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Why researchers think Kamala Harris could boost Asian American voter turnout

Indian Americans had the highest mobilization rate of any ethnic group examined, said one researcher.
Democratic Vice Presidential Nominee Kamala Harris Campaigns In Raleigh
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Ca., delivers remarks at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina on Sept. 28, 2020.Sara D. Davis / Getty Images

Veronica Hossain registered to vote for the first time during the 2008 presidential election because she wanted to vote for Barack Obama. As an Indo-Carribean American, she didn’t want to miss the opportunity to vote for a Black man for president whose values she aligned with.

Ahead of the 2020 Democratic primaries, Hossain supported Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. — who is half-Indian and half-Jamaican — and was excited when Harris was chosen as Joe Biden’s vice presidential nominee. She said it motivated her even more to vote for the Democratic ticket in November.

Hossain, 37, told NBC Asian America that having Harris on the ticket was a huge win for the South Asian community, specifically for South Asian women.

“It helps me engage politically because earlier I didn’t comprehend that we can not only vote but also hold these positions in the government,” said Hossain, a board member for the nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group South Asian American Voice, which promotes the rights of South Asian and Indo-Caribbean Americans.

Like Hossain, many Indian Americans are more likely to show up at the polls when an Indian American is running. According to a new study, the group is more than 16 percent more likely to vote when a candidate of Indian descent is on the ballot.

The study, by Sara Sadhwani, a professor of politics at Pomona College, showed that overall Asian American turnout is boosted when another Asian American is on the ballot, regardless of political party. She said Indians had the highest mobilization rate of any ethnic group she examined — Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese and Filipino.

Sadhwani said she expects this trend to continue in November.

“My research does suggest there will be a higher voter turnout from Asian Americans and specifically Indian Americans for the election, especially if they see Kamala as someone with their shared identity,” she said, noting that other factors such as the pandemic will also play a role.

Sara Sadhwani, PhD.California Lutheran University

One of the reasons Sadhwani said she conducted this research was the lack of data on voting patterns among Asian Americans, even though the number of eligible voters in the community grew by 139 percent in the last two decades, according to Pew Research Center. Asian Americans are also the least likely to be contacted by either political party.

She examined six years of vote returns in California state assembly elections and identified a voter’s race or ethnicity based on their last name. Based on this information, she calculated how much pan-ethnic turnout was affected when an Asian American candidate was on the ballot.

This trend has also been noted with Harris herself. While most Asian American voters in California were undecided on whom to vote for in the 2016 senate race between Harris and fellow Democrat Loretta Sanchez, 56 percent of Indian Americans supported Harris — more than any other subgroup.

The research firm AAPI Data also found that when Asian American voters in California were told ahead of the primary that Harris is half Asian American, support for her candidacy went up 11 percent.

“Indian Americans have historically identified as Democrats and have a more solidified partisan identity,” Sadhwani said. “They have a longer history of making financial contributions and engaging in politics, so even if there hasn’t been a huge presence on a national scale before, Indian Americans have been part of the process as shown in their voting behavior.”

Teddy Kapur, who is campaigning for Los Angeles city attorney and is the son of Indian immigrants, said that having shared immigrant experiences and backgrounds can help persuade constituents to support a candidate.

“Her Indian background was not the only deciding factor, but it did appeal to me and got me excited about her candidacy,” he said of Harris’ 2016 senate bid.

Teddy Kapur.Courtesy Bill Devlin

Kapur, who grew up in Houston, said it helps when he talks to South Asian voters about the experiences he’s had during his own run for office. “I have tried to identify and reach out to groups I am part of, including South Asians, and there are affinities in shared experiences and values that donors and voters are interested in,” he said.

But like Asian Americans, people of Indian descent aren’t a monolith.

While most Indian Americans tend to lean left, according to the exit poll data from the 2016 elections and a recent voter survey from AAPI Data, political perspectives may vary depending on where voters live, their age and their socio-economic status.

Sadhwani said she hopes her findings can shed light on Asian American voters outside California as well.

“The idea is that from this study, we can begin to think about how Asian Americans are possibly voting elsewhere,” she said.