Dissecting the Filipino Vote in the Historic 2008 Elections
By Gus Mercado
Obama wins the Filipino vote with last-hour shift of undecided voters
A pre-election survey of 840 active Filipino community leaders in America showed a strong shift of undecided registered voters
towards the Obama camp in the last several weeks before the elections that gave Senator Barack Obama of Illinois a decisive 58-42
percent share of the Filipino vote.
The survey was conducted by phone, email and personal conversations with community leaders from two party-neutral national
Filipino federations: the National Federation of Filipino-American Associations (NaFFAA) (which recently attended a national conference
in Seattle, Washington) and the business-oriented Federation of Philippine-American Chambers of Commerce (FPACC). Survey was
also conducted community leaders in L.A., the city with the largest concentration of Filipinos in the U.S. with almost a million Filipino
residents, and with Texas community leaders from Dallas, Houston, Tyler, McAllen and Austin, who were gathered at a fund-raiser for
Hurricane Ike victims one day before the November 4 elections.
In validating the survey, it is important to note that California is a strong bastion of the Democratic Party, while Texas has traditionally
voted Republican since the Lyndon Johnson era. In the Tuesday elections, Sen. Barack Obama won California by a large 61-37 percent
margin, while Senator McCain won Texas by a 55-44 percent margin.
The pre-election survey showed that 36 percent of Filipino leaders favored Obama while 30 percent aligned with McCain and a large
34 percent were still undecided a few weeks before the November 4 elections. Of the undecided, a large segment avidly supported Sen.
Hillary Clinton who lost the primary battle to Sen. Obama. Some described themselves as party independents. Many sat on the fence for
a long time, but in the end, more than two-thirds of the undecided and independent voters veered towards Obama and less than one-
third went for McCain.
The Filipino vote compares to how the other minority groups voted as follows: Obama won 96 percent of the African-American vote
(as expected), 67 percent of the Latino group and 63 percent of the Asian vote.
Mirroring national trends, Filipino voters were influenced by economic factors such as family income, jobs, housing and health care
— referred to as “pocketbook issues” — closely followed by issues that are important to Filipinos: immigration and veterans’ issues,
national security and the Iraq War. While national security and the Iraq War were top issues among Fil-Am voters in the 2004 presidential
elections when compared to economic issues, they were bottom dwellers in the 2008 elections, closely following the concerns of
mainstream stream voters. Pocketbook issues trumped fear, war and foreign relations issues in the November 4 elections by a wide
There is one caveat to the sampling methodology used in the survey. Being community leaders, professionals and business owners
who can afford to attend national conferences, the respondents are presumed to belong to more prominent, upper-middle income
segments of the Filipino population. Hence, the “pocketbook issues” did not resonate as heavily among the Filipino voters surveyed as
they did with the mainstream American voters who seemed to have cast their vote as a strong repudiation of the “failed economic
policies” of the Bush administration and the Republican Party. Many closely associated John McCain with the present administration and
heeded the Democrats’ warning that a vote for McCain is a vote for continuing the policies of President George W. Bush, a president
ending his term with the lowest popularity rating among U.S. presidents in modern history. The housing crisis, the stock market
meltdown that caused the erosion of people’s savings, the disastrous Iraq War and the burgeoning deficits and looming recession that
all happened during the past eight years of Republican rule all contributed to the Republicans’ defeat. The race factor was insignificant.
While a small number said they were not voting for Obama because of his race, about the same number said they could relate positively
to Senator Obama’s early years growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia.
Although most of the Filipino respondents were presumably financially independent upper-middle class citizens, there is reason to
believe that their political sentiments fairly represented those of other Filipinos. There are also strong indications that if the Filipino
“working class” members such as the school teachers in the border states, health care givers in rural America and casino dealers and
hotel workers in Nevada were surveyed, the support of the “pocketbook issues” favoring the Democratic platform would be even more
pronounced. It must also be noted that the Filipino youth vote represented in the survey came from the youth leaders at the NaFFAA
conference only, and there is strong evidence from Filipino youth emails and Internet blogs that first-time Filipino voters overwhelmingly
supported Sen. Obama. He won 68 percent of all voters in the 18-29 age groups. Therefore, if the survey had included a greater number
of Filipino youth voters and the Filipino “working class” sectors which would be ideal but logistically unfeasible, Sen. Obama’s margin of
victory among Filipino voters would have been larger than the 58 percent that our survey indicated.
Overall, the Filipinos who voted in this historic election that catapulted the first African American to President of the most powerful
nation on earth, agreed with the mainstream Americans who saw in Obama their best hope to change their lives for the better. They
believed that Obama had the best chance and the best abilities to rebuild an American economy that has grown dangerously unstable.
They also believed that Obama was the best choice to rebuild the American position and image in the world, to restore our ties with
traditional allies and to end the disastrous Iraq war. They felt confident that with his extraordinary ability to reach out to people from all
walks of life, regardless of social stature and color of skin, the newly-elected President could emerge as a strong, vibrant, fresh and
charismatic leader who will inspire the people and change the course of the nation.
What an Obama Presidency means for Filipinos
This crucial question of how the Obama victory will benefit Filipinos and Filipino-Americans has not been clearly answered to the
satisfaction of those who voted for him and those who did not. By contrast, Sen. Hillary Clinton enjoyed a huge following among Filipinos
in America, partly due to her personal closeness to Filipino leaders and her straightforward and clear-cut commitment to supporting
issues that are near and dear to Filipinos. As proof positive of this special care and attention to the needs of Filipinos, Clinton was the
only one among the four senators vying for the presidency who suspended her campaign in the vote-critical Pennsylvania primary to
return to Washington to vote for the all-important Senate Bill 1315 that approved equity pension benefits for our hapless Filipino WWII
veterans. In Texas, Sen. Clinton had a much stronger support among Filipinos, Asians and Hispanics. It was widely felt by the non-Black
minority communities that she had a slightly stronger chance of winning the red state of Texas if she had won the nomination.
