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Op Ed: Asian American voters can swing Senate to Democrats

By Roshni Nedungadi, Partner at HIT Strategies  

For the last three years, Republican Senator David Purdue has worked closely with Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris as her colleague in Senate. Despite their collegial relationship, in October he intentionally mispronounced Kamala Harris’ name at a rally for President Trump.  

“Ka-MAL-a, Ka-MAL-a or Kamala, Kamala, Ka-mala, -mala, -mala, I don’t know, whatever,” Perdue said to a crowd in Macon, Georgia as they laughed and cheered. To the Asian American community, mispronunciations like this often feel like nails on a chalkboard. Our names are more than a title – they also tell our story and ancestral history. While this crude joke may have been Purdue’s attempt to mobilize his base, it also further marginalized a key constituency in Georgia that has often been overlooked – Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) voters. It was this brand of racism that fueled historic AAPI turnout in 2020.

The most overlooked story of the 2020 election remains the turnout surge in the Asian American community. This year, nearly one million more AAPI voters nationwide cast a vote for President-elect Joe Biden than for Clinton in 2016. Such a surge proved vital to critical swing state victories in Arizona, Michigan, and especially the historic win in Georgia.

Asian American voters are the largest growing demographic voting bloc in the country. While there are a handful of grassroots organizations engaging these voters, they are underfunded by the national apparatus. Despite this, President-elect Joe Biden owes his razor-thin historic victory in Georgia in part to a swell of support from the AAPI community. Out of the roughly 114,017 AAPI early voters in Georgia this year, nearly a third (30,571) voted for the first time. AAPI voters were almost three times more likely to be first-time voters.

This swell in support is easy to understand, given what our community has endured this year. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, fueled by Republican racism, this community was highly compelled to vote. Nationally, 67 percent of AAPI voters agreed Trump mismanaged COVID-19 and 58 percent agreed there has been more anti-Asian discrimination since Trump. With Trump not on the ballot anymore, Democrats need a targeted message to these voters in Georgia to boost turnout for the special Senate election in January. 

In the general, Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff fell behind Senator Purdue by approximately 86,000 votes. Yet there were roughly 99,000 eligible AAPI voters in Georgia who didn’t vote. Mobilizing these voters could help Democrats take back the Senate. The opportunity to mobilize AAPI voters for Democrats has never been riper. But without Donald Trump as a motivating factor, messaging and targeting must be intentional. Here’s how Democrats should make AAPI voters a central component of their path to victory: 

1. Call to Action:  

The AAPI community needs to know that Democrats care enough about their vote to work for it. Making this known requires targeted appeals in political advertising. A national election eve exit poll found that nationally, only 51 percent of Asian American voters were contacted about voting, the lowest among all racial/ethnic groups. Dems must convey to the AAPI community how critical their vote is in winning the Senate and ending the COVID-crisis on health and economic terms   

 2. Convey plan to combat pandemic with a science-backed approach 
Across the board, coronavirus ranks as the top issue for AAPI voters. 58 percent of AAPI voters agreed coronavirus was one of the “most important issues facing your community that politicians should address.” The Republican Party’s aversion to science and planning provides an opening for Democrats with the AAPI community, who, along with other communities of color, have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Nationally, there has been a 35 percent increase in AAPI deaths from previous years due to the lack of COVID-19 protections. Democrats in GA would do well to communicate a plan supported by sound science.     

 3. Call out Republicans on coronavirus anti-Asian racism  

The same Senator that mocked the name of the first Asian-American & female Vice President-elect is now trying to get reelected in a state with a rapidly growing AAPI population. With so many Republicans scapegoating Asians for political gain, Democratic messaging should provide a firm counter. Democrats must be explicit: they won’t stand for racist appeals. With 63 percent of AAPI youth (18-34) saying anti-Asian bias motivates them to political action, Democrats would do well to combat this head-on by leaning into racism. 

This cycle, Democrats avoided making substantial investments in targeted messaging to the AAPI community. Most political consultants deem the AAPI community too expensive to reach and instead continue a strategy that is hyper-focused on white swing voters. If Democrats are to win the Senate via Georgia, they can’t repeat this mistake in 2021. 

(About the author: Roshni Nedungadi is a partner at HIT Strategies. Roshni conducts public opinion research and moderates focus groups for clients looking to improve outcomes for under-examined and marginalized communities. You can follow her on Twitter @RoshniNedungadi)

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  1. Thank you Roshni!!! I have been moaning about this for decades doing my best to get out the AAPI vote! Sending this article to family in PA!


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