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Asian Americans could be tiebreakers in key swing states, survey and early voting results show

About a third of all AAPI voters live in the 10 most competitive states. More politically engaged than four years ago, they have an outsize influence on the election.

Asian American and Pacific Islanders could provide the margin of victory in the country’s 10 most contested states, which are scattered across the Midwest, South and Southwest, according to a new report commissioned by the National Education Association.

The survey, conducted in July and September with 875 Asian constituents, finds new insight into an overlooked community that holds an outsize influence on Senate and presidential races. A majority of the study respondents are of Chinese, Indian and Filipino descent.

The report highlighted the fact that a third of registered AAPI voters, more than 2 million in total, live in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.

“When there’s national polling done on the AAPI electorate, states like California, Texas, New York and New Jersey are overrepresented,” Carrie Pugh, the national political director at the NEA, the nation's largest teachers union, told NBC Asian America.

Because the racial group is “most populous in places that aren’t battleground states,” she said, national voter data rarely provides candidates accurate profiles of more obscure populations, such as Pennsylvania’s Vietnamese residents.

The survey is among the first to explore the politics of Asian Americans who live in areas targeted in the “race to 270 electoral votes,” Pugh said. Based on 2016 exit polls cited in the research, a higher AAPI turnout could have propelled Hillary Clinton to victory in several swing states. In Michigan, where she lost by 10,000 votes, more than 50,000 eligible AAPI voters chose not to cast a ballot. In Pennsylvania, where the margin of victory was 44,000 votes, nearly 100,000 people abstained.

Voting among 18-29 year-old Asian Americans is up nearly 400 percent compared to 2016.

But this year, more than 50 percent of swing state constituents say they feel “much more enthusiastic” about voting than before, suggesting that Asian Americans could make a bigger impact on Election Day. Early turnout seems to support this idea: The group has so far cast about a half-million more absentee and early ballots than it did four years ago, according to the data consulting firm Catalist. Of the 1.8 million people who voted, a third abstained in 2016. This growth is most pronounced among 18- to 29-year-olds, who have cast roughly 330,000 ballots — a nearly 400 percent increase from 2016.

This willingness to participate in the political process, the survey shows, can be partly attributed to a fraught socioeconomic climate. Asian Americans in the 10 competitive states rank jobs and health care as the top two election issues. Immigration, college affordability and voter suppression — concerns that typically occupy top spots — are still considered important but have been superseded by the pandemic. At the same time, respondents find more abstract concepts, like a sense of civic duty, moral responsibility and faith in democracy, to be stronger motivators to vote than displeasure toward President Donald Trump and his perceived policy failures.

“It’s clear AAPI voters don’t like Trump,” said Fred Yang, a Democratic pollster and partner at the Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group, the polling firm that conducted the study. “But their dislike of Trump is not enough to make them vote.”

In general, respondents favor former Vice President Joe Biden over Trump by wide margins. But mobilizing young people to vote, Pugh and Yang say, can be the key to turning swing states blue. Nearly 70 percent of young Asian Americans support Biden, compared to just 49 percent of seniors. “We need to motivate young people to vote more because they’re more likely to vote Democrat,” Yang said, adding that one goal of the study was to hone in on messaging that fuels youth turnout.

Pugh credits the Biden campaign for aggressively ramping up in-language outreach to AAPI communities, which has been instrumental in generating interest in civic participation. His staff has invested in a host of creative and culturally sensitive initiatives, from running targeted ads in local ethnic media to hiring bilingual Asian outreach directors across the country. “I’ve been doing politics for three decades and have never seen this robust level of engagement,” Pugh said. “It’s kind of our time.”

Ultimately, she said, gathering data on AAPI constituents, especially those in regions with smaller Asian populations, should be an ongoing effort to ensure every community feels seen. The NEA has been collecting data for a post-election national poll, which is expected to be released next month. Along with general turnout numbers, it’ll provide a snapshot of the issues and circumstances that motivated most people to vote—points that can inform future outreach.

“Our community has been overlooked and underresourced for way too long,” Pugh said. “Having the data element is an important part in running more sophisticated programs and highlighting us in a way that should be more commensurate with our population growth.”

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