Home / General / How Asian-Americans Became Democrats

How Asian-Americans Became Democrats



Pretty remarkable shift among Asian-American voting patterns.

If post-1965 immigrants did indeed move the Asian American community to the right, the group’s leftward shift since 1992 is all the more remarkable. Although Bill Clinton won only 31 percent of the Asian American vote in 1992 (or 36 percent of the two-party vote if we exclude Ross Perot), Al Gore won 55 percent in 2000, followed by John Kerry with 56 percent in 2004, and Obama with 62 percent and 73 percent in 2008 and 2012, respectively. In just two decades, the Democratic Party’s share of the Asian American presidential vote more than doubled. Even more remarkably, Obama won every major national origin group of Asian Americans in 2012, including Vietnamese Americans, who have traditionally leaned Republican.

Why has this happened? Largely because the Republican Party has gone totally insane:

Since then, the leftward shift in the Asian American vote has also reflected “push factors” from the Republican side. Congressional Republicans have outdone one another in anti-immigrant rhetoric and proposals and, despite efforts by the Bush administration, consistently scuttled efforts to enact comprehensive immigration reform. To be sure, immigration has never been a top issue for Asian American voters; the economy, education, and health care usually lead as the top three issues in surveys. Still, immigration holds a symbolic place among Asian American voters. A 2014 AAPI Data survey of Asian American registered voters found that 41 percent would consider switching their support away from a candidate who expresses strong anti-immigrant views. Immigration thus matters to Asian American voters less as a top policy priority than as an indicator of whether candidates and parties respect immigrants and welcome them.

Another development pushing Asian Americans away from the GOP has been the rise of Christian conservatism in the Republican Party. The 2012 Pew survey on Asian Americans indicated that the strongest level of Democratic Party support comes from Hindus and those who claim no religious affiliation (these groups make up a significant share of Indian Americans and Chinese Americans, respectively). The same Pew survey did not contain a sufficient number of Muslim respondents, estimated to be about 4 percent of the Asian American population, to produce reliable estimates of their party preference. However, the group’s 2011 survey of Muslim Americans also indicated very strong support for the Democratic Party. Finally, a 2016 AAPI Data survey of Asian American registered voters indicated that 43 percent would consider switching their support away from a candidate who expresses strongly anti-Muslim views.

Asian-Americans also supported social programs and government spending, making Democratic politics more appealing to them. But I prefer the racial essentializing of people like David Brooks.

In 1992, writing in The Washington Post, Stanley Karnow had claimed that Asian immigrants were more likely to identify as Republican because they valued individual responsibility and free enterprise and many of them had fled communist countries. In 2012, New York Times columnist David Brooks claimed that Asian Americans voted Democratic because they came from cultures that do not put a high value on individualism and instead approve government intervention. If cultural values can be used to explain both voting Republican and voting Democratic, they may not explain either one very well. The actions of parties and political leaders over the past two decades provide a far better explanation for the politics of Asian Americans today than do the disparate cultural traditions that immigrants have brought with them.

It’s so hard when this essentializing changes course. I get whiplash. But then those Asians are so inscrutable. All we can know is that it must be some racial characteristic!

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  • delazeur

    Interesting, I wonder if we’ll see a similar effect with Cuban Americans.

    • Rob in CT

      I’ve read claims on the internet that this is well underway (young Cuban-Americans leaning D or at least not notably R).

      I can’t source it though.

      • humanoid.panda
        • humanoid.panda

          Also of note: a lot of South Florida Cuban House members, and the Republcian mayor of Miami did not endorse Trump.

        • los

          This is not really related, but Marco Rubio seems like he shouldn’t be Republican, and could switch parties including adopting ‘moderate’ political views.
          This is just something I sense about Rubio…

          but maybe he really shouldn’t be in politics…

          • lawtalkingguy

            and miss out on all that sweet sweet money from Republican billionaires who think an empty suite with a brownish tinge is enough to win back Hispanics?

          • Dennis Orphen

            Maybe they have something on him? Other than the dinero ‘los’ refers to, which usually will do the trick by itself. Empty suits can be downsized and outsourced too, so Republican politician may be the best of a dwindling pool of lucrative career choice options that require little actual thinking or working, something Trump was certainly smart enough to realize when he jumped into the fray.

