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Asian American vote carries newfound weight in swing state N.C.

Trump and Biden are locked in a dead heat in North Carolina, where the number of eligible AAPI voters could be even higher than statistics show.
Hetal Wasudev, Kailas Thakker and Shruti Parikh participate in a vote tripling effort through NCAAT in Action on Oct. 17, 2020.
Hetal Wasudev, Kailas Thakker and Shruti Parikh participate in a vote tripling effort through NCAAT in Action on Oct. 17, 2020.Dan Tewes

The picture — or the lack of one — was worth a thousand words.

“For one of our mailers, I was looking for pictures of candidates with AAPI voters — and they mostly just don't exist, because candidates aren't talking to AAPI voters,” recalls Chavi Khanna Koneru, executive director of the civic engagement organization North Carolina Asian Americans Together.

For decades, Asian American voters haven’t been courted as heartily by presidential campaigns as other groups, but the political world has started to play catch-up. And in battleground states like North Carolina, which President Donald Trump carried by less than 4 percentage points in 2016, the candidates this year really do have to fight for every vote: As of this week, RealClearPolitics polling averages showed Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden in a dead heat in North Carolina, with Biden up by less than 2 percentage points.

According to numbers compiled by APIA Vote and AAPI Data, there are nearly 172,000 eligible Asian American voters in North Carolina, representing about 3.5 percent of the electorate. The state’s total AAPI population came in at just over 363,000 — exploding by 154 percent since 2000. Indian Americans accounted for well over half of the AAPIs in North Carolina, followed by people of Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Japanese descent.

In an era and landscape of close-call races — the state’s 2016 governor’s race was decided by about 10,000 votes — “we're really focused on the fact that AAPI voters in North Carolina can be the determining factor in this election of a lifetime," said Koneru, who previously worked on AAPI language-access issues for the voting section of the Department of Justice and is also head of NCAAT’s politically engaged affiliate, NCAAT In Action.

Tom Wong, associate professor of political science and founding director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Center at the University of California at San Diego, said his research shows AAPI voters may have even more influence in North Carolina than previously believed: Based on a study he conducted in coordination with NCAAT that factored in genealogical information and direct voter outreach and adjusted for errors in self-identification -- such as Indian Americans checking boxes for "American Indian" on official forms -- Wong believes the number of AAPI voters could be more than 200,000.

While there are currently more registered Democrats than Republicans in North Carolina, Wong notes that AAPI voters are more likely to be registered as unaffiliated than other groups: "The AAPI electorate is not monolithic and is not tied to a particular party," he said. "In other words, the AAPI electorate is up for grabs."

However, Wong — who served as a White House adviser on AAPI issues during the Obama years — said his research shows that the 1 out of 5 North Carolina AAPI voters surveyed said they had experienced discrimination during the pandemic. Significant numbers of voters said they were less likely to support a candidate that used terms like "Chinese virus" or "kung flu" in discussing the pandemic, according to Wong, and want a president who tries to understand the issues facing AAPIs.

Overall, then, "when we think about how these data triangulate, then my conclusion is that AAPI voters in North Carolina are likely to vote for Biden, potentially even as a bloc, because of the experience of discrimination during Covid-19," Wong said.

Team Trump, however, said that its message and its candidate will prove to have broad appeal to AAPI voters in North Carolina and beyond.

“As an Asian American from North Carolina, I know full well that the president’s message of hard work, low taxes, safer streets, and increased opportunity strongly resonates with our community,” said Ken Farnaso, deputy national press secretary for the Trump campaign. “Big government leads to less freedom, and Biden’s communist agenda mirrors that of so many failed governments where many of our families have come from. In two weeks, North Carolina will handily deliver a win for President Trump.”

To score that win in North Carolina, the Trump campaign said it's assembled more than 100 active AAPI volunteers -- 80 percent of them first-timers -- to engage in grassroots activities such as phone banking and door knocking. Trump 2020 has also held trainings and meet-ups in Mandarin and Vietnamese, and volunteers have run donation drives to bring personal protective equipment to local hospitals.

In response to questions about whether Trump is damaging his standing with AAPI voters — or stirring up sentiment against them — with his rhetoric, Farnaso said the president “has explicitly called for all Americans to ‘protect our Asian American community in the United States,’ and continued that this ‘is not their fault in any way, shape, or form.’ To insinuate otherwise is a disingenuous attempt to attack our president and breed uncertainty.”

Added Farnaso, “As a first-generation Filipino American, I am confident that President Trump has taken every necessary step to combat this virus and has been advised by data, science, research and the experts.”

Meanwhile, as part of its broader Coalitions Team work with 22 key constituencies, including AAPI voters, the Biden campaign has a North Carolina Voter Protection Team and a hotline that offers help in Hindi and Mandarin in addition to Spanish, French and Russian. This month, among other events, Biden for President North Carolina hosted an "Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Assemble" virtual bus tour with local AAPI leaders and supporters such as the Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan, the campaign's director of surrogates.

Signaling how vital North Carolina is to both campaigns, Trump and Biden running mate Sen. Kamala Harris both visited the state on Wednesday.

For North Carolinians like Ronnie Chatterji, a candidate for state treasurer and member of the Biden AAPI Leadership Coalition, seeing Harris on the ticket matters.

"It's motivated me. When I saw Kamala Harris at the Democratic National Convention, she was quoting her own mother, Shyamala — 'My mother raised us to be strong black women, but also be proud of our Indian heritage.' And to me, to hear that was amazing, and I can look at my own daughter and tell her, 'Only in America is that going to happen.'"

"Kamala Harris being hopefully our next vice president is going to set an example for so many people, myself included,” said Chatterji, who’s also a professor of business and public policy at Duke University.

For his part, Chatterji said he sees that outreach to AAPI voters has adapted to recognize that Asian Americans are not a monolith when it comes to either their origin countries or their political interests.

"It used to be that politicians would come speak to Indian Americans -- the community I'm part of -- and they'd say the same old line over and over again: 'We represent the world's oldest democracy, and India is the world's largest democracy, and thus, I should get your support.' Now, it's a lot more sophisticated," he said. "People understand that a large part of the Asian American community [might] not necessarily care as much about foreign policy vis a vis Asia, but really care about the issues around health care and economic opportunity in places like North Carolina."

Still, there’s a lot of room to grow as far as engaging AAPI voters on issues that resonate — a task that’s been complicated by the pandemic: According to the 2020 Asian American Voter Survey, "half of Asian voters reported they were not contacted by either major party in the ramp up to Election Day," notes the Nielsen research company.

Koneru, of NCAAT in Action, attributed the relatively little emphasis that campaigns have historically put on appealing directly to AAPI voters in potentially pivotal North Carolina in part to the culture of the region.

“We're in the South, and the conversation -- the racial conversation, the political conversation -- it's really always been black and white," she said.