For Charles Vaaler, a 19-year-old Korean American student at Occidental College in Los Angeles, the election weighs heavily on his mind. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death last week, leading to a vacancy on the Supreme Court and the potential for her to be replaced by a conservative, has become a primary impetus for him to become involved in the political process.
While Vaaler acknowledges that he’s voting for Joe Biden, he said his interest in the election has little to do with strong support for a particular candidate.
"If candidates start talking about issues that especially Asian Americans care about, whether it is actually something about more diversity within certain groups of government or just general stuff like this Supreme Court nominee, I feel like young Asians will be more motivated to get out and vote,” he told NBC Asian America.
His views reflect those of many young Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), who don’t find either Biden or President Donald Trump particularly compelling, according to a new poll, which NBC Asian America is first to report on.
The survey, which included 18 to 34 year olds, showed that 73 percent would vote for Biden if they had to choose today while 17 percent would support Trump. Another 10 percent said they were either undecided or will not be voting. However, the candidates appeared at the bottom of a list of almost a dozen factors that motivate participants to vote.
The nonprofit RUN AAPI, which partnered with the National AAPI Power Fund and the National Education Association, released the polls in tandem with its #TheNew voting campaign. The initiative, which involves several high-profile Asian Americans like Taika Waititi and Ross Butler, aims to mobilize young AAPI voters, an often-overlooked demographic. The study, which surveyed 800 youth in English, further broke down vote choice by the five largest Asian American ethnicities. Every group reported a 70 percent or higher preference for Biden.
But that doesn’t mean Biden can bank on young AAPIs for enthusiastic support. Of those who said they’d choose Biden, 50 percent said their decision would more so be a vote against Trump while 35 percent said they would be voting more for Biden. In comparison, 64 percent of those who support Trump said their vote would be for the incumbent and 24 percent said their vote would signify a vote against Biden.
The survey also shows that one in three young AAPI unregistered voters do not plan to register to vote. The largest barriers were categorized as “motivational,” meaning they don’t see any candidates to vote for, because they don’t think their votes will make a difference, or because they don’t care enough about politics.
“I feel like it's much more like an obligation to vote. I mean, it's basically two old white men trying to vie for a vote from young voters and minorities … without really acknowledging our issues or our values or our struggles, to the degree where I feel like that they're going to actually change the system to help us,” Vaaler said.
Perhaps, Vaaler said, he’d feel differently if Democrats and Republicans made more of an effort to reach out to young Asian Americans like himself. The survey showed that 2 in 5 Asian Americans had been contacted by political parties. Vaaler was not contacted by either party and rather his personal, progressive beliefs have been a primary driver in this election. The parties are “completely ignoring another whole bloc of voters that could help them in the election,” the young voter said of Asian Americans.
“I felt like if a candidate is reaching out to me personally, and sharing my issues, and my values of what I think the country should be like, it definitely would make my opinion of the candidate greater or definitely be more likely to support him or her or them,” he said.
Lee said that historically, the youth have much lower turnout rates compared to older voters. The turnout gap between the youngest and oldest age groups in the 2018 elections in Georgia, Iowa and Delaware was 41.3 percent. It wasn’t much of an improvement from more than a decade before. In 2006, the gap was at 42.6 percent.
“I think as younger citizens who are still figuring out what they think about politics and how political choices connect to their everyday lives, like whether they can expect to be covered for health insurance in their next job, what to expect in terms of parental leave if they start a family, how to fight gun violence and police violence, and so on — the motivation to see civic and political engagement as one way to fight for your interests will be less set in stone than for older citizens,” Lee said.
Karthick Ramakrishnan, a public policy and political science professor at the University of California, Riverside, noted that among lower levels of enthusiasm among youth voters of color could be linked to the idea that the political system is unresponsive to the needs and demands of young people. Ramakrishnan, whose nonprofit organization AAPI Data spearheaded research on the larger Asian American electorate, said his survey respondents had high support for environmental causes, Black Lives Matter and gun control.
“If neither party is taking a bold stance on these issues, young people are less likely to think that their vote will make a difference,” he said.
Converting those who have motivational barriers to political engagement is a difficult task, but Lee said that at minimum, candidates and parties need to begin to talk about issues that matter to AAPI voters, rather than centering the race around Trump. The results showed that responding to the Covid-19 pandemic and economic recovery were among the top of the list of key turnout issues. When asked about issue priorities specifically facing young Asian Americans, the pandemic response, job, wages and unemployment benefits, and fighting systemic racism appeared on top.
Lee also urged organizations to spread awareness about the issues the AAPI youth are passionate about and the group’s stances on these topics. The survey showed that respondents were overwhelmingly in support of the Green New Deal as a vehicle to fight climate change, #BlackLivesMatter as an effective movement for change, as well as affirmative action as a tool to increase opportunities for underrepresented minorities.
“I would imagine many young AAPI voters will be surprised by how progressive other young AAPI voters are about the issues they care about,” he said. “And when you see that you are not alone, that builds motivation and builds movement.”
AAPI Data’s survey of the greater Asian American and Pacific Islander population showed support for Biden wasn’t as pronounced. But the data did reveal that the majority would vote for the Democratic candidate with 54 percent of Asian Americans reporting they would choose Biden if they were to choose today. About 30 percent would pick Trump.
The Asian American electorate is becoming increasingly influential, as the group is the fastest growing demographic of eligible voters compared to all other major races and ethnicities, according to Pew Research. The white electorate grew by 7 percent in the same period. However, experts point out that the group hasn’t been as politically active as others, with 42 percent voter turnout rate in 2018. The Black community, in comparison, had a turnout rate of 51 percent.
Paul Ong, a research professor at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, previously noted that Asian America is a predominantly immigrant community, it faces unique barriers, having to engage in multiple stages of political acculturation. For Asian Americans, participating in the political process often means having to naturalize, register, and finally vote.
“Naturalization often requires learning a new language, as well as American history and civics. Many come from countries where political engagement is discouraged, culturally and by the powerful,” Ong said. “It is not just the immigrants, but also their children because political education starts at home."
Still, Ong called the survey results “remarkable,” saying that in 2016 and 2018 Asian Americans lagged significantly behind white and Black Americans in voter registration.
“If true, we are seeing a real political transformation among younger Asian American adults,” he said,” Ong said. “In the last presidential election, only about half of younger Asian American adults registered to vote, and this survey indicates that more than 7 in 10 are now registered for the upcoming election. A remarkable shift!”