Despite Trump-Modi Friendship, Survey Says Indian Americans Back Biden

Oct 27, 2020
Originally published on October 27, 2020 7:14 am

Indian Americans — a small but possibly pivotal voting bloc — are overwhelmingly voting for Joe Biden this election, according to a new survey.

Both Joe Biden and President Trump's campaigns have been courting Indian American voters this year. Indian Americans are about 1% of the U.S. population and make up .82% of all eligible voters in the U.S. — but are large enough in numbers to make a decisive difference in certain swing states.

Indian Americans historically lean Democratic. In 2016, 77% voted for Hillary Clinton and 16% for Trump.

President Trump's embrace of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi fueled speculation that it could drive many Indian American voters to the Republican Party.

But researchers from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the University of Pennsylvania say there's "little indication of a shift toward the Republican Party" among Indian Americans, who view U.S.-India ties as a low-priority issue.

"The survey is pretty unambiguous," says Milan Vaishnav, one of the study's authors who directs the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment. Of the 936 Indian American citizens surveyed in September, 72% planned to vote for Biden and 22% for Trump.

"And that is actually in keeping with past trends of the pro-Democratic orientation of Indian Americans in this country in terms of their voter turnout," Vaishnav tells NPR's Noel King on Morning Edition.

Vaishnav talked about the issues important to Indian American voters and how campaigns are reaching out. Here are excerpts from the interview:

What are the issues that draw Indian Americans to the Democratic Party?

The top three issues across the board were the state of the economy, health care and racism and racial discrimination. And in some ways, this isn't all that surprising, given that these are precisely the issues that all Americans are really worried about in the face of an economic crisis, a pandemic, and the kind of national conversation we're having around race and social justice.

What surprised us was the extent to which foreign policy really didn't rate very much. We asked Indian Americans, you know, "Will U.S.-India relations be an important determining factor for you?" And there's been a lot of talk about this because of the close partnership between President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And just 3% of Indian Americans said that this was going to be their No. 1 election issue this fall.

A person might look broadly and say, OK, 1% of the electorate spread throughout the country. The Indian American vote doesn't really matter. It's not a swing vote, for example. Any truth to that?

There is certainly truth in the absolute numbers. In fact, Indian Americans are less than 1% of the eligible electorate. However, there are two caveats to that. The first is that their numbers are growing rapidly. Indians in America have grown by more than 150% since the year 2000. Secondly, they are now sizable enough in certain swing states, places like New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Michigan, that their numbers are actually larger than the margin of victory in the 2016 presidential election. So while in aggregate they are not huge, they can be pivotal in certain swing states.

How have Republicans and Democrats reached out to Indian Americans?

We're seeing it in an unprecedented way this election. I mean, both the Trump and the Biden campaigns have cut television and online ads just for this demographic.

What the Republicans have tried to do is really emphasize again the partnership between Donald Trump and Narendra Modi to say, "We have formed a unique personal bond. And for this reason, if you want to see U.S.-India relations succeed in the future as Indian Americans, you should really come to our side."

What Joe Biden, the Democrats have really done is to say, "Indian Americans have really been the poster children for America's legacy of relatively open immigration. And if you want an America that is more inclusive, that is more tolerant, that is more welcoming to you and your family members and those who may wish to come from India after you, then there's really only one choice in this election: that is the Democratic Party."

And so we are seeing both sides really court this vote, I think, in new and interesting ways, which is a recognition that their, sort of, time in the political spotlight has really arrived.

Jeevika Verma and Reena Advani produced and edited the audio interview.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Indian Americans are the second largest immigrant group in the United States. So how much will their vote matter in the 2020 election? Milan Vaishnav is the director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His organization, along with Johns Hopkins and the University of Pennsylvania, just released a report examining how Indian Americans will vote in the election. Milan, thanks for being with us.

MILAN VAISHNAV: Thanks for having me.

KING: OK. So what are the key takeaways? And let me have you get straight to two things - who will Indian Americans be voting for? And in what kinds of numbers will they be voting?

VAISHNAV: The survey is pretty unambiguous. Seventy-two percent of Indian Americans that we surveyed across the country plan to vote for the Democratic challenger Joe Biden this November. Twenty-two percent plan to vote for Donald Trump. And that is actually in keeping with past trends of the pro-Democratic orientation of Indian Americans in this country. In terms of their voter turnout, you know, it's important to point out that there are about 4.2 million people of Indian origin residing in the country. But only 1.9 million are eligible voters. A lot of U.S.-born Indian Americans are under the age of 18. And many Indian Americans are not citizens. So we are expecting a pretty high turnout of Indian Americans. They typically turnout above the national average.

KING: So what are the issues that draw Indian Americans to the Democratic Party?

VAISHNAV: You know, we asked this in a couple of different ways. The first we asked is, you know, what is it that is really animating your vote choice this election year? And the top three issues across the board were the state of the economy, health care and racism and racial discrimination. And in some ways, you know, this isn't all that surprising, given that these are precisely the issues that all Americans are really worried about in the face of an economic crisis, a pandemic and the kind of national conversation we're having around race and social justice.

What surprised us was the extent to which foreign policy really didn't rate very much. We asked Indian Americans, you know, will U.S.-India relations be an important determining factor for you? And there's been a lot of talk about this because of the close partnership between President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And just 3% of Indian Americans said that this was going to be their No. 1 election issue this fall.

KING: Let me ask you about the numbers. Indian Americans make up about 1% of the electorate. Now, a person might look at that broadly and say, OK, 1% of the electorate spread throughout the country. The Indian American vote doesn't really matter. It's not a swing vote, for example. Any truth to that?

VAISHNAV: There is certainly truth in the absolute numbers. In fact, Indian Americans are less than 1% of the eligible electorate. However, there are two caveats to that. The first is that their numbers are growing rapidly. Indians in America have grown by more than 150% since the year 2000. Secondly, they are now sizable enough in certain swing states - places like New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Michigan - that their numbers are actually larger than the margin of victory in the 2016 presidential election. So while in aggregate they are not huge, they can be pivotal in certain swing states.

KING: Once a group has the numbers to be recognized as pivotal or potentially pivotal, the two parties typically do start reaching out to them. How have Republicans and Democrats reached out to Indian Americans? In what specific ways do we see it?

VAISHNAV: We're seeing it in an unprecedented way this election. I mean, both the Trump and the Biden campaigns have cut television and online ads just for this demographic. What the Republicans have tried to do is really emphasize, again, the partnership between Donald Trump and Narendra Modi to say, we have formed a unique, personal bond. And for this reason, if you want to see U.S.-India relations succeed in the future, as Indian Americans, you should really come to our side.

What Joe Biden, the Democrats, have really done is to say, Indian Americans have really been the poster children for America's legacy of relatively open immigration. And if you want an America that is more inclusive, that is more tolerant, that is more welcoming to you and your family members and those who may wish to come from India after you, then there's really only one choice in this election, that is the Democratic Party. And so we are seeing both sides really court this vote, I think, in new and interesting ways, which is a recognition that their sort of time in the political spotlight has really arrived.

KING: Milan Vaishnav is the director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Thank you so much for being with us.

VAISHNAV: It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.