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Asian Americans make up a big part of the Nevada electorate — enough to sway the caucuses

They’re poised to play a major role in the early state.

Members of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 picket outside The Palms Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, on February 19, 2020.
Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Comprising 11 percent of the electorate in the state, Asian Americans are poised to play a significant role in the Nevada caucuses.

Nevada is the first early state where Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) have had such a huge presence, and will provide an important opportunity to highlight just how central the groups will be in both the 2020 Democratic primary — and the broader election.

Acknowledgment of the communities’ political power in Nevada is a fairly recent phenomenon, one that can be traced back to an incredibly close election former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid won in 2010 against Republican Sharron Angle. At the time, roughly 80 percent of AAPIs supported the Democratic senator.

“When Sen. Reid won his election, he recognized that Filipino workers were really key,” says Christine Chen, the executive director of APIAVote, a national advocacy group. In the years since, both national and regional groups have continued to organize AAPI voters in the state — with presidential campaigns beginning to catch up, too.

“Since the 2010 census, about 10 years ago, it was discovered that Nevada had the fastest-growing AAPI population. We doubled in population in 10 years,” says Duy Nguyen, the executive director of One APIA Nevada, an advocacy group dedicated to increasing AAPI voter engagement.

The increasing number of AAPI voters in the state has required campaigns to dial up outreach that’s historically been lacking, particularly as candidates seek new sources of support during a competitive primary. Because of this dynamic, experts say candidates’ engagement of AAPI voters has improved significantly this cycle, though there’s still plenty of room for growth.

“In 2019, every presidential candidate met with AAPI leaders and the AAPI caucus in Nevada; they also hired outreach directors,” says Chen, who notes that these efforts have been better than in years past. “The AAPI electorate, especially Filipino voters, were gaining more attention because of the size.”

Filipino Americans make up the majority of Nevada’s AAPI community, which is extremely diverse: 50 percent are Filipino American, 16 percent are Chinese American, 8.5 percent are Japanese American, 6.5 percent are Vietnamese American, 5 percent are Korean American, and 4 percent are Indian American. The majority of AAPI voters — 67 percent — live in Clark County, which contains Las Vegas and is located in the southern part of the state.

Nationally, Asian Americans represent a growing and increasingly important constituency for Democrats. Asian American voters have increasingly moved to the left during recent election cycles, and the same dynamic has been observed in Nevada, where 66 percent of AAPI voters supported the Democratic Senate candidate in 2016.

The limited Nevada polling that is available suggests Sen. Bernie Sanders leads the race in the state across all voters, but his rivals appear to be locked in close contests; Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg are tied at 14 percent support, according to RealClearPolitics’ polling average, for instance. The tightness of the race has spurred candidates to look to the AAPI community for support in myriad ways, including participating in presidential forums and, in Warren’s case, releasing specific policy proposals.

Given their presence in Nevada, the demographic — and its 11 percent slice of the electorate — could easily sway the race should a candidate be able to consolidate the community’s support.

Asian American voters are a diverse group — and they’ve gotten more engaged in recent elections

The growing AAPI population in Nevada has been driven by a couple of factors: The strength of both the hospitality and health care industries in the region has attracted more people to the region, and Asian-owned businesses have thrived there.

Nationally, the group includes a broad spectrum of ideological preferences. Filipino Americans tend to skew more moderate, and Indian Americans and Japanese Americans are among the more liberal groups, for example, according to Karthick Ramakrishnan, a UC Riverside political science professor who also runs an annual survey of Asian American voters. About 40 percent of AAPI voters identify as independent. And across the group, the top issues are relatively consistent, centering on health care and student loan debt.

While campaigns have increasingly worked to connect with Nevada’s AAPI community ahead of the caucuses, the community’s political engagement has been driven heavily by local advocacy organizations, including One APIA Nevada and the Asian Community Development Council, both of which are led by Asian Americans.

“When we knock on those doors and people that look like us ... see that there are AAPI organizers, it resonates with them more,” Nguyen says of One APIA Nevada. “We take those messages, we translate them to the native languages that our community reads and writes. Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese.”

In Nevada, too, the labor organizations — which are extremely powerful and influential in the state — have worked to be inclusive of Asian American voices. Fifteen percent of the Culinary Union membership is AAPI, and those members have fought for candidates who preserve workers’ rights.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren joins members of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 in Las Vegas, Nevada, on February 19, 2020.
Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images

Asian American voters had previously received low investment from campaigns, largely because they were seen as having low turnout. The recent 2018 midterms, which saw a 14-point jump in Asian American turnout, compared to 2014, proved that voters were interested in participating but needed campaigns to focus on them.

The outreach from the parties and candidates continues to improve — though there are still gaps.

According to a 2018 survey conducted by AAPI Data and APIA Vote, for example, 50 percent of AAPI voters had received no outreach or weren’t sure if they had from the Democratic Party, while 60 percent said the same about the Republican Party. There’s no updated data on this front yet but experts continue to see lags.

As Nguyen notes, there were scant mentions of AAPI voters during the Nevada Democratic debate earlier this week.

However, there have been some outreach successes. Several presidential candidates who are still in the race engaged with a Twitter town hall hosted by a slate of nonprofits last week. That conversation featured discussion of policy areas such as gun control and data disaggregation, a push to ensure that data doesn’t obscure disparities and differences within the Asian American community. Many campaigns have also hired senior staffers of Asian descent.

“That itself was an important milestone, to have all of those campaigns participating,” said Ramakrishnan, of the town hall.

Nevada is one of the first states where Asian American voters will play a major role

Nevada is one of several states in the Democratic primary to have a prominent Asian American population.

On Super Tuesday, multiple states will have a notable presence of Asian American voters: “In the immediate future, obviously California, also Texas. There’s a huge population in Houston, Austin, and Dallas,” says Chen.

In California, 15 percent of the electorate is Asian American; in Virginia, it’s 5 percent and in Texas, 4. All three states will collectively have more than 700 delegates up for grabs during the March 3 race.

Given these demographics — as well as professed AAPI ideological preferences — the Democratic Party could see major gains from increased outreach toward Asian Americans during the general election as well, particularly as Democrats seek to maintain control of the House and retake the Senate.

Democrats cannot take AAPI support for granted, however. Maintaining strong connections with the community, including effective in-language materials, accessible canvassing, and a presence in key platforms and publications, will be important. Asian American voters won’t be satisfied with “just a mention in the stump speech,” Nguyen said.