Asian Americans — one of the deciding groups in key battleground states this cycle — voted predominately for President-elect Joe Biden, according to early exit polls.
In a CNN survey, 61 percent of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) voters backed Biden compared to 34 percent who supported President Donald Trump. In the critical swing state of Nevada, AAPI voters supported Biden 58 percent to 40 percent. And in a national election poll fielded by Asian American Decisions, Latino Decisions, and the African American Research Collaborative in the two weeks leading up to the election, 68 percent of AAPI voters said they were supporting Biden while 28 percent backed Trump.
While the data from these polls is still quite limited, researchers are confident in the direction of the results. “From all of the data that we’ve seen, it’s safe to say Asian Americans supported Biden over Trump ... backing Democrats at a roughly 2:1 ratio,” says Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political science professor at the University of California Riverside and founder of AAPI Data, a group that conducts research on voters.
This trend is consistent with recent elections — which have seen a majority of AAPI voters support Democratic candidates. A fraction of the electorate has continued to support Trump, however: This year, he appeared to gain support among Vietnamese Americans and Indian Americans compared to 2016, according to a survey by AAPI Data.
These numbers speak to the range of ideological and ethnic diversity within the Asian American electorate. Comprised of more than 15 different ethnicities, AAPI voters’ alignment with the political parties varies quite significantly, with a high proportion of AAPI voters identifying as unaffiliated. According to the Asian American Decisions survey, Korean Americans, Japanese Americans, Indian Americans, and Chinese Americans favored Biden by higher margins overall compared to groups including Vietnamese Americans and Filipino Americans.
Ultimately, if Democrats want to keep their edge with AAPI voters, campaigns must continue to invest in meaningful outreach with members of the AAPI community and address their top priorities. As the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the country, AAPI voters are increasingly poised to play a pivotal role in elections, including Georgia’s Senate runoffs in January. If Democrats are able to build on the support they’ve seen, AAPI voters could be among the groups that swing these upcoming Senate races in their favor.
AAPI voters are an extremely diverse group — and foreign policy was a factor for some backing Trump
AAPI voters are far from a monolith, and although the majority aligned themselves with Democrats in the presidential election, Trump still picked up roughly a third of the group.
While Trump’s poor handling of the pandemic — including racist rhetoric he used to describe the coronavirus as the “China virus” and “kung flu” — may have been among the factors that pushed some voters away from him, there were others who appreciated how tough his anti-China stance appeared to be.
As Vox’s Terry Nguyen has reported, Trump’s seeming willingness to confront China resonated with some Vietnamese American voters who recall the country’s imperialist efforts in Vietnam. For a segment of Chinese Americans and Filipino Americans, this same message also struck a chord.
“The issue of anti-communism or anti-China weighs heavily on the minds of the first generation,” Linda Vo, a professor of Asian American studies at the University of California, Irvine, told Nguyen. “They see the GOP as socially conservative and anti-communist, which aligns more with their values.”
Trump’s support of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — who has made anti-Muslim policies a key component of his administration — was an aspect that a segment of Indian Americans viewed positively. “Some people see Trump as an ally to Modi,” Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, previously told Vox. Conversely, Sen. Kamala Harris — who is of Jamaican and Indian descent — boosted enthusiasm for the Biden ticket among members of the South Asian American community who identified with her candidacy.
Longer-term outreach is still needed if Democrats want to win over AAPI voters
With a quarter of AAPI voters identifying as independent, according to a 2020 AAPI Data survey, it’s evident that Democrats need to maintain longer-term engagement with members of the community if they want to expand the support they saw this year. That same poll found that 44 percent of AAPI voters identify as Democrats, 23 percent identify as Republicans, and 5 percent don’t view politics in terms of party affiliation.
AAPI voters have leaned more toward Democrats over time given the anti-immigration rhetoric that’s been promoted by the Republican Party. “Since 1996, when Gov. [Pete] Wilson enacted anti-immigration laws, that’s when we saw a shift of Asian American voters from Republicans to Democrats,” Christine Chen, executive director of APIAVote, previously told Vox. That year, California’s governor signed a statewide executive order that prevented undocumented immigrants from accessing publicly funded services like housing assistance, a move he had previously championed via a ballot initiative called Proposition 187.
As more people become naturalized citizens each cycle, these new voters are also a prime opportunity for both parties, which will have to commit to substantive outreach in order to gain their support. Every election cycle, thousands of voters are becoming citizens and entering the electorate for the first time; by building strong relationships with these voters early on, parties could earn their support and loyalty.
“Democrats have a longer history of investing in the AAPI community, while Republicans have [increased theirs] in the last 10 years,” says Chen. As President-elect Joe Biden takes over the White House — and congressional lawmakers start a new term in January — Chen notes that they have an opportunity to promote members of the AAPI community in their staff and involve them in key policy conversations.
“They need to go ahead and make sure they include and engage the AAPI electorate in their discussions,” she says, emphasizing that campaigns can’t just rely on voters when elections come around if they don’t include their voices otherwise.
This year, the 2020 AAPI Data poll — which was fielded in August and September — found that about half of AAPI voters hadn’t received any contact from either political party. With strong turnout this year and more voters joining the electorate, it’s evident that AAPI voters are a key base that can’t be neglected. The upcoming races in Georgia, too, are yet another opportunity for such outreach.
“The Asian American and Pacific Islander vote is significant enough that we need to be included in the definition of what it means to be American,” Ramakrishnan says.