Kamala Harris' Historic Candidacy Helped Asian American Turnout Soar

AAPI voters likely set a new record in 2020, but campaigns still must make sure they're not treated like an afterthought, advocates say.

In one of the most stirring parts of her victory speech on Saturday, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris honored her late mother, Dr. Shyamala Gopalan Harris.

鈥淲hen she came here from India at the age of 19, maybe she didn鈥檛 quite imagine this moment,鈥 Harris said. 鈥淏ut she believed so deeply in an America where a moment like this is possible.鈥

The historic candidacy of the first Black and Asian American woman to be elected vice president likely helped drive Asian American and Pacific Islander voter turnout to new heights, several AAPI advocates and scholars told HuffPost.

鈥淭raditionally, any time we鈥檝e seen an Asian American candidate run, we typically see a lot larger numbers because suddenly you鈥檙e hearing more about their background, and the community is looking to identify with that candidate because of that similar background,鈥 said Christine Chen, executive director of APIAVote, which works to increase AAPI civic engagement. 鈥淸With] our community especially experiencing what we experienced in 2020, with the rise of anti-Asian sentiment, we鈥檙e looking for someone that will not only see and hear us but also respect us.鈥

Sara Sadhwani, assistant professor of politics at Pomona College, has researched the effects of Asian American candidates on Asian American voter turnout. In a study of candidates for the California State Assembly from 2012 to 2018, she found that in general, having an Asian American candidate boosted Asian American turnout in districts with a significant proportion of Asian American residents, although those results can vary depending on nationality or ethnicity.

While it鈥檚 too early to say definitively, Sadhwani believes it鈥檚 likely Harris had the same positive effect because of the notion of 鈥渓inked fate.鈥 She explained that鈥檚 鈥渢his idea that if one person in our community is doing better and advancing and taking on these kinds of roles and positions of power, then it鈥檚 going to be better for the community as a whole.鈥

A supporter holds a national flag of India at a watch party in Miami as President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris deliver victory remarks on Nov. 7, 2020.
A supporter holds a national flag of India at a watch party in Miami as President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris deliver victory remarks on Nov. 7, 2020.

Some recent surveys of AAPI voters also indicate that having Harris on the ticket influenced their vote. For example, 49% of AAPI respondents said then-Democratic nominee Joe Biden picking Harris made them 鈥渕ore enthusiastic about voting for him,鈥 according to the American Election Eve Poll, conducted by the AAPI Civic Engagement Fund and Asian American Decisions.

Over the past few election cycles, AAPI voters have become a bigger and more influential slice of the electorate. Preliminary analyses of this year鈥檚 voter data suggest that AAPI turnout will likely exceed the record levels seen in 2016 and 2018. The number of AAPI voters participating in early or mail-in voting alone surpassed the total number of AAPI voters in the 2016 general election, according to TargetSmart, a Democratic political data firm.

Of course, there were many other factors driving turnout this year. President Donald Trump鈥檚 failure to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and his years of promoting racism and white supremacy weighed heavily on AAPI voters.

In the American Election Eve Poll, 72% of AAPI respondents said Trump 鈥渄oes not care about鈥 or 鈥渉as been hostile toward鈥 AAPI communities, and 80% said white supremacy 鈥渋s a major threat to our country.鈥 In addition, 58% said they believe anti-Asian racism has increased under Trump, who has regularly referred to the pandemic in racist terms and often scapegoats China to deflect blame from his own disastrous response.

Similarly, 76% of respondents in the 2020 Asian American Voter Survey 鈥 conducted from July to September by APIAVote, AAPI Data and Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC 鈥 said they were worried about experiencing racism related to the pandemic. Throughout this year, Asian Americans have reported a surge in racist harassment and attacks, with Trump鈥檚 remarks pouring gasoline on the fire.

As a result, AAPI voters have been 鈥渃onnecting the dots of how who gets elected really impacts decisions being made,鈥 Chen said. 鈥淚n the past, we would have to do a lot more work convincing people why every vote counts and how that鈥檚 related to your life. I don鈥檛 think we had to do as much of that kind of heavy lifting because people were living and experiencing that every day.鈥

The influence of Asian American voters has been especially noted in the suburbs of key battleground states. Even if they make up just a single-digit percentage of the electorate, they can have a decisive impact in close elections 鈥 like in Georgia, where organizers have been working for years to better engage and mobilize voters of color who have traditionally been left out of the political process.