  • advocatethis

    All that David Brooks needs to know about Asian-Americans (in fact, all that David Brooks does know about Asian-Americans) he learned from observing Mrs. Livingston on “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.”

    • wjts

      I think he’s more of a Sax Rohmer kind of guy.

      • Dennis Orphen

        No love for Bruce Lee in the Green Hornet TV show?

  • JMP

    “David Brooks claimed that Asian Americans voted Democratic because they came from cultures that do not put a high value on individualism”

    And here I thought that most Asian-Americans were born in the US and so the culture they came from was, you know, America’s.

    • They can’t assimilate! Unless they start voting Republican of course.

      • so-in-so

        Like all REAL AMERICANS!

      • Unemployed_Northeastern

        “Why can’t they all be like Sam Hayakawa?”

        *Edit: For those who don’t know, Hayakawa was a Republican Senator in California for a time back in the late 1970’s. I believe he is still the only Asian-American GOP Senator, though I am not positive about that. His political views were often tortured – he approved of WWII internment camps and fought against reparations for them, opposed bilingual education, famously opposed Vietnam protesters, etc – but on the plus side he wrote an absolute classic on linguistics, “Language in Thought and Action” that I would recommend to any and everyone. I use his line “Grammarians are historians, not law-givers” a lot.

        • skate

          Wikipedia also lists Hiram Fong and, ahem, John Ensign. I assume the latter is a joke and yet further proof why no one should trust Wikipedia.

          • ForkyMcSpoon

            He’s 1/8th Filipino and did not even know he was part Filipino until he was an adult.

            So, you know, just the right amount of non-white for Republicans.

        • Dennis Orphen

          That’s a great line. Will it work with internet grammer nazis? Seems perfect for that.

        • Ahuitzotl

          that was the same Hayakawa? That book is certainly a classic. I figured the Senator was the loony nephew or something.

    • humanoid.panda

      Brooks is of course a moron, but there is surely is a non-essentialist way to talk about political sub-cultures, right? I mean, to take the Jewish community, there are deeply historical reasons why nearly all non-orthodox American-born Jews are liberals, but Russian-born Jews are Trumpistas.

      • DW

        but there is surely is a non-essentialist way to talk about political sub-cultures, right?

        Maybe? Perhaps to the extent the sub-culture actually exists? As pointed out in some of the other comments, “Asian-American” is a constructed class. So yes, Obama won the Asian-American vote outright including “every major national origin group” in 2012, but is that best explained by something unique to Asian-Americans, or is it best viewed as a collection of “major national origin group” minorities? I mean, were there any “major national origin group” minorities who Obama didn’t win?

        • so-in-so

          European-Americans? Since we really didn’t come from here to start…

      • JMP

        But then talking about an Asian-American subculture is way too broad, instead of a Korean-American subculture, Vietnamese-American subculture, Japanese-American subculture, Filipino-American, a bunch of different subgroups of Chinese-American subculture, Taiwanese-American subculture, etc. etc. While Brooks seems to be treating all Asian-Americans as first generation immigrants.

        • While Brooks seems to be treating all Asian-Americans as first generation immigrants.

          They immigrate once, and after half an hour they immigrate again!

    • addicted44

      Aren’t 2nd and 3rd generation Asian Akericans more liberal? Maybe America does not value “individualism” as much as Brooks thinks it does.

      Or maybe he’s just full of shit.

  • Rob in CT

    I remember arguing with a Conservative about minority outreach in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 election.

    I tried to point out that lots of non-white people, particularly if they have some assets, are not superliberals. Those people are, at least theoretically, “gettable” for the party of the Haves. However, if the party of the Haves keeps shitting on them or people they perceive to be kind of adjacent to them, they’ll be turned off.

    The response was that I was “worse than useless.” Those People are never going to vote for True Conservatism, so fuck ’em, basically.

    • delazeur

      I once heard someone from the Log Cabin Republicans (possibly Gregory Angelo) make a similar argument: there are a ton of fiscally conservative Americans, especially younger Americans, who simply can’t stomach voting for the Republican party because of their social positions. On the other hand, I’m not convinced it is actually true (as many people like to suppose) that fiscally conservative and socially liberal party could actually command a majority in the U.S. I think most of the “fiscally conservative and socially liberal” demographics are really only socially liberal in one or two areas, and would be likely to oppose liberal policies in other areas (e.g. LCR members who oppose liberal immigration policies).

