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Campaigns ramp up Asian American Pacific Islander voter outreach during Lunar New Year

Sen. Bernie Sanders' campaign reached out in 11 different Asian languages and Sen. Elizabeth Warren set up her first Chinatown office during Lunar New Year.
Image: Elizabeth Warren campaign Manager Roger Lau opened up a field office for her in Chinatown Plaza in Las Vegas.
Elizabeth Warren campaign Manager Roger Lau opened up a field office for her in Chinatown Plaza in Las Vegas.Courtesy of Roger Lau

Sundae Yomes is frustrated with the Democratic presidential candidates — she feels they want her vote but are failing to talk to Asian American Pacific Islanders like her about issues affecting their communities.

Yomes, 48, who was born and raised in Hawaii, rang in the Lunar New Year last week at a campaign event in Las Vegas organized by her union. She listened to several candidates and surrogates speak, but said no one specifically addressed the concerns of the AAPI community.

Many Asian American and Pacific Islander communities are feeling heartened that Democratic presidential candidates are reaching out to their communities in key battleground states but feel that more can be done to talk about issues affecting them.

Democratic presidential campaigns have been increasing their outreach efforts to Asian American and Pacific Islanders in key battleground states during Lunar New Year, which is celebrated until Feb. 8, and specifically in Nevada, where the AAPI population has grown over 167 percent in the last two decades.

Despite being the fastest growing racial group in the United States, less than 50 percent of AAPI voters reported being contacted by either party or any community organizations in 2018, according to the 2018 Asian American Voter Survey conducted by AAPI Data.

“We want to change that,” Supreet Kaur, the National Asian American and Pacific Islanders organizer for the campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., told NBC News. “Our goal is to talk to people where they're at, in languages that they understand.”

The Sanders campaign has held Lunar New Year events across the country, from California to Washington to Texas, where volunteers table events, participate in parades and talk to voters in their native languages. Sanders’ campaign offers translated materials in 11 Asian languages so far, including Mandarin Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Hindi and Punjabi.

Kaur also said the breadth of volunteers from different backgrounds has enabled the campaign to hold grassroots events in community spaces, including upcoming events in an Asian grocery store in Texas, a Punjabi restaurant in Washington state and weekly congregations across the country at Sikh gurdwaras or houses of worship.

“Cultural competency is extremely important when you're trying to do outreach to communities of color,” Kaur said.

While Lunar New Year events aren’t political every year, Yeh said it’s “pretty common” for campaigns to stop by cultural events and celebrations in an effort to appeal to AAPI voters, especially during midterm and presidential election cycles.

The campaign of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., rang in the Lunar New Year with the launch of its “AAPI Weekend of Action” at the annual Las Vegas Spring Festival Parade. Campaign manager Roger Lau, who is the first Asian American campaign manager for a major presidential candidate, worked information tables with staff members at the festival.

Over the same weekend, the Warren campaign celebrated the opening of its first Chinatown field office in the country in Las Vegas, with the intention of continuing engagement with AAPI voters, according to Mary Lou Akai-Ferguson, national AAPI community engagement and organizing director.

To wrap up their Lunar New Year campaign events, the Warren and Sanders campaigns both attended the 121st Annual Golden Dragon Parade in Los Angeles on Feb. 1.

Still, Basil Smikle, former executive director of the New York State Democratic Party and political strategist, said he's not certain it's enough, however. "I don't know that any candidate has necessarily gone out of his or her way to engage their community as fully as they could, given the way the primary schedule is,” he said.

But Alvina Yeh, the executive director of APALA, a national organization of AAPI workers, said candidates are on the right track. “Language access is always one of the biggest issues in immigrant communities,” she said. Immigrant voters are less likely to vote or be engaged in politics, according to Yeh, and one-on-one engagement with someone who can speak their language and understands cultural backgrounds can be helpful.

Yeh lauded certain candidates, specifically Warren, for her AAPI outreach initiative, and pointed out that the effort is not a cheap investment.

“It’s super expensive,” she said, noting that AAPI outreach involves translating materials into a minimum of five to 10 languages, depending on the region. But Yoo noted that seeing campaigns spending money on multilingual literature and language outreach is heartening.

The campaign of Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, also sponsored a booth during the Lunar New Year festivities in Las Vegas, where staffers handed out multilingual merchandise and spoke to voters in Chinese, Olivia Bercow, the Nevada communications director for his campaign, said.

According to a 2018 study by AAPI Data, the Asian American vote has nearly doubled within the last decade, from around 2 million voters in 2000 to 5 million voters, or 3.7 percent of the total voting population, in 2016. A report from the Center for American Progress and AAPI Data estimates Asian Americans reaching 5 percent of all voters nationally by 2025.

“I have no doubt that the campaigns are acutely aware of how important the Asian American community is, and will be, going forward,” said Smikle, who is also a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Nearly 40 percent of Asian Americans registered to vote do not identify as either a Democrat or a Republican. Compared to the black community, who typically vote Democrat, Smikle said the AAPI voter bloc has become “a swing vote,” waiting to be courted by candidates from both major parties.

Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan attended Lunar New Year events in Nevada last weekend on behalf of the former Vice President Joe Biden, said a spokesperson for the Biden campaign. In addition to an AAPI organizing staff in the state, AAPIs for Biden, a national coalition group, launched out of Nevada in October.

The Tom Steyer, Pete Buttigieg, Andrew Yang, Sanders, Biden, and Warren campaigns also had representation at the Unions for All Summit in Las Vegas that voter Sundae Yomes attended for Lunar New Year.

The former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s AAPI outreach team said it sent Happy Lunar New Year messages to supporters in Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Yeh said she often felt that campaigns looked at AAPI voters “as a monolithic community that only really cares about education and jobs.” But now, she sees campaigns being more inclusive in their discussion around AAPI communities.

“I’m just glad to see more campaigns talking about disaggregation of data, Southeast Asian communities, and actually talking about Pacific Islanders and the issues that they face," Yeh said. "We say ‘AAPI’ a lot, but not a lot of people actually address what that means for issues for AAPI communities.”

While Yeh sees the shift in outreach towards AAPI communities as a positive force that could energize new voters, Yeh said she wishes this kind of group-targeted outreach happened long ago. “I think folks have taken the people of color vote for granted, and taken the AAPI vote for granted.”

“There's a myriad of reasons why people don't do specific targeting of our communities,” she said. “But the second that someone decides that they want to actually, intentionally, set up a plan to target and do some voter education with these communities, I think that would be the biggest thing that you could possibly do.”