Election 2020

How South Asian Voters Shaped the 2020 Election

A woman wearing face mask holds a sign that says “desis for Biden Harris.”
A woman wearing face mask holds a sign that says “desis for Biden Harris.”

South Asian Americans make up around 2% of the American population and comprise an even smaller percent of registered voters in the United States. But you wouldn’t know it from the outsized effort candidates made to target the desi vote this election cycle.

For the first time in United States history, political analysts projected that South Asian Americans would be a key factor that tipped not only the presidential vote in key swing states, but also electoral decisions in local races nationwide. Now that a president-elect and the vice president-elect have been decided, the role the South Asian American vote played in this historic election is clear.

Here’s why:

  • In no small part due to the growing number of South Asian Americans working on political campaigns across the country, the 2020 election cycle saw a record number of advertisements and candidate pitches targeted directly to segments of the South Asian American population, followed by soaring Asian American voter turnout.
  • A record-breaking number of South Asian candidates ran for office this cycle. From Nithya Raman (D), who made waves in Los Angeles with her progressive campaign for city council, to Sri Kulkarni (D), who hoped to turn Texas blue by gaining a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives to Sara Gideon (D), who nearly unseated Susan Collins in Maine, and several dozen more across the country.
  • The prediction that either Donald Trump’s alliance with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi or president-elect Joe Biden and vice president-elect Kamala Harris’s past criticism of Hindu nationalist policies in India would specifically sway Indian American voters to the Republican party largely did not pan out. A nationally representative poll of Indian voters conducted by YouGov showed that Democrats can continue to be secure in their ability to capture at least the Indian American vote.
  • As the Asian American population continues growing more quickly than any other immigrant group in the country, national campaigns will no longer be able to avoid targeted outreach to South Asian American voters.

For decades, historically low voter turnout in the Asian American community and a lack of diverse campaign workers equipped to conduct outreach in immigrant communities meant we were largely forgotten in voter outreach. So when campaigns tried to woo South Asian voters or tap into some members of the community’s deep pockets with no staffers to provide an insight into meaningful engagement with the South Asian community would look like, they often had to resort to “brownpandering.”

“A big part of why it comes off as [pandering] is because they’re not trying to reach South Asian American communities by helping them form political power with policies and change, but just using them for a photo opportunity or excuse to show that they’re ‘with the culture,’ just because of their identity,” says Nikita Chaudhry, creative and digital organizing lead with Chalo Vote!, a civic education initiative for South Asian voters.

Candidates this election cycle weren’t free from the pitfalls of these types of gimmicks. Donald Trump spent tens of thousands of dollars circulating a series of advertisements aiming to charm Indian Americans calling them, “truly spectacular people,” and thanking them for their contributions to “[his] beloved country.”

This was the first time a Republican presidential candidate spent this amount of money to target Indian American voters. But his effort to reach Indian Americans didn’t start when his campaign officially kicked off — in 2018. For years, organizations like “Hindus for Trump” were already making massive ad buys on stations like California’s Radio Punjab. And last year, the president’s “Howdy, Modi!” event made headlines for the huge crowds that gathered to watch the politician address his Indian American supporters in Texas.

But across the aisle, candidates succeeded in truly connecting with South Asian voters. Bernie Sanders kicked off primary season by circulating visuals with his platform details, campaign images, and posters in languages that included Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi, targeting one of the most pervasive forms of South Asian American voter disenfranchisement — a lack of language access. The decision was no fluke. The Sanders campaign was headed by prominent South Asian Americans like Ro Khanna and Faiz Shakir, who were intimately familiar with the South Asian community and the South Asian vote and it wasn’t the only one. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Pete Buttigieg all had South Asian Americans in their campaign leadership’s ranks.

Just weeks before the polls closed, the Joe Biden campaign released an op-ed directly addressing the Indian American community, accompanied by videos comparing the two presidential candidates in Hindi. Rather than focusing on issues favored by Republicans in their appeals to South Asians like the economy or foreign policy, Biden ads featuring South Asian Americans emphasized a platform of multiculturalism and ending discrimination against racial minorities in the U.S.. Ads included appearances from prominent South Asian supporters like Sendhil Ramamurthy (who appears in Netflix’s Never Have I Ever and USA’s Covert Affairs) and Rizwan Manji (who many know from PopTV’s Schitt’s Creek) urging uncles and aunties to vote.

“They’re talking to you like they’re your bhaiya, or your didi, like your family, something that only we can understand and relate to,” explains Chaudhry. “In the South Asian American community, that’s what’s most important for people to realize about our own political power — that there are people in your circle that only you can influence, that only you have the power to talk to. One of the things that Chalo Vote! has really tried to do is relational organizing that’s actually community based and community powered.”