      • humanoid.panda

        Fiscally conservative is also a term that covers a lot of ground- the political space between Cliven Bundy and Michael Bloomberg..

      • Rob in CT

        I’ve come around to this view. In ’08 I don’t think I’d have bought it. But today, yeah, I think you’re right: Socially Liberal + Fiscally Conservative is maybe 20% of the electorate.

        It’s easier to imagine if you are a New Englander and you project NE views onto the rest of the country (and even here in NE, I don’t know that a socially liberal/fiscally conservative party could pull a majority).

        • Matt McIrvin

          There is a shorter name for them: “rich people”. Which is why they’re so overrepresented in political media and national discourse, relative to their actual importance in elections.

          • Rob in CT

            Well, sort of. There are a fair number of middle class/upper-middle class people with socially liberal views but who don’t like taxes.

            They don’t add up to a majority, but they’re not 1% either.

            • delazeur

              Ultimately, people don’t seem to need much money before they start thinking of themselves as a current or future member of the monied class.

        • JMP

          Yeah, “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” is a cliche in the media because it represents the views of so many media figures, but it’s not really all that common view as much as the editorial board of the Washington Post thinks that it’s what the majority wants.

          You never hear anyone but Dennis Duffy refer to themselves as “socially conservative, fiscally liberal”, although that does describe the official doctrines of the Catholic Church and a good number of people in the US; which is probably part of why Trump likes to talk like an economic populist even though his actual economic positions, to the extent they even exist, are all about tax cuts and deregulation.

          • Matt McIrvin

            Many people who actually do have that set of preferences are racial minorities, and have an overriding reason to vote Democratic. The white ones lean Trumpist.

          • wjts

            I’ve used that Dennis Duffy line to half-jokingly describe myself a couple of times.

        • njorl

          But if you only polled highly paid print and TV journalists, they would kick ass.

      • Linnaeus

        Socially liberal but fiscally conservative: “I’m liberal as long as it doesn’t cost me anything”.

        • Rob in CT

          Yes. Which remains superior to being a reactionary.

          • Linnaeus

            Sure, although that’s a lower bar than I’d like.

    • Matt McIrvin

      Which is strange, because over the years I’ve also heard conservatives fantasize from time to time about how they should have the black and Hispanic vote because of these groups’ social conservatism, if only they’d give up their insane loyalty to the “Democratic plantation” on the basis of cheap sops like affirmative action and handouts of Free Stuff.

      For some unfathomable reason, the argument doesn’t seem to attract a lot of support.

      • Rob in CT

        It’s a little like liberals fantasizing about winning back “Reagan Democrats” or “the white working class” (though the Dems still do ok with the WWC – they underperform relative to expectations). People are voting against their (economic) interests! If only we can show them…

        At the same time, other liberals think appeals to these groups are entirely hopeless, and have nothing but bitter invective for them.

        I’m pretty sure I’ve wobbled between those views. I’m leaning toward the latter nowadays.

        • Linnaeus

          Put me in the former, albeit with an understanding of the limits of such appeals.

        • Matt McIrvin

          I tend to think “we’ll never show them, but we have to help them anyway, because they’re human beings.”

          But we should expect no cookie.

        • Scott P.

          I’ve been reading Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain, and there’s a parallel in Eastern Bloc Communists puzzled at why small farmers weren’t voting for them (in the few early freeish elections) when they had helped them out with land distribution. Of course, their response was to crush all rival political parties so that the farmers would vote for the ‘right’ party.

      • CP

        Which is strange, because over the years I’ve also heard conservatives fantasize from time to time about how they should have the black and Hispanic vote because of these groups’ social conservatism

        They have no idea what that means.

