrats, with 4 percent considering themselves Republican. Thirty percent said they “didn’t know,” and 9 percent chose “Other.”

In the presidential race, 65 percent of respondents favor Obama, with 4 percent choosing McCain. Twenty-six percent didn’t want to say who they’re voting for, and 5 percent were undecided.

Because of the small sample, the survey has a relatively high margin of error of 8.64 percent for the Obama figure and 8.71 percent for Franken, with smaller margins for the other candidates, with 95 percent confidence in the results.

Hang, who is a Democrat, said she’s not surprised by the findings because she has known anecdotally for years that the Hmong tend to vote Democratic. She and others say the DFL Party has traditionally done more outreach with the Hmong, who came here as refugees. Also, the majority of Hmong still live in the core cities, which are longtime DFL strongholds.

“The ramification of that investment is that more people identify with the Democratic platform,” says Hang, who is working on her doctorate in political science at the University of Minnesota. “Culturally, the Hmong are clan-based, family-oriented. And as immigrants, there’s a strong emphasis on education. Those values tend to align with Democratic policies, whether that’s more loans or opportunities for low-income or working-class families, or more policies favorable to Medical Assistance.”

Hang says Hmong who identify themselves as Republicans tend to be military veterans, small-business owners and suburbanites.

Franken support weaker than Obama’s
The survey also shows 34 percent of likely Hmong voters would vote for Franken in his U.S. Senate race against Republican incumbent Norm Coleman, who received support from 16 percent of respondents. Half of the respondents said they were still undecided.

“It’s an interesting spread between who’ll vote for Obama versus Franken,” says Hang. “If I were the Franken campaign, I’d be a little worried. Ideally, Franken, as the Democratic candidate, should be matching the Democratic presidential candidate.”

The falloff in Franken support among Democrats matches the pattern that has shown up in the general population in most state polls. Hang says the low numbers for Franken among the Hmong could be based in the community simply not knowing much about who he is.

During a recent interview about Hmong political activism and voter trends, state Sen. Mee Moua, a St. Paul DFLer who is Hmong, mentioned Franken when offering an example of how she advises candidates to cultivate a strong and early relationship with the Hmong community.

“I’ve said this to my friend Al Franken,” says Moua. “You don’t show up three days before the election and say, ‘Hi, vote for me, I’m Al Franken.’ People can’t pronounce your name. You have to be there six months before that and say, ‘I’m Al, I’m Al, I’m Al,’ so they know how to spell A-L. And when they get in the voting booth, they may not be able to find Franken, but they know how to find Al.”

Moua is referring in part to the fact that many Hmong voters — mostly, older residents — cannot read English or even Hmong.

Political scientist Hang cites another example of how a lack of literacy plays into the choices Hmong voters tend to make on Election Day.

Hang says when elders in the survey were asked whom they are supporting for president, many did not call Obama by name, but rather responded: “the black candidate.”

“When they go to polls, they may not be able to pronounce Republican or Democrat, but they want to vote for the ‘black guy,’ ” says Hang. “In the mainstream media, race is such a contentious issue and the variable we can’t predict for. So I find it interesting that Obama’s race makes him more identifiable for Hmong voters.”

Hang says many of the older voters she surveyed said they wanted to become citizens so they could vote, a right they never really had before they came to America.

“Being people who were really marginalized in Laos, the United States offers them a unique opportunity to exercise their political consciousness and political preferences in ways they have never been able to do in the history of Hmong people,” says Hang. “That’s not only a unique, but a poignant, part of our history.”

Clear generational divide
Hang, 32, says the Hmong-Americans who came to the United States when they were very young, like she did, are awakening to their political power. Most Hmong live with their parents and grandparents well into their 30s, and Hang says her generation is straddling the world of their immigrant parents and the world their own children will live in.

“For my cohorts, we have jobs, we have our own homes. Many of us have our own families,” says Hang. “In light of this election, it is a real coming of age for the Hmong community. It makes sense for us to become politically active now.”

Moua, 39, won election as the first Hmong legislator in the country in 2002 in part because of the loyal support of her community. She says Hmong who lived outside of her district would come to volunteer for her campaign. Today, she says, Hmong-Americans are increasingly becoming a valuable voting bloc.

“I can’t tell you how exciting it is to be part of a community that is so fiercely political in how they behave and how they think,” says Moua.

But the interest and determination Moua and others see in Hmong adults and elders are not typically found with younger Hmong, ages 18 to 24.

Amee Xiong, an organizer with TakeAction Minnesota’s Hmong program, says when she door-knocks and speaks to the younger generation, they don’t seem to want to get involved in the election at all.

“Some excuses we’ve heard are that they’re busy or they don’t … believe in the candidates or just that they don’t feel they have any role in it,” says Xiong.

Hang says young people’s lackluster interest is evidence of how fast the Hmong have acculturated.

“Our parents have an immigrant mentality,” says Hang. “But young people have socialized and acculturated into mainstream society. Politically, they act more like young mainstream Americans than immigrants.”

In addition to calculating party and candidate preferences, the Hmong study surveyed voters about their top concerns.

Respondents were allowed to choose up to three issues. Hang was not able to rank all categories by percentage but says a strong majority (which she estimates at more than 65 percent) said their top concern was the economy and jobs. Those surveyed also listed health care, education and issues specific to the Hmong community (including immigration and the desecration of Hmong graves in Thailand) as top concerns.

From an elections perspective, the changing residency patterns are interesting , Hang says, “because suburbs have become battlegrounds in local, state and national elections. That means Hmong voters can have even more impact because more of them are living in these battleground areas.”

The secretary of state’s office does not trace the ethnicity of voters, but according to TakeAction Minnesota’s Hmong Organizing Program, just more than one-third (13,000) of Minnesota’s estimated 35,000 eligible Hmong voters are registered for Tuesday’s election. The group registered an additional 964 Hmong voters in August and September. The organization’s goal is to turn out 10,000 Hmong voters on Tuesday.

Marisa Helms can be reached at mhelms [at] minnpost [dot] com.