Chalo Vote! wasn’t the only group trying to help South Asians claim their political power. In the last few months, dozens of civic organizations worked around the clock to turn out South Asian voters.

Nausheen Rajan and Senya Merchant founded Ismailis Rise Up earlier this year to train hundreds of Ismailis across the country, ranging in age from 13 to 77, on electoral organizing during a pandemic. They held civic education events, created get out the vote scripts and voter education videos in five different languages, trained poll workers and poll watchers, and conducted outreach to thousands of, “our uncles, aunties, nanis, dadis, and cousins to remind them this election is for all of us,” as the founders put it.

This impacts the American civic landscape beyond the end of this election cycle.

“Our campaign registered and successfully got ballots dropped off for a couple of hundred first time voters,” Merchant said. “And studies that show that people who vote just one time then develop lifelong behaviors of civic engagement that go beyond just voting.

“We hit home the idea that we can no longer remain silent about our communities’ needs and hope that our political leaders will act with our best interests in mind,” Rajan explained.

Chalo Vote! also started as an organization working to mobilize eligible South Asian American voters by providing language-accessible voter guides in two of the most decisive swing states in the election’s outcome — Michigan and Pennsylvania.

“In both Michigan and Pennsylvania, the number of South Asian voters was significantly larger than the margin of victory in 2016,” Chaudhry says. In battleground states this year, 19% more Asian Americans voted early than the number who voted in any form in the 2016 general election. “As of 2016, over 70% of South Asian Americans had never been reached out to by a political campaign. We really wanted South Asian Americans to feel more seen by the U.S. political system and be more inspired and mobilized to get involved.”

Indeed, this year there were dozens of races where South Asian Americans were running up and down the ballot.

“I was an intern on Capitol Hill in 1985 when I was 20 years old and I can’t recall seeing anyone who looked like me on the Hill,” says Ami Bera, who represents California’s 7th district in Congress. “When I first got elected to Congress in 2012, I was the only Indian American member of Congress and only the third in U.S. history. Fast-forward to where we are today and you see South Asians not just in elected office, you see South Asian chiefs of staff and legislative staff.”

This year, over 30 South Asian Americans ran for Congress. Though none of them will be joining Bera, Raja Krishnamoorthy, Pramila Jayapal, and Ro Khanna in Washington, candidates down the ballot scored some big wins. Niraj Antani (R) made history last week as the first Indian American elected to Ohio state senate, Jeremy Cooney (D) and Zohran Kwame Mamdani (D) will be joining state government in New York, Nithya Raman (D) and Omar Din (D) will be joining local government in California, and many more.

“This next generation of folks don’t see themselves as outsiders,” Bera adds. “This generation that was born and raised in America, they’re saying ‘why can’t I run for office?’ I think we’ll continue to see more folks running and more folks getting elected.”

“Let’s not be surprised at all if we start to see, fingers crossed, overrepresentation of Asian Americans in Congress and legislative bodies through the country,” says Varun Nikore, the executive director of the AAPI Victory Fund, an organization working to mobilize Asian American voters.

The desi vote is only going to increase in importance in coming elections, as the growth of the South Asian American population continues to vastly outpace the increase in size of most other ethnic groups in the country. According to census data, in the last decade, the South Asian American population has grown by around 45%, compared to a 5% increase in the size of the American population as a whole. The increase in Asian American voter turnout is similarly outpacing that of any other ethnic group across the country and because many South Asian Americans live in crucial swing states like Texas and Michigan, their influence is yet greater.

But the work isn’t done yet. The aftermath of the presidential election is still fraught with peril for people of color, including South Asian Americans, who fear violence from disgruntled Trump supporters.

“There has already been evidence of armed violence,” Merchant says. “We would be naive to not at least mentally prepare for the fact that this is a very real possibility that our organizers are going to have to confront and that we’re going to have to support them in. We’re staying on high alert and we’re just going to be taking it hour by hour.”

And even after Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are inaugurated, the fight is far from over.

“South Asian working-class populations, limited English proficient populations, and those with temporal immigration status face the disproportionate impact of this pandemic as well as the entrenched inequities of our inequitable systems and glaring lack of government protections,” explains Lakshmi Sridharan, the executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together, a racial justice nonprofit.

“Under Biden… we’ll be advocating for policies promoting transformation of systems,” she continues. “That means a total overhaul of our immigration system that provides permanent protections for all immigrants, Covid-19 relief packages that include immigrants of all statuses, vastly improved language accessibility across government programs and resources, and a complete reimagination of policing as we know it.”

She goes on.

“We will continue to reject all policies and political rhetoric that are rooted in Islamophobia, racism, or xenophobia because that endangers all of us.”

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