        They see that, stereotypically, a lot of black people and Hispanic people go to church, and assume that means they’d be on the same page if only they could get their liberal blinders off. Nobody making this argument seems to have realized that there’s more than one way to do Christianity, and that the fact that white right wing Americans think Christianity means “no abortions and no gay marriages and who cares about anything else” doesn’t mean anybody else does. The fact that you’re deeply religious and that your religion informs your politics doesn’t mean you don’t see, for example, antiwar activism or economic justice or environmentalism as your responsibility to God in the same way that they see opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

        To their credit, a fair number of conservatives do at least realize that black people and many others have different takes on religion. But it usually stops at raging that black churches are all about black nationalism and owe more to black culture and traditions than to actual Christianity. None of them have the self-awareness to realize that everybody does this to their religion, and that their own brand of Christianity owes at least as much to the cultural heritage specific to white heartland America as it does to actually trying to reconstitute What Jesus Meant. (And that it looks just as weird for outsiders looking at their culture as black and Hispanic Christianity do to them).

        And so, even these people keep fantasizing that if only they could show them the light of TRUE Christianity, they’d suddenly become rabid tax-cutting global-warming-denying Birthers. As Jesus intended.

      • Philip

        It’s ‘cuz Democrats give them free, unearned things like voting rights! /s

  • postmodulator

    It’s their own fault for being so inscrutable.

    • Shantanu Saha

      I’m so inscrutable I don’t even know what my own opinions are!

  • so-in-so

    Who would’a thought that being openly the party of white supremacy would turn-off non-white people?

  • Fighting Words

    A couple things.

    First, if I recall correctly, the Republican party made a really, really, really strong push to get Asian-American voters in the 1990’s and early aughts by emphasizing affirmative action programs – specifically with regard to university admissions at state schools. Although we all know where the Republican Party stands on Affirmative Action, the Republicans seem to have abandoned that push recently.

    Second, I know that at least among Chinese-Americans and Korean-Americans, there are very strong Christian conservative communities. Are there demographic shifts away from that?

    • Todd

      A Korean friend told me that some Korean-Americans felt a strong loyalty to Reagan, who was President when his parents came to this country. Either Reagan pushed through, or got credit for, increased Korean immigration in the 1980s. The sense seemed to be that Koreans over the age of 40-ish retained loyalty to the party of Reagan, but for those younger the pull of some old loyalty is much less. But he also seemed to intimate that Koreans were more conservative among Asians generally.

      Anecdotal to be sure.

      • NewishLawyer

        Many Jews who came from the USSR tend to be much more right-wing than American Jews.

        • humanoid.panda

          And, of course, that same community is heavily reliant on various forms of welfare- and is rife with various forms of Medicaid and Medicare fraud. But they deserve it because they worked so hard back in Donetsk- nothing like the *them*.

      • The Dark God of Time

        Chinese used to vote Democratic because FDR was the one who got the Chinese Exclution Act repealed, thus beginning the breaking down of such childish laws which was completed in 1965.

    • NewishLawyer

      This is still a strong libertarian-GOP talking point and one that I suspect has some more than theoretical chance of success. IIRC many Asian-Americans in California feel like they have to work double-hard to get into Cal or even high schools like Lowell.

      My anecdotal evidence in SF is that Asian-Americans in their 20s and 30s are generally more secular. But SF is religious in a liberal way. There are still plenty of people involved with religious orgs in the Bay Area.

    • West

      First, if I recall correctly, the Republican party made a really, really, really strong push to get Asian-American voters in the 1990’s and early aughts by emphasizing affirmative action programs – specifically with regard to university admissions at state schools. Although we all know where the Republican Party stands on Affirmative Action, the Republicans seem to have abandoned that push recently.

      They did make such a push – not sure if it warrants three times “really” – but yeah, they pushed that. I think some of the abandonment comes from the dawning recognition that by pointing out how affirmative action allegedly hurts Asian-American and Asian immigrant kids who do so well on school grades and SAT scores, white Republicans could be backing themselves into a corner.

      I know lots of Asian Americans and Asian immigrants, enough of whom can be pretty blunt on these issues that I would be willing to bet this played out in actual conversations:

      White Republican: “We need your help to destroy this evil thing called affirmative action. Why, you DO realize it hurts Asian kids applying to elite universities, right?”

      Asian person: “Are you suggesting a system based 100% on school grades and SAT scores?”

      White R: “Yes, YES!! Think how fair and objective that would be!!! No more tipping the scales for THOSE people [wink, wink, not referring to Asians here, wink, wink]! Can we count on your help?”

