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In Midwest states, political parties eye growing Asian-American electorate

“You’re going to see more voter outreach, more engagement in 2020 than you’ve seen in the past.”
Image: A voter fills out a ballot inside the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on Aug. 14, 2018.
A voter fills out a ballot inside the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on Aug. 14, 2018.Stephen Maturen / Getty Images file

With Milwaukee set to host the 2020 Democratic convention, the Democratic National Committee is counting in part on the region’s fast-growing Asian American and Pacific Islander population to help them win back the Midwest.

“In certain states, the Asian-American vote is enough to help make that margin of victory,” Rep. Grace Meng, of New York, a DNC vice chair, said in a phone interview last week.

As presidential hopefuls begin hitting the campaign trail, Democrats and Republicans are pitching their party platforms to Asian-American, Pacific Islander and Native Hawaiian voters, who accounted for just more than 4 percent of the country's total electorate in 2016.

While the groups together make up only a fraction of overall registered voters, a combined 44 percent of Asian Americans in the last presidential race said they either weren’t registered to vote or had no response to that question, census figures show.

What’s more, almost 2 in 5 Asian-American registered voters don't identify as either a Democrat or Republican, according to the 2018 Asian American Voter Survey, conducted by a number of nonprofits.

That pool has piqued the interest of both parties as a bloc potentially up for grabs.

“We can expect to see higher than normal levels of engagement with AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) populations than we’ve seen in the past, not just because of the presidential race, but because of what we saw in 2018 and the need to either defend or recapture those seats depending on the party’s perspective in 2020,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder and director of AAPI Data and a public policy professor at the University of California, Riverside.


In 2016, President Donald Trump carried Wisconsin by 22,748 votes — less than 1 percent of the overall vote. Trump’s narrow victory there was integral to his Electoral College win.

While census estimates place Wisconsin’s percentage Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians of voting age at just 1.6 percent, that still comes out to around 69,530 voters — more than three times the number who gave Trump his win.

Minnesota tells a similar story. Hillary Clinton took the state by just 43,785 votes, beating Trump 47 to 45 percent. Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians account for around 3 percent of the state’s citizen voting age population, or 120,870 people, census figures show.

That’s almost three times the number of votes Clinton won by in Minnesota.

Meng said she believes Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in these two states, as well as in Texas, California and Nevada, could be a deciding factor in next year’s presidential election.

“We’re not ceding any territory,” the congresswoman added. “We’re making sure that we’re, at the very least, paying attention to and visiting with a lot of these communities that maybe Democrats haven’t met with in the past.”

Miki Carver, APA press secretary for the Republican National Committee, said the party has placed a premium on building relationships and being present in every community and neighborhood throughout the U.S.

"We made big inroads this midterm cycle, and now with that permanent infrastructure in place — combined with the positive results of the Trump Administration— we are primed to build on this success in 2020," Carver told NBC News in an email.


Yee Leng Xiong, an elected official from Weston, Wisconsin, said that on a state and national level both parties have increased their outreach to the Hmong community, which began arriving in the U.S. around 1975, having fled wars that destroyed their homeland in Laos.

Wisconsin’s Hmong population stands at around 52,000, the third-largest in the country, according to Census data. Neighboring Minnesota had around 84,000 Hmong-American residents, while California had the most at roughly 97,000.

According to Xiong, the local Democratic Party has engaged the community through grassroots efforts, like attending Hmong events where they encourage people to register to vote. The Republicans, he said, have appealed to former guerilla soldiers whom the U.S. recruited in Laos to join covert military operations beginning in the 1960s to stop the spread of communism.

Xiong said he believes the Hmong electorate, while relatively small in numbers, could play an important role in the 2020 presidential election.

“They vote in masses, they vote consistently with who they want to support,” said Xiong, who also volunteers in the community.

Ramakrishnan noted that despite relatively high rates of poverty and low rates of educational attainment, the Hmong community has had a significant amount of political organizing and success over the years, including running people for local and state office.

“The Hmong-American population definitely punches above its weight, if you will, in terms of their political presence and civic participation,” he said.


Meanwhile, ahead of next year’s election, the DNC has started a program called Organizing Corps 2020, which seeks to recruit and train students planning to graduate college by June of next year and dispatch them to key states as field organizers.

Involved in that effort are Democratic parties in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin; 270 Strategies, a consulting firm focused on grassroots organizing; and The Collective, a PAC aimed at increasing African-American political representation.

The RNC, for its part, plans to host or has hosted events in New York, California, Arizona, Florida, Nevada, Texas and Michigan.

Meng, the DNC vice chair, said they’re also encouraging state parties to start Asian caucuses, if they haven’t already.

“For me, a lot of it is about personal touch,” she said. “I think that our party, in the past, has not paid enough attention to many communities, whether it’s geographically or ethnicity or race.”

While surveys have shown Asian-American voters have typically lined up with Democrats on issues such as gun control and health care, pockets of the community have diverged on others such as affirmative action and data disaggregation, the process of breaking down data by ethnicity.

Meng, who is the child of immigrants from Taiwan and who speaks Mandarin, said she has talked through some of these hot-button topics with members of the Chinese-American community.

“My first conversation with them is not necessarily about affirmative action or things like that, but to make sure that they know that we are aligned at least on most issues and, if there are issues that we disagree on, to help them better understand where we’re coming from,” Meng explained.


For the 2018 midterms, AAPI Data found that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders had the potential to swing races in 27 congressional districts across 11 states.

Yet a survey in 2018 also revealed that Asian Americans had largely not been contacted by political parties and candidates. Half said they had not or don’t know if they’d been contacted by Democrats, while 62 percent said the same of Republicans.

Ramakrishnan did say there was an uptick last year in voter contact compared to 2016 and 2014, the result of competitive House contests in districts with significant Asian-American populations.

“We can continue to expect that in 2020 when it comes to House races,” he said.

Ramakrishnan added that in prior presidential elections, Asian Americans have been concentrated in states that are not competitive, such as California, New York and Texas, among others. As a result, parties and candidates generally didn’t reach out to those voters.

But Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in states such as Minnesota and Wisconsin have seen their populations grow in the last decade, in a swath of the country that could be a battleground again in the 2020 road to the White House.

“You’re going to see more voter outreach, more engagement in 2020 than you’ve seen in the past,” Ramakrishnan said.

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