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Asian Americans are growing fastest in Nevada. Here's how they voted.

In Nevada, observers say, Filipino Americans illustrate the complexity of — and the need for nuance in — voter outreach efforts.
Image: Early Votes Begins In Nevada Ahead Of 2020 Election
People line up to vote at a shopping center on the first day of in-person early voting in Las Vegas on Oct. 17.Ethan Miller / Getty Images

"TikTok Titas" in the Silver State may have helped Joe Biden win gold in this year's dramatic presidential election.

Older Filipina American women — known as "titas" — made a splash in Nevada in get-out-the-vote moments during the campaign, from vibrant car parades to popular TikTok clips. They're just one of a variety of Asian American and Pacific Islander groups that came out enthusiastically for Biden's campaign even amid the stress and unusual circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic, said Christian Bato, the Biden campaign's lead for AAPI outreach in Nevada.

With 98 percent of the expected vote reported, Biden had won just over 50 percent in Nevada to 47.5 percent for President Donald Trump. The difference was less than 37,000 votes.

According to Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote, or APIAVote, a nonpartisan civic engagement group, there were more than 209,000 eligible AAPI voters in Nevada going into the election, about 11 percent of the state's electorate.

Asian Americans are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the U.S. And according to the 2010 census, it is in Nevada that their numbers have been increasing the fastest.

Exit polling indicated that 58 percent of Asian American voters in Nevada supported Biden and 40 percent chose Trump.

"Even though Asian American voters can be a smaller segment of the electorate — which they usually are — when they show strong support for one candidate in a very close race, they could actually make the difference," said Jerry Vattamala, director of the Democracy Program for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, or AALDEF. "I think we saw that [in] Nevada and a few other states where [you had] these razor-thin margins."

Just under half the people questioned in AALDEF's separate exit poll of early voters in Clark County, which includes the state's AAPI center, Las Vegas, identified as Filipino American. Among those Filipino Americans, 56 percent supported Biden, while 44 percent backed Trump. Biden did better among those of self-identified Chinese descent, AALDEF found, winning 64 percent of the early vote to Trump's 29 percent, and Biden was even more successful among people of Korean and Indian heritage.

Among first-time AAPIs who voted early in Clark County, 63 percent chose Biden and 37 percent chose Trump, Vattamala said. That compared to 53 percent for Biden and 42 percent for Trump among those who had voted in the past.

Overall, 51 percent of people in the AALDEF survey identified themselves as Democrats, 36 percent identified as Republicans, 11 percent said they were not members of any party, and 2 percent said they were members of some other party.

Notably, more than half the AAPI voters whom AALDEF surveyed during early voting said they were born in the U.S., and more than half said English was their native language. Vattamala said past surveys have shown that foreign-born voters and those who have limited proficiency in English — "the very people [Trump] was trying to keep out of the country," as he put it — were more inclined to support Trump.

In Nevada, other data gathered by AALDEF suggest how AAPI voters — at least those who went to the polls early — may have been inclined to trend toward Biden.

For example, about 55 percent said they disapproved or strongly disapproved of the job Trump is doing as president, Vattamala said. Around 70 percent of those surveyed said they supported or strongly supported a woman's right to an abortion as established by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade. Overwhelming majorities said they support laws protecting gay and transgender people from discrimination in housing and public accommodation and want to see comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for the undocumented.

Bato, of the Biden campaign, said Asian American voters in the state were highly motivated "given the circumstances of everything — Covid-19, President Trump's rhetoric specifically targeting the Asian American community" and the presence of Sen. Kamala Harris, who is of both Black and Indian descent, on the ticket. The campaign drew enthusiasm from a variety of groups even with the stress and the unusual circumstances of the pandemic, he said.

"There was a lot of energy and momentum that we helped assist, but it really came from the community. They were very excited to have their voice heard, to reject some of that vitriol and the rhetoric that was targeted towards our community and to really uplift and elect the first Black, Asian American woman to hold the second-highest office in the land," he said.

"They knew how important it was, but they wanted to have fun with it, especially during the pandemic time, and they were able to use that same sort of grit and hard work that they've had for decades of organizing this community and adapting to these times, [including] through digital media," he said.

It is often — and accurately — said, however, that AAPI voters are not a monolith.

In Nevada, observers say, Filipino Americans illustrate the complexity of — and the need for nuance in — voter outreach efforts. Vattamala said they have a high interest in and engagement with health care, including in occupations like nursing and hospital work, which may have put them on the front lines during the pandemic, in addition to the possibility of having experienced anti-AAPI racism associated with the virus. Among other things, the Filipino community is also noted for strong religious faith, particularly Catholicism.

Eric Jeng, deputy director of the grassroots nonprofit One APIA Nevada, said that based on polling and focus group conversations, his sense is that when AAPI voters consider political candidates, "home-country politics do still play a big part" that can vary by ethnic group.

Jeng said that in the Vietnamese and Taiwanese communities, for example, he gauged more enthusiasm for Trump based on their perceptions of his Asia policies. Simultaneously, however, "the anti-AAPI racism that the president stoked" motivated other Asian American voters to reject Trump, he said. The use of phrases like "'kung flu' or 'China virus' doesn't help," he said.

While campaigns have made some strides in connecting with AAPI voters and enlisting people within communities to talk to their families, friends, neighbors and business colleagues, there's still a lot to be done. Groups like APIAVote continue to report that large parts of the Asian American community, despite its rapid growth, have been left out of political outreach by both the Democratic and Republican parties for cycle after cycle.

Those working within the AAPI community to foster political engagement and influence have their own goals. "I think one thing we want to shift from is kind of like the transactional electoral model to [asking] long term, 'What does it mean to build power within the community?'" Jeng said.

Vattamala also sounded a note of warning about looking at trends and reaching conclusions about AAPI voters in Nevada and nationally.

The pandemic presented considerable challenges to data collection in direct contact with voters, and millions ended up voting by mail and therefore were not interviewed by groups like AALDEF in the same numbers as in the past.

In addition, he said, exit polls could have been affected by variations by party in how likely people, including AAPIs, were to vote in person — either early or on Election Day — compared to voting by mail.

That having been said, Vattamala warned that some analysts could try to compare 2020 exit polls with exit polls from 2016 and conclude, "Oh, it looks like Trump made a lot of inroads."

"That seems to be the narrative now, [that] more people of color were starting to vote for Trump, support Trump, than in the past," he said. "And I would just say I would take that with a grain of salt and be a little cautious."