WASHINGTON — It began in July as a grassroots effort to mobilize Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) to vote for Donald Trump. Nearly six months later, that same base came out in the hundreds to the Mayflower Hotel Thursday night, the evening before the inauguration, to celebrate the man they elected the 45th president.
“It feels wonderful,” Lisa Shin, a member of the Asian Pacific American Advisory Committee, the gala host, told NBC News.
Shin said attendance was greater than anticipated, with between 800 and 900 people showing up to the five-hour event. The evening featured singers and various performances by ethnic AAPI dance troupes.
READ MORE: NBC News' Inauguration 2017 Coverage
The gala was one of a number on Thursday as the nation’s capital readied itself to welcome an expected 800,000 people, including protesters, for Trump’s swearing in on Friday.
Vinson Palathingal and his wife, Asha, were among the hundreds of AAPI attendees who said they felt optimistic with Trump as their next president.
“I see him as a realistic guy,” Palathingal, 50, told NBC News. “He understands how the world operates.”
Palathingal, a businessman born in India who lives in Virginia, said he voted for President Barack Obama twice, but decided this year to cast his ballot for a Republican. He called Obama “a good man,” but believes the country’s first African-American president has divided the United States.
“The hope and change I was looking for was not partisan,” said Palathingal, who identified as an Independent. “But his hope and change was partisan.”
Gurcharan Singh, a Sikh from Maryland, said he also voted for Obama in 2012. But this year he made the switch to Republican, saying Trump understands the Sikh community.
“When we look at Trump, he’s a doer, he’s an implementer,” Singh, 56, told NBC News. “Sikhs are also doers and implementers.”
Singh, a World Bank officer born in India, said the Sikh community and Trump also share a common goal “to take radical Muslims out of here.”
The enthusiasm of Thursday’s gala notwithstanding, Trump proved a tough sell for many in the AAPI community. Less than a month before the election, former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton led the real-estate mogul by nearly 41 points among Asian American registered voters, according to a survey.
Exit polls and surveys after the November election showed that Clinton still commanded that same strong support.
But Trump may have made inroads in some AAPI communities. In Pennsylvania, a battleground state that went Republican, Trump won double the base’s support compared to 2012 GOP candidate Mitt Romney, according to preliminary results of an exit poll from the the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF).
And in Nevada, another swing state that went blue, Trump received 29 percent of AAPI support compared to Romney’s 21 percent, the poll found.
Shin, founder of Korean Americans for Trump, said a lot more work needs to be done, but added that the results so far have signaled a good start.
“The fact that he didn’t pander to us and he did as well as he did is outstanding,” said Shin, who served as a New Mexico delegate to the Republican National Convention in July.
There was a time when AAPIs did lean Republican. In 1992, Asian Americans gave 55 percent of their vote to President George H.W. Bush. But since then, the GOP has watched AAPI support steadily erode, with just 26 percent voting for Romney in 2012.
AAPIs account for roughly 5 percent of registered voters.
For its part, the Republican National Committee has attempted to reclaim the AAPI base, figuring that GOP values on education and the economy will resonate with this bloc.
Those efforts, in part through the RNC’s Asian Pacific American field program, include telephoning voters, registering eligible voters, and initiating one-on-one talks with members of the community, among other things.
Now that Trump is about to take office, Shin had a message for AAPIs across the country.
“We didn’t know what to expect with Barack Obama in 2008,” she said. “We gave him a chance, and now I’m asking the community to give Trump a chance.”