@michelleluo via Twenty20

Asian Americans are the fastest-growing electorate in the country, especially in Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arizona, and Georgia, and currently total more than 11 million eligible voters nationwide. In several battleground states, voters in urban areas where Asian Americans are highly concentrated proved to be the key in swinging those traditionally Republican-leaning states for Biden. Asian Americans “literally will make up the margins of victory in key races across our battlefield,” predicted Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairperson Rep. Cheri Bustos in a pre-election press conference held in October that discussed voter outreach efforts in Georgia.  

Most Asian Americans remain concentrated in states like California and New York where they represent a sizable share of those state’s electorates. Yet, in the battleground state of Georgia—which has not voted Democratic in a presidential election since the 1960s—the Asian American population has nearly tripled in the last 20 years, and currently includes approximately 300,000 registered voters. This represents nearly 10% of all voters in the three counties—Fulton, Gwinnett, and DeKalb—in and around Atlanta that narrowly decided the state for Biden. 

Biden’s unexpected victory in Georgia and other battleground states is due at least in part to this year’s unprecedented political activation of Asian American voters. A national survey conducted by AAPIData found that most Asian American voters were more enthusiastic about voting this year compared to previous years. Two-thirds of Asian American voters said they planned to vote absentee or through early voting, and according to a study by Catalist, Asian American, early voting in Georgia and 12 other battleground states increased by 300% compared to 2016. In Georgia, a survey by AAPI Civic Engagement Fund found that 41% of Asian American voters in Georgia’s 7th Congressional District cast their ballot for the first time this election. 

For many Asian American voters, concerns over the economy, health care, and disapproval over the Trump administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic were strong motivators for turning out to vote this year; many of those voters also expressed greater favorability for Biden’s candidacy. For Asian American supporters of Trump—including the nearly half of Vietnamese American voters who said in pre-election surveys that they were planning to vote for him—concerns over foreign policy and U.S.-China relations were more pressing policy priorities. 

Both Democrats and Republicans competed this year to win the Asian American vote, suggesting that both parties recognized the pivotal role that Asian American voters would play in the 2020 presidential election and in down-ballot races, particularly in battleground states where the Asian Americans electorate is larger than the projected margin of victory in those states. 

Asian American voters are traditionally under-engaged by major political parties: only about 20% of Asian American voters report having been contacted by either Democrats or Republicans in the 2016 election; that number doubled to about 40% of Asian American voters in 2020. However, while the Republican party focused primarily on engaging Asian Americans through large rally-style events, Democrats opted to prioritize in-language outreach to Asian American voters and interpersonal contact between Asian American campaign volunteers and first-time Asian American voters – a strategy aimed at building intimate and lasting connections between the Asian American electorate and the Democratic party.

The Indian American electorate was a particular focus for the Biden campaign, motivated at least in part by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ historic run that would make her the first Black and Indian American woman to win that office. Indian Americans represent the largest segment of Asian American voters in Georgia, and the Biden campaign’s efforts to engage the Indian American community there helped to cement his victory in that state. 

Two years ago, only half of Indian American voters were registered Democrats, yet more than 75% of Indian American voters support traditionally progressive values, such as a higher minimum wage, stricter gun control, and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Despite Trump’s efforts to erode Democrats’ Indian American support through high-profile events featuring Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Biden campaign countered with major investments in digital and print advertisements, events and webinars, and voter education materials translated into 14 Asian American languages and targeting Asian American ethnic groups. In Georgia, the campaign organized several events in the weeks leading up to Election Day that targeted Indian American voters and that included Tamil, Hindi, and Punjabi language support. As a result, a pre-election survey found that more than two-thirds of Indian American voters planned to vote for Biden this year, and nearly half of Indian American voters cited Harris’ candidacy as a reason for their heightened enthusiasm. 

The Biden campaign took a similar approach across the country in a state-by-state campaign to build a broad coalition of support that includes Asian American stakeholders. In Nevada—where half of the state’s over 250,000 Asian Americans identify as Filipino and where the number of eligible Asian American voters has more than tripled to now comprise 10% of voters in Las Vegas’ Clark county—Biden’s campaign hired Filipino American staffers and organized weekly phone banks in Tagalog in an effort to mobilize the state’s Filipino American voters. They organized events focused on Filipino American culture and labor-organizing history and encouraged Filipino American campaign volunteers to contact their friends and family, reminding them to vote. 

Unlike the Indian American electorate, Filipino American voters are evenly split between registered Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. Still, they also had among the highest voter enthusiasm of any Asian American ethnic group this election cycle. Fifty-two percent of Filipino American voters said in pre-election polling that they planned to vote for Biden. Exit polling is consistent with this finding: Biden won more than 60% of the Latino and Asian vote, and 80% of the Black vote in Nevada, helping to ensure his razor-thin victory in the state.

“We’re proud of our individualized and culturally relevant outreach to engage with some of the AAPI voters who may have felt neglected before,” said Amit Jani, Biden’s national AAPI director, to Vox earlier this year. “We’ve worked hard to ensure the AAPI community feels galvanized, empowered, and heard—that their voices and votes matter.”

One segment of the Asian American electorate where Biden failed to make inroads, however, is among Vietnamese Americans, who traditionally lean politically conservative. Forty-eight percent of surveyed Vietnamese American voters favored Trump in pre-election polling (compared to only 36% of voters preferring Biden), suggesting strong support for Trump even beyond the 38% of Vietnamese American voters who self-identify as Republican. 

Vietnamese American community organizers note that Trump’s anti-China rhetoric and his repeated condemnation of leftist politics might have appealed to some Vietnamese Americans. “A lot of us are affiliated with South Vietnam,” explains Dr. Anh Thu Bui, board member of the Progressive Vietnamese American Organization, which was founded in 2017 to advance progressive ideas within the Vietnamese American community. Bui notes that the region was formally known as the Republic of Vietnam, and that during the Vietnam War, many Vietnamese from the area were forced to flee China- and Soviet Union-backed communist forces and seek refuge in the United States and elsewhere. “If you’re Vietnamese and you’re coming from that history, and you’re presented with Republican and Democrat [in the United States] just the emotional response to those terms is telling,” adds Bui. 

“[Trump] fought against communists, he fought against communism and that’s the reason we are supporting him,” said community organizer Michelle Do in an interview with CBSN Los Angeles. Do organized a pro-Trump rally in October at a local Vietnamese American business in Los Angeles that attracted hundreds of attendees. Vietnamese Americans represent a sizable proportion of voters in California, as well as in Texas, a state that Trump held onto only narrowly this year. Improved voter outreach to Vietnamese Americans might have altered those opinions and affected the electoral outcome in that state: Vietnamese Americans report some of the lowest rates of contact by either Democrats or Republicans in the weeks leading up to the 2020 election.

With the presidential election results settled due at least in part to unprecedented Asian American voter turnout, Democrats are now turning their attention back to Georgia, where the Democratic party hopes to win in two runoff races that will decide political control of the Senate. Democrats are hoping to continue the momentum built by the Biden campaign among Georgia’s Asian Americans, which they believe will help secure victory in those races. Both Democratic Senate candidates have hired Asian American outreach directors. National Asian American political advocacy groups such as the Asian American Advocacy Fund are also leading grassroots efforts to mobilize Georgia’s Asian American voters and encourage them to return to the polls in January. 

“Voters will come out for people who have conversations with them who see them, who talk to them and who consider them to be an important part of the electorate,” said Georgia State Representative Bee Nguyen in an interview with CNN. “You have to invest in all voters. You have to invest early, and you have to invest in on the ground strategies and build broad based coalitions.”

Jenn Fang

Jenn Fang