As the first Black and Asian American woman on a major party’s presidential ticket, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her historic candidacy made it possible for a lot more voters to see themselves reflected in U.S. politics.
Many Indian American voters felt seen and heard by Harris, whose late mother immigrated from India. On the campaign trail, Harris often spoke in personal terms about her Indian heritage. In her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in July, she fondly remembered how her mother “raised us to know and be proud of our Indian heritage,” and paid tribute to her “chittis,” a Tamil word for “aunties.”
Her historic candidacy helped galvanize Asian American voters, a group often ignored by politicians and political parties and organizations, to turn out for her and President-elect Joe Biden in record numbers. Indian Americans, the second largest Asian American subgroup in the country, tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic, and having a fellow Indian American on the ticket was significant and meaningful.
However, they want more Indian American and Asian representation at all levels of government ― and the diversity and complexity within Indian American communities means that both parties need to do more to engage them. Those are some of the key findings from a new survey of Indian Americans by political scientists Sara Sadhwani and Maneesh Arora.
There’s this deep, strong desire for more people to be elected to office who can understand the immigrant experience, who can understand the diversity of the Indian American community in a way that Kamala Harris did when she took the stage during the DNC. Sara Sadhwani, assistant professor of politics at Pomona College
In the weeks before the November election, they surveyed about 1,000 Indian Americans about the election, Indian American representation and major issues in the U.S. and India. Sadhwani, an assistant professor of politics at Pomona College, and Arora, an assistant professor of political science at Wellesley College, also wanted to find out more about generational differences among Indian Americans. So they analyzed respondents based on whether they were born in the U.S. or immigrated there — and, in the case of the latter, when they immigrated.
Indian immigrants who arrived in the U.S. within the past decade were somewhat more likely to favor President Donald Trump, the survey found. Trump’s campaign made efforts to appeal specifically to Indian American voters, often by citing Trump’s support for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The survey found that respondents who favored Trump were also likely to express support for Modi, who has waged a campaign of Hindu nationalism, including enacting discriminatory policies against Muslims in India and cracking down on dissent.
However, Arora cautioned against reading too much into this correlation, because there wasn’t “any meaningful increase in support for Trump from 2016 to 2020” among Indian American voters, he said. Their survey also found strong support for Modi and his policies even from some respondents who opposed Trump.
Sadhwani and Arora said their findings are a reminder that both parties need to make more concerted efforts to engage Indian American voters — as well as Asian American voters more broadly — and to do so in culturally competent ways.
“We can’t take any community for granted, right?” Sadhwani said. “Even though Indian Americans, from our survey, are strongly still correlated with the Democratic Party, that’s not to suggest that it couldn’t change over time as the conditions change in their home country, or as they themselves have different experiences in the United States.”
Arora said the findings also help dispel the myth that Indian American and Asian American voters are apolitical.
The fastest growing racial group in the U.S. electorate, Asian Americans have increasingly emerged as swing voters in many battleground states. In Georgia, Asian American voters were among the key demographic groups that helped deliver the state for Biden. They were also a significant factor in Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux’s victory in her suburban Atlanta congressional district, which had previously been held by Republicans.
Democrats are hoping to repeat that success in January, trying to register and turn out more Asian American voters for Georgia’s two Senate runoff elections, which will decide control of the Senate. While Asian American voters generally tend to vote Democratic, about 30% of Asian American voters are unaffiliated with a political party — in part because for a long time, neither party made much of an effort to engage them. When they do, it’s often only in the weeks leading up to an election.
As several Asian American advocates told HuffPost last month, politicians and political parties can no longer ignore Asian American voters. Elected officials need to demonstrate a long-term investment in Asian American communities beyond election cycles, such as engaging them on policy issues and appointing Asian American officials, advisers and staff at all levels of government.
In putting together his administration, Biden has faced criticism from lawmakers of color, including top Asian American lawmakers, for not selecting enough people of color for high-level Cabinet posts.
In Sadhwani and Arora’s survey, the desire for more representation in politics is something most respondents overwhelmingly agreed on, regardless of other factors. When asked “If more Indian Americans were elected to office at the local, state and federal levels, would you feel like you were being better represented,” almost 67% of respondents said yes.
Arora said they similarly found broad support when respondents were asked whether they would feel better represented if there were more Asian American elected officials, regardless of nationality.
“I think that speaks to this desire to see those, not just of your own national origin group, but people who do understand that immigrant experience, and who can represent the values, the principles, all of that, that this community cares about,” Arora said. “And there’s the potential for these kinds of broader coalitions to be built in electoral politics and in other forms of politics.”
In addition, nearly 59% of respondents said they would support an Indian American candidate, regardless of the candidate’s political party.
“The fact that so many Indian Americans, regardless of party, are willing to support other Indian American candidates so that they can feel more represented says to me that people aren’t feeling very represented,” Sadhwani said. “There’s this deep, strong desire for more people to be elected to office who can understand the immigrant experience, who can understand the diversity of the Indian American community in a way that Kamala Harris did when she took the stage during the DNC.”
Read more about Sadhwani and Arora’s findings here.