To his credit, President-elect Barrack Obama released his blueprint for “The Change We Need for Asian Americans and Pacific
Islanders,” a comprehensive planning document that identifies the issues affecting the AAPI community and describes Sen. Obama’s
plans to address those issues.
In the blueprint, Sen. Obama declared, “By reaching out directly to the AAPI communities, we can ensure that AAPIs are well
represented in this national dialogue about our future and the movement to write our destiny. The story of the AAPI communities is
quintessential to the American story about drawing strength from our diversity to achieve extraordinary things. I will be a president who
remembers that our separate struggles are really one. I will never walk away from the tough battles or the difficult work of bringing
The blueprint addresses a wide range of issues critical to Asian Americans, including the more than three million Filipinos now living
in the U.S. These issues include economic opportunity, education, immigration, health care, home ownership, seniors, women, civil
rights, foreign policy, veterans and faith.
Through his staff in Washington D.C., Sen. Obama has given verbal assurances to Filipino leaders that he would support our WWII
veterans’ claims for equity benefits, as well as an all-encompassing and comprehensive immigration reform.
For the next four years, three million Filipinos in America will put their interests and aspirations in the hands of a few young Filipino
leaders who actively worked on the Obama campaign led by AAPI Democratic Youth Leader Charlene Manansala, who will most likely be
appointed to an important position in the White House. Hopefully, this group of young Filipinos will proudly carry the banner of Filipino
Americans on their tender shoulders and speak for us and articulate our goals clearly and effectively.
A Victory for FilVote and AAPI
A recent article in Asian Journal gave an in-depth analysis of the voting history of Filipinos and Asian Americans in America. As the
second largest Asian ethnic group in the U.S., Filipino Americans represent a significant demographic that has become a most
important target for ethnic and mainstream marketers. In political mainstream, however, Fil-Am participation has been lacking.
Newly-elected National Chair of the National Federation of Filipino-American Associations (NaFFAA) Greg Macabenta explained in
lucid terms the critical need for Filipino political empowerment: “Major events are occurring and laws are being passed that affect the
interests of Filipino-Americans, such as those on immigration, affirmative action and social services. But our community is simply being
swept by the tides of change and circumstance. We are not playing a significant role in shaping these events and enacting these laws,
despite the fact that we make up one of the largest Asian ethnic group in this country. We have not struggled hard enough for
empowerment. This is our challenge.”
“We can gain political empowerment – but we must use Voting Power and we must be willing to accept trade-offs among ourselves,”
`To harness the Fil-Am voting power, Asian and Filipino organizations have formed programs and campaigns to push for FilVote – a
non-partisan voter engagement project aimed to unite Fil-Ams across ideological, religious and class differences toward gaining
genuine political power in the U.S.
According to the Asian Journal article, the Filipino American Service Group Inc. (FASGI) initiated the FilVote campaign in 1996, after an
L.A. Times article wrote about the happy lives of Fil-Ams in the U.S. but criticized their lack of united voice and political empowerment.
“Almost three-quarters of those Filipinos surveyed said they did not belong to a Filipino political organization,” according to the L.A.
Times story “Filipinos Happy with Life in the U.S. but lack United Voice.”
Through the combined efforts of FASGI, NaFFAA and ABS-CBN’s Balitang America, that story has changed since 1996. FilVote
campaigns in the last several years have resulted in the registration of thousands of new Filipino American voters.
In the 2004 presidential elections, only 594,000 Filipino-Americans voted – a decline of 7 percent because 122,000 registered voters
did not cast their ballots. “Potentially, there are 715,000 Filipino-Americans, or 40 percent of our total number, who can be mobilized to
go to the polls,” says Gloria Caoile, co-chair of FilVote. “But we need to register them and educate them on issues that directly affect our
community so they will appreciate what’s at stake, especially for our children and families.”
Based on the enthusiastic response of Fil-Ams nationwide to the FilVote campaign this year, it is safe to assume that new voters
from the Fil-Am communities have followed the national trend of an unprecedented surge of new voter interest that contributed to the
record voter turnout in the November 4 polls.
For the rest of the Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), the APIA Vote, a national nonprofit organization of Asian-Americans
have organized with different Asian American groups nationwide to register as many members and inform them about the significance of
their vote. There are nearly 15 million AAPIs nationwide. During the 2004 presidential elections, seven million AAPIs were eligible to
vote, half of that number registered and three million or 85 percent voted, according to statistics compiled by APIA vote.
Strength in numbers plus power of coalition-building equal political empowerment for Filipinos and Asians in America. These are the
very achievable empowerment goals of Filipinos in America, in cooperation and unity with our Asian American brothers who are more
than willing to coalesce with us. Put together, these are the strengths and opportunities that we will offer to President-Elect Barrack
Obama and his administration – in response to his call for cooperation and support from all sectors of society, that we may all be an
integral part of his dream of rebuilding our great nation.
(Responses to this article should be sent to email@example.com)
(About the author: Gus Mercado has been an active leader of the NaFFAA and the FPACC national federations for more than 15 years,
and community leader in Texas for the last 25 years. A three-time recipient of the “U.S. Jaycee of the Year” and numerous other
distinguished community service awards, he is currently Executive Director of the Philippine-American Chamber of Commerce in Texas
and Chairman/CEO of Datalogix, a thriving high-tech engineering company that has provided high-paying jobs and economic
empowerment to hundreds of Filipino engineers in North America. He is mentioned in NaFFAA Chair Greg Macabenta’s “The Challenge
of NaFFAA” piece as “the Hero of the Texas 10.”)