by Akemi Tamanaha, Associate Editor
The 2020 election will mark a pivotal moment for the AAPI community. Kamala Harris will be the first Asian American on a major party presidential ticket, with Asian American voters poised to have a strong influence in key battleground districts.
The Growth of the Asian American Electorate
A research essay published recently by the Pew Research Center found that the Asian American electorate has grown rapidly since 2000. In 2000, Asian Americans made up 2 percent of the eligible voting population. In 2018, they made up 4 percent of the eligible voting population.
From 2000 to 2018, the nation’s eligible voter population increased by 40.3 million voters. Asians accounted for 14 percent of this growth, adding 5,663,000 voters.
According to Pew Research Center, naturalized immigrants is the main driver of Asian American electorate’s growth. The number of naturalized Asian immigrant voters more than doubled from 2000 to 2018.
Asian American voters saw the most growth in California, Nevada and New Jersey.
“Most of the growth in eligible voters among Asian Americans in California, Nevada and New Jersey are coming from naturalized U.S. citizens—those who were foreign-born and became naturalized citizens,” Gar Meng Leong, a communications associate at Pew Research Center, told AsAmNews in an email.
Nevada is just one of the battleground states in which researchers anticipate AAPI voters will have a strong influence.
Battleground States and the AAPI Vote
This year Asian American voters could play a deciding role in key battleground states. According AAPI Data, Asian American voters will be influential in Nevada, North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan for the Presidential election.
In Florida, for example, the Asian share of the electorate has increased by 1 percentage point, according to the Pew Research Center. NBC News also recently reported that Asian Americans could play a vital role in swinging Pennsylvania back to blue. There are approximately 511,000 AAPI voters in Pennsylvania. A majority are Indian Americans who tend to favor Democratic candidates.
“I view Pennsylvania as similar to what we saw in Virginia and Nevada, where, throughout the various election cycles, it seems like finally political parties and the candidates are recognizing that oh, wow, there’s actually a sizable Asian American electorate in my own back yard,” Christine Chen, executive director of APIAVote, told NBC News.
Shekar Narasimhan the founder and chairman of an AAPI super PAC called AAPI Victory Fund told AsAmNews in an interview that it is important Asian Americans understand that their vote could influence the result of the 2020 Presidential election.
The example Narasimhan has been using to persuade AAPI voters is Michigan. In 2016, Hillary Clinton lost the state of Michigan by two votes per precinct. According to Narasimhan, AAPI voters could have provided the campaign four votes per precinct.
Neither party is guaranteed “the Asian American vote” in these battleground states. A recent voter survey conducted by AAPI Data found that 54 percent of Asian Americans would vote for Joe Biden and 30 percent would vote for Trump.
But 15 percent of Asian American voters are still undecided.
“Our vote is not a lock by any means,” Karthick Ramakrishnan, the head researcher at AAPI Data said in a press conference for AAPI Data’s voter survey. “I think this just means that the parties and campaigns, including issues campaigns, have to pay attention to our communities.
Mobilizing Asian American Voters
Several Asian American organizations across the country are working to mobilize the AAPI vote. Narasimhan and AAPI Victory Fund, for example have been working tirelessly to get Asian Americans to vote.
“AAPI Victory Fund was set up not to raise money for candidates, but to raise the visibility of the AAPI vote,” Narasimhan said. “That distinction is important. We’re not an organization saying hey if we like you we’ll give 50,000 to you.”
Narasimhan describes the super PAC as a “network donors” capable of raising money for candidates who meet a few basic requirements. The fund endorses candidates who are AAPI and share the organization’s values. It also endorses candidates who aren’t AAPI but make commitments to pay attention to AAPIs during their campaign and after they are elected.
The victory fund helps drum up donations by publicly endorsing those candidates, inviting them to the organization’s events and directing AAPIs to fundraising efforts organized by the candidate. It does not set up its own fundraising account for the candidates it endorses.
“We’d rather give the website of the person we endorse and say send the money directly and get engaged in that campaign,” Narasimhan said.
So far, all of the AAPI Victory Fund has endorsed Democrats and progressive Democrats. Narasimhan says this is not intentional, but rather a consequence of the super PAC’s values.
The Victory Fund also raises money for core infrastructure and data projects meant to increase the visibility of AAPI voters and encourage AAPI voters to get engaged.
Those efforts are important, Narasimhan says, because AAPIs dramatically undervoted in 2016.
“People were saying you’re community doesn’t vote they just talk politics,” Narasimhan said. “They might even write a check but they don’t vote. We said that doesn’t make sense we have so much stake in this country as immigrants particularly, foreign-born immigrants in many cases. We’ve got to pay attention to what’s going on.”
Part of the problem is that campaigns don’t reach out to AAPI voters. According to Narasimhan, only 40 percent of AAPIs reported being contacted by a campaign.
Narasimhan says AAPI voters can also be difficult to reach. Since they don’t vote, campaigns have little data on the AAPI voting base. Many AAPI eligible voters are non-native English speakers. Linguistic diversity in the AAPI community can make translating campaign materials costly and labor-intensive. The Victory Fund raises money for data and research that aims to help campaigns reach out to AAPI voters in a cost-effective way.
APIA Vote, a non-partisan organization dedicated to increasing the visibility of AAPI voters across the country, has also been providing other organizations with resources to help mobilize the Asian American voters. They have, for example, provided organizations with AAPI language and culture guides.
Local organizations, like VietLead, are also working to mobilize Asian American voters. VietLead has been doing electoral organizing among the Vietnamese and Southeast Asian community in the greater Philadelphia area.
Nancy Nguyen, the executive director of VietLead, said in the AAPI Data voter survey press conference that her organization has focused on having issue-based discussions with the Philadelphia Southeast Asian community. Many Southeast Asian Americans, Nguyen noted, have expressed concern about COVID-19 labor policies because they work in food factories that have been greatly impacted by the pandemic.
“When we talk about our issues, that’s where we win,” Nguyen said in the press conference.
The work of organizations like APIA Vote, AAPI Victory Fund and VietLead have been paying off. Recently, campaigns have increased their efforts to reach out to AAPIs who don’t speak English or are non-native speakers. The Democratic National Committee convention also played parts of its broadcast in 8 different Asian languages.
There has also been an improvement in AAPI voter turnout. Asian American voter turnout jumped from 28 percent in 2014 to 42 percent in 2018, according to AAPI Data.
“Why is that significant?” Narasimhan said. “That means it’s working. It means we’re having some success in getting campaigns to pay attention to AAPIs and engage with AAPIs. They’re reaching out to them.”
Narasimhan sees the 2020 election as a turning point for the AAPI community.
“This is a moment for the AAPI community,” Narasimhan said. “It has come of age. People are paying attention. People are beginning to understand what we bring not only to America, but to victory. Let’s go and be victorious for a candidate who shares our values. In my case it is the Biden-Harris ticket.”
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