      Asian: “Will you swear in your children’s blood that all ‘legacy-based’ admissions will also be eliminated?”

      White R: “Uuuhhmmmmm, hold on a second…. Could you excuse me, I need to go freshen up my drink…”

      [White Republican slinks away from the conversation, never to raise it again.]

      Alternative Ending:
      White R: “Eliminate legacy-based admission!!! What are you, some sort of fucking Communist!!!! Why don’t you go home to where you came from!?!?!?”

      [Asian person stalks away from conversation while furiously committing the conversation to memory for future reference.]

      ETA: I have discussed this entire construct with a number of Asian-Americans, and while I am certainly not basing my scenario directly on any one conversations (I’m not a Republican, for example, though I am white), I am pulling in the clear distrust I’ve heard Asian friends express about the Republican argument. And the legacy thing comes up often, too. I have heard a number of Asians say they feel caught between opposing forces. All this is anecdata, to be sure.

      • Shantanu Saha

        In my Ivy League college, we called legacy admissions “affirmative action for idiot white boys.”

        • LosGatosCA

          Of course, that’s pretty much the case every where I’ve ever been.

      • Fighting Words

        I guess I used 3x really because I’m from California, which has a large Asian-American population, and I was in college at the time, and in the mid to late 1990’s, affirmative action in UC admissions was one of the big issues on campus – if not the biggest.

        It was also a bit odd because, at the time, this was the GOP’s only pitch towards Asian-Americans.

        • Todd

          At least they had one. For the last 40 years, the only GOP pitch to African-Americans has been some version of “MLK would be a Republican if he were alive today; oh, by the way, look – here’s J.C. Watts”.

        • West

          I lived in CA (SF Bay Area) for most of the 80s and it was a pretty intense point of conversation then, and that includes the Asian aspect of it. If I had been responding to your post from within the 1987 version of me, I might have agreed with the 3 x “really” emphasis that you used.

    • Woodrowfan

      FWIW, my Filipino relatives vote republican because they’re conservative Catholics and abortion is the only issue that matters.

    • addicted44

      The moonies are Korean.

  • J. Otto Pohl

    Asian Americans more so than most other large groupings based upon their continent of ancestral origin are rather diverse. So while it is true that most of the sub-groups such as Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, and Indian Americans tend to vote Democratic there is a notable exception. The Vietnamese Americans particularly in Orange County have traditionally been Republicans and are stil predominantly Republicans despite recent gains by the Democrats among the group. Such distinctions tend to get lost when talking about Asian Americans rather than more distinctive ethno-national categories.

    • Jay B

      Literally, right on this page, this distinction was made:

      Even more remarkably, Obama won every major national origin group of Asian Americans in 2012, including Vietnamese Americans, who have traditionally leaned Republican.

      • humanoid.panda

        If something here was worth reading, Otto would have already written it.

      • J. Otto Pohl

        It is briefly conceded in a single sentence and then completely lost as all people whose ancestors came from the continent of Asia to the US get again merged into Asian Americans. Further it doesn’t do more than note that a majority voted for Obama in 2012 despite previously having a majority vote for Republican presidental candidates. In contrast it gives exact percentages for the construct of Asian American. So it really doesn’t recognize that historically the various sub-groups of Asian Americans still remain distinct and important politcally as well as culturally.

        • econoclast

          While this is aimed at a co-ed audience, it’s pretty good example of what gets something labeled as “mansplaining”. Really, people from different parts of Asia are different? My stars, I had no idea.

          • Captain Oblivious

            Yeah, I’ve always had trouble telling Indians from Koreans. And their food all tastes the same.

        • rea

          all people whose ancestors came from the continent of Asia to the US get again merged into Asian Americans.

          Native Americans?

  • Shantanu Saha

    I’m an Asian-American, (funny how half the planet’s ethnicities and nationalities, from Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Pakistani, Vietnamese, Indonesian get lumped into the racial category “Asian” or “Asian-American”). I’m Bengali by birth, so I’m a naturalized American. When I first registered to vote in 1985, I registered as a Republican, but I have never voted for a Republican for a national office. I have voted in a few Republican primaries, always with the objective of throwing what little weight I could to the least bat-shit crazy Republican candidate.