Carolyn Bourdeaux won in Georgia鈥檚 7th Congressional District, flipping the suburban Atlanta seat from Republican to Democrat. According to the American Election Eve Poll, which conducted additional analysis in the district, AAPI voters overwhelmingly voted for her over her GOP opponent (62% to 36%); their numbers added up to 17% of her vote total and 150% of her winning margin. Therefore, it鈥檚 possible she would have lost, had it not been for AAPI voters.

In past elections, research has consistently shown that AAPI voters are among the racial or ethnic groups least likely to receive contact from the major political parties, individual campaigns or nonpartisan organizations.

Many of the AAPI advocates said they did see more concerted efforts to engage these voters this year, especially on the Democratic Party side. For example, every major candidate in the Democratic presidential primaries had at least one staffer working specifically on AAPI voter outreach. Overall, advocates said candidates and campaigns are doing a somewhat better job of providing resources in a wider range of languages, attending events specific to AAPI communities, and hiring staffers and organizers who understand the cultures and speak the languages of the communities they鈥檙e trying to engage.

But there鈥檚 still a lot more work to be done. In both the 2020 Asian American Survey and the American Election Eve Poll, about half of AAPI voters said they had not received any contact from parties or community organizations, suggesting they鈥檙e still treated like an afterthought.

In addition, while the majority of AAPI voters tend to vote Democratic, about 30% are not registered with a party 鈥 in part because historically, neither party has communicated directly with them, Sadhwani said.

It鈥檚 not enough to just offer translated resources, according to EunSook Lee, director of the AAPI Civic Engagement Fund. When developing their messaging, campaigns should acknowledge the specific ways AAPI voters are affected by the major issues, she said.

鈥淚f I were a candidate, I would acknowledge the reality that AAPIs are facing: fear, uncertainty, concern about their health, being able to afford health care, the fact that many are small business owners who aren鈥檛 even getting any sort of economic support,鈥 Lee said of the pandemic鈥檚 impact. 鈥淪ome of it is common, and some of them are very particular. It takes a little bit of messaging or acknowledgment of their unique experience as AAPIs.鈥

And if someone needs help registering to vote or applying for a mail-in ballot, it鈥檚 not just about having a form that鈥檚 translated into their language, said Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood, director of the Asian American Advocacy Fund, which organizes progressive AAPI voters in Georgia. Voters might also need help filling out the form and navigating the process, which the AAAF has addressed by opening hotlines in several Asian languages for people to call or text if they have questions.

A sign in multiple languages at an early voting site in New York City on Oct. 24, 2020. AAPI advocates say providing resources in different languages is helpful, but not enough to engage voters.
A sign in multiple languages at an early voting site in New York City on Oct. 24, 2020. AAPI advocates say providing resources in different languages is helpful, but not enough to engage voters.
John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx

Candidates should also build on existing relationships and previous voter outreach efforts, especially those from community organizations, which have done the on-the-ground work for years and not just under the spotlight of a major election.

Mahmood said she appreciated how Bourdeaux, who had unsuccessfully run for the same seat in 2018, continued to show up for AAPI communities between the two election years. Bourdeaux kept attending events and deepening relationships, 鈥渞emembering people鈥檚 faces and remembering their names and remembering what鈥檚 important to them, which you don鈥檛 always get from candidates,鈥 Mahmood said. 鈥淚 have met so many people who just have the nicest things to say about her because she has spent a lot of time talking to them.鈥

All eyes are now on the runoff elections for Georgia鈥檚 two Senate seats, which will likely determine control of the Senate. Groups like the AAAF are working to make sure AAPI voters remain energized for the January elections, as Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock face off against GOP incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, respectively. (During a Trump rally last month, Perdue mocked the pronunciation of Harris鈥 first name, an experience far too familiar to many immigrants and people of color.)

Beyond elections, political leaders also have to continue engaging AAPI communities once they鈥檙e in office, Chen said. They should seek out the perspectives of AAPI constituents and community leaders when staking out positions and developing policies.

She also hopes elected officials will appoint and hire more AAPI staff 鈥 like President-elect Biden this week selecting former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who is Indian American, to co-chair his transition team鈥檚 COVID-19 advisory board.

鈥淵ou need to look at the great talent that we have in this community because I think having these different perspectives will only help you govern a lot better,鈥 Chen said.

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