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Asian American voters support Biden at 54% and Trump at 30%, but numbers don't tell full story

Biden leads among Asian Americans, and Trump has both gained and lost ground, researchers say.
People wait in line to hand in their ballots to election officials after voting at a YMCA in Chinatown during the Massachusetts primary in Boston on Sept. 1.Joseph Prezioso / AFP - Getty Images

With less than two months until the presidential election, Asian American and Pacific Islander voters are favoring Democratic candidate Joe Biden, according to a survey published Tuesday that examined the community's attitudes toward the election.

The survey revealed that 54 percent of Asian Americans would vote for Biden if they were to choose today, while about 30 percent would pick President Donald Trump. Another 15 percent reported that they were undecided, according to the survey by the nonprofits AAPI Data, APIAVote and Asian Americans Advancing Justice|AAJC.

The results show that some subgroups have made surprising shifts. While past elections suggest that Asian Americans have moved significantly toward the Democratic Party, this year's results show that some groups are moving to the right, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, director of AAPI Data.

"Trump has actually made some ground," said Ramakrishnan, a professor of public policy and political science at the University of California, Riverside. "There's been some movement for sure."

The results appear to deviate slightly from voting patterns observed in the 2012 election. According to a poll that the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund conducted in 11 Asian languages, 79 percent of Asian Americans polled voted for Hillary Clinton, while 18 percent chose Trump.

That survey, which examined six major Asian American groups, was conducted in English, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese. The organization has previously said that a survey conducted in more languages could include more voters who have limited English proficiency.

Ramakrishnan said there have been some signs of a shift rightward during Trump's presidency, particularly among Vietnamese Americans. He said a 2016 pre-election survey showed that Vietnamese Americans were least supportive of accepting Syrian refugees compared to other groups, even though the Vietnamese population in the U.S. is a heavily refugee community. Ramakrishnan said the Trump administration has played into the idea of a "good immigrant versus bad immigrant" mentality, which could have affected the already conservative segment of Vietnamese American voters.

"Trump has created a kind of 'us versus them,'" he said. "Even among certain aspects of the immigrant and refugee population, he's created divisions. He's done it."

About 48 percent of Vietnamese Americans reported that they would vote for Trump, while 36 percent said they would vote for Biden if they had to choose today.

Trump has also made a dent in the Indian American community, a group that has been overwhelmingly Democrat. The 2016 exit polls showed that South Asians, including Indian Americans, had the strongest support for Clinton at 90 percent. The new survey shows 65 percent of the community would vote for Biden and 28 percent would choose Trump. Ramakrishnan said Trump's friendly relationship with India's controversial prime minister, Narendra Modi, could have something to do with it. The pair appeared before a crowd at a rally in Houston last year, as well as before another large audience in Modi's hometown in Gujarat this year — moves that were interpreted as efforts to connect with the Indian American community.

Results from Chinese American voters were notable, as well. Ramakrishnan said the Chinese American community, which previously saw a growing "Chinese Americans for Trump" movement, hasn't moved toward the Republican Party. Along with Indian Americans, Chinese Americans had the smallest proportion of Republican Party affiliation, at 16 percent.

"His very strong anti-China rhetoric policy seems to have cooled off the 'Chinese Americans for Trump' phenomenon quite a bit," Ramakrishnan said.

He added that the formidable campaign launched by Andrew Yang, who is Taiwanese American, also may have made a difference.

Ramakrishnan said Asian American voters overall surged leftward after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as many viewed Democrats as the stronger party to fight discrimination. Following the attacks, people from the Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian American communities experienced rampant discrimination and hate attacks. Federal charges were brought against 54 defendants, with 48 convictions thus far.

However, the Republican Party doubled down on nativism and nationalism, Ramakrishnan said. The racial group continued the trend leftward with its support of Barack Obama, who performed very well among Asian Americans and won support from every major national origin group in 2012, including Vietnamese and Filipino Americans. Traditionally, those groups have skewed conservative.

When looking at candidate support in the survey, John C. Yang, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice|AAJC, said both presidential candidates have more work to do to clinch the Asian American vote. He underscored that past surveys suggest that there could be more movement before the election.

For example, 55 percent of respondents chose Clinton in the 2016 national Asian American survey. In 2012, 43 percent of respondents chose Obama, while 24 percent chose Mitt Romney. Exit polls revealed that in both 2012 and 2016, Asian Americans chose the Democratic candidate by a 2-to-1 ratio.

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Outreach remains a concern for the community, as the majority of Asian Americans, 58 percent, reported no contact from either party. Even so, the Asian American electorate seems to be particularly energized for this election cycle. Compared to previous elections, 54 percent of the group reported being more enthusiastic. In contrast, 18 percent reported less enthusiasm.

Many Asian Americans skew left on issues at the core of this election cycle. A majority supported stronger federal climate change policies, and most agreed with the idea of reallocating law enforcement funds. On civil rights, more than 60 percent agreed that the government should do more to give Black Americans equal rights with whites.

"The issues that Asian Americans are increasingly concerned about are issues that often have been the focus of progressives. Issues like the environment, health care and racial justice resonate within the Asian American community," Yang said. "The shift in this country of attacking immigration, Asian Americans being targeted in racist physical and verbal attacks, and seeing our country being divided by hate are all contributing factors to how our community is responding and shifting its attitudes and beliefs."

The Asian American electorate, made up of more than 11 million eligible voters, has grown significantly in recent years, ballooning by 130 percent in the past two decades. The rapid rate of change makes the group the fastest-growing demographic of eligible voters compared to all other major races and ethnicities, according to Pew Research. In comparison, the white electorate grew by 7 percent in the same period.