    But this year’s primary has convinced me that that is a hopeless cause, because they’re all batshit crazy now. When I moved my address a month ago, I re-registered as a Democrat. Because my new objective in the primaries is to vote against the batshit crazy leftist purity ponies that want to relegate the Democratic party to permanent minority status.

  • jimn

    This kind of thing from my state’s ag primary race probably doesn’t help:

  • John F

    I’m married to a Chinese woman, virtually all my in laws would be republicans if they were white, but they are not and they see the modern day party as being animated by racist bigotry (which my in laws are not free from, they just don’t like seeing it get directed at them) – so they all sort of reluctantly vote Dem now (if they vote).

    No matter how conservative you are, if you are not white it really hard to look at Limbaugh, Hannity, Coulter, et al, and not realize that what really drives them is a white supremacist worldview, a white conservative can get away with being oblivious, non-white? Really hard (I mean how much mental effort does Clarence Thomas have to go through to avoid consciously realizing who he’s siding with every second of every day?)

    • Dennis Orphen

      Kind of off topic, but kind of not, Phil Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and what would have happened between the Germans and the Japanese if we has lost The Big One.

    • (I mean how much mental effort does Clarence Thomas have to go through to avoid consciously realizing who he’s siding with every second of every day?)

      Surely this belongs in the brain toilers thread.

  • AMK

    There was a joint WSJ op-ed by a GOP Asian and a GOP Jew a few weeks ago blaming the liberal tendencies of both groups on liberal “indoctrination” at elite colleges that both groups worship (and both writers went to).

    They did manage to make a convincing argument that elite college worship is overdone, in part because places like Harvard and Yale are evidently capable of accepting and turning out at least a few Asians and Jews who are dumb enough to be Republicans who do not understand why racial and religious minorities vote Democratic.

    • Nubby

      “Oh no Martha! What has that school done to our child!? The boy just told me he’s an egalitarian!”

    • NewishLawyer

      I am endlessly fascinated by this minority within a minority complaining.

      FWIW, this is the first Presidential election in my lifetime where the punditocracy is not wondering if it will be the year Jews go for the GOP (which never happens). I guess that even Jennifer Rubin is too dismayed by Trump.

      Though the person who wrote Trump’s vile acceptance speech is from the tribe and a liberal family in Santa Monica. Must still need to rebel against mom and dad.

      • Dennis Orphen

        You’re not rebelling against anybody’s mom and dad, your own or otherwise, if your getting paid well to do a high profile job.

      • AMK

        What gets me about these guys is not so much voting Republican as the total lack of understanding why other Jews and Asians don’t vote Republican.

        All the Jews and Asians I know who vote GOP are Republicans for the same reasons some whites are Republicans….they’re rich, hate taxes, and their personal value systems really don’t allow for any considerations higher than “as much for me now as possible.” They would chose a fascist theocracy with a flat tax over a democracy where surgeons and investment bankers have to pay higher taxes than janitors—as long as the targets of the fascism are other people, it’s OK. But the thing is, they are socially aware enough to understand that most people would not make the same choice, and accept that reality as a fact of life.

    • Philip

      All the Harvard kids going to Wall Street are a liberal conspiracy

  • Eli Rabett

    It’s an intelligence test. The Asian-Americans are passing.

  • Dennis Orphen

    If Asian-Americans skew young, urban and west coast then it follows that they would skew Democratic. If skew is even a word. I used to think so, but now after using it three times in one comment it suddenly sounds like a nonsense syllable.

  • Dennis Orphen

    Republicans are born. Democrats are made.

    • weirdnoise

      I think anyone who has kids knows that they are natural conservatives and xenophobes, though they’ll tend to grow out of it if encouraged to do so.

  • weirdnoise

    Many Japanese Americans went through a strongly Republican (well, anti-Democratic) phase after the second world war, for some reason… 9066 reasons, actually. A lot of their kids, though, became Democrats.

    • Matt McIrvin

      And now it’s usually Republicans you find coming to FDR’s defense there.

  • galanx

    As someone who has lived in Taiwan for 26 years I can tell you you what Asians are like. They are intensely individualistic, have no sense of society, despise and reject all forms of authority, especially the police, are loudly insistent on asserting their rights, constantly protesting and agitating, and love arguing about politics more than anything except food.

    That’s what Asians are like. Thank you.

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