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A growing Asian American electorate could help swing Pennsylvania back to blue

AAPIs are the margin of victory in the state, says a Philadelphia City Council member, but efforts to reach out to the community have been mixed.
Image: Councilwoman Helen Gym
Philadelphia City Council member Helen Gym protests the imminent closing of Hahnemann University Hospital at a rally in Philadelphia on July 15.Bastiaan Slabbers / Sipa USA via AP file

The way Helen Gym sees it, Asian Americans could be the key to victory in Pennsylvania.

In 2016, "Donald Trump [won] by 44,000 votes in the state of Pennsylvania," said Gym, the first Asian American woman to serve on the Philadelphia City Council. Now, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, or AAPIs, "make up almost a half a million voters," said Gym, a Democrat who supports Joe Biden for president. "AAPIs are the margin of victory in Pennsylvania."

In a tumultuous presidential election season in which voting is already well underway ahead of Nov. 3, the Trump and Biden campaigns are laser-focused on Pennsylvania — and, increasingly, on its Asian American electorate.

According to the latest polling averages compiled by RealClear Politics, Biden has a 7-point lead over Trump in Pennsylvania. Biden's team may find that encouraging, but watchers are well aware that Hillary Clinton had a similar advantage over Trump in 2016 that dissipated in the run-up to Election Day.

The Asian American population has become a much greater force in Pennsylvania over the last two decades, increasing by 99 percent since 2000, according to data compiled by APIAVote, a nonpartisan group advocating for Asian American civic participation.

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The total AAPI population — spread throughout the state, but with a concentration in Philadelphia — hovers around 511,000. Indian and Chinese American voters make up the majority of Asian Americans in Pennsylvania, according to APIAVote, followed by sizable populations of people of Vietnamese, Korean and Filipino descent. There are about 251,000 eligible AAPI voters in Pennsylvania, about 4 percent of the electorate.

"I view Pennsylvania as similar to what we saw in Virginia and Nevada, where, throughout the various election cycles, it seems like finally political parties and the candidates are recognizing that oh, wow, there's actually a sizable Asian American electorate in my own back yard," said Christine Chen, executive director of APIAVote.

"When we first started, very few Asian organizations wanted to even do this work or even understood that they were allowed to do nonpartisan voter registration, voter education, get-out-the-vote activities," Chen said. "It's so exciting to see in 2020 not only do we have more organizations, but they're also organizing themselves as a coalition and working together."

That includes groups like Chalo Vote, a nonprofit focused on amplifying civic engagement among South Asians in Pennsylvania and another battleground state, Michigan.

Chalo Vote is dedicated to "bringing language-friendly voter education tools directly to communities as opposed to targeting individuals," the group's president, Taher Hasanali, said in an email exchange. "Culturally, AAPI people are community oriented, so unless information gets distributed to them from within the community, it can be lost or disregarded, and the credibility just isn't there."

While the AAPI community may be growing enough to attract more attention from candidates and campaigns, obstacles to participation still exist, Hasanali said.

"The biggest roadblocks that we have seen to civic engagement within the AAPI community is lack of awareness of how politics can affect our everyday lives, lack of familiarity with the system, and lack of trust in the political system," Hasanali said. "These issues go hand in hand and lead to a perpetual cycle of lack of civic education. Asian Americans don't vote because candidates and politicians don't reach out to them — and politicians don't reach out to Asian Americans because they don't vote."

Seeing familiar faces — both the people working to get out the vote and the people on the ballot — may help drive engagement: Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Biden's vice presidential running mate, could boost turnout among AAPI voters thanks in part to her Indian American heritage, but Hasanali said the Pennsylvania Asian American community is also now buzzing about Nina Ahmad, a Bangladesh-born candidate for state auditor general.

"Politics is about making sure there are political leaders that understand the needs of their communities, and despite AAPI voters being the fastest-growing voting bloc in the country, that has not been reflected in our politics as of yet," he said. "This community understands that if they want to be a part of the picture they need to band together and take ownership of their political future and run for office."

Barriers have to be surmounted first. "I believe Asian Americans can play a bigger role if we can break down the language barrier for some of our older residents or recent immigrants," said state Rep. Patty Kim, the first Asian American to serve in the Pennsylvania House.

Reaching out to AAPI Pennsylvanians where they live and working with how they choose to vote is vital, and the Biden and Trump teams are trying to do that. It's to be expected, considering that forecasters like FiveThirtyEight say Pennsylvania, which is sharply divided, could be the "tipping point" state for either candidate in the election.

The Trump campaign said its mobilization efforts have included work to engage Korean, Filipino, Vietnamese, Chinese, Cambodian and Malaysian communities in Pennsylvania, including voter registration drives, meetups and Trump Victory Leadership Initiative Trainings in 13 AAPI languages, such as Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Tamil, Hindi, Gujarati and Telugu.

"Asian Americans, myself included, have consistently supported candidates who advocate for a safe and strong America, more of their hard earned money in their pockets, the freedom to pick the best schools for our children, and lower taxes," said the campaign's deputy national press secretary, Ken Farnaso. "President Trump has delivered on all of that and more in just three years while Joe Biden's dismal five decade long record of failure speaks for itself."

Biden's campaign, meanwhile, just launched an AAPI-voter-focused paid media campaign that includes TV, radio, digital and print advertising in key states. Gym, the Philadelphia City Council member, said AAPI voters in Pennsylvania are motivated to support Biden over Trump not only because of kitchen-table issues like education and the economy, but also because of the divisive, ethnically targeted rhetoric Trump has used during the coronavirus pandemic.

"The president has wielded his office to incite racial tensions and violence against people of color across the board and Asian Americans in particular [through] his comments about the coronavirus and disparaging remarks made to Asian American reporters," Gym said. "The carelessness and the casual cruelty that he deploys around all of this has impacted our own communities, where here at home, people have made similar comments or threats or have scapegoated Asian Americans, as well as the broader immigrant community, and I don't think that that has gone without notice within the AAPI community."

Chen, of APIAVote, said that those issues are front of mind for some Asian American voters and that concerns about bias and harassment during the pandemic, coupled with fears about contracting Covid-19, may be driving heavier-than-usual voting by mail.

The 2020 Asian American Voter Survey found that on average, 46 percent of AAPI voters nationwide said they planned to participate in the election by mail, compared to 27 percent who said they would vote in person on Election Day and 17 percent who said they would vote in person early.

But mobilizing the growing, highly diverse AAPI electorate — in Pennsylvania and nationally — can be an intricate project for many reasons, from language barriers to years of scant attention from campaigns and parties compared to outreach to African American and Latino voters.

In addition, while some sectors of the AAPI electorate may lean toward the platforms of certain parties, they could be somewhat more elusive when it comes to fully affiliating with one party or another.

"Heading into 2020, we still see 31 percent of this population identifying as 'independent' or 'other,'" Chen said — and that goes up to 41 percent specifically among Chinese Americans, representing a larger percentage than those who identify as Democrats or Republicans.

That means there's potentially more work to be done all around to capture prized AAPI votes, both in 2020 and beyond. "What that tells me is that political parties and candidates are still not necessarily engaging this population base of voters," Chen said. "They're not investing in long-term relationships with them."