Democrats can't afford to ignore Asian American voters in 2020

The vocal enthusiasm for Trump within some immigrant communities, though not representative of the demographic, should serve as a warning to Democrats.
California Voters Participate In The State's Pivotal Primary
Stickers that say "I Voted" in English, Spanish and Chinese are seen at a polling place Feb. 5, 2008 in San Francisco.David Paul Morris / Getty Images file
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By Lindy Li

Given that Asian American voters could provide the margin of victory in battleground states such as Nevada, Georgia, Wisconsin and Michigan, Democrats must make a concerted effort in 2020 to encourage them to vote and to convert the Trump supporters among them.

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, as good a time as any to reflect on the political power of a community that doesn't always get the same attention as other minority groups. Asian Americans are incredibly diverse, making generalizing on topics, like voter patterns, difficult. The fastest growing in the country, this population includes Vietnamese, Filipino, Korean, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and other ethnicities. And each of these groups demonstrates a different level of support for President Donald Trump. For example, according to an October 2018 APIAVote poll, 64 percent of Vietnamese Americans approved of Trump, while only 14 percent of Japanese American voters did.

Trump did not win the Asian American vote in 2016, securing just 18 percent. And this figure, too, cloaks sharp internal differences.

Granted, Trump did not win the general Asian American vote in 2016, securing just 18 percent. And this figure, too, cloaks sharp internal differences, with 4 percent and 24 percent of Pakistani and Chinese Americans supporting him, respectively. Meanwhile, 32 percent of Latinos supported the GOP in 2016. And yet, the question for many remains: How does one explain why anyone of immigrant heritage would support a man who makes xenophobia a centerpiece of his agenda?

For my own family and other immigrants from countries with painful communist pasts, America was more than Winthrop’s "city upon a hill." America symbolized opportunity, freedom and boundless promise — in short, everything our birth country was not. So when Democrats shifted noticeably leftward, many of these immigrants were aghast.

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There is a not-so-subtle parallel here with socialism-adverse Cuban Americans, the majority of whom voted for a brazenly anti-immigrant presidential candidate, despite tilting blue prior to 2016. There is concern that the American ideal of self-reliance is disappearing, as 2020 presidential candidates jostle to outdo each other in the democratic socialist sweepstakes. Every time one of them supports a bold progressive measure such as Medicare for All or the Green New Deal, the others push the envelope further.

My first encounter with this pro-Trump bloc was during my own 2018 congressional campaign, which was partly powered by Asian Americans eager for more political representation. Some of these voters are quite vocal on WeChat, a hugely popular messaging app that is widely used by Chinese Americans. During the campaign, more conservative users briefly infiltrated our campaign chat groups and hijacked conference calls that I conducted with supporters, skirmishes that ultimately resulted in my leaving the platform. Affirmative action is an especially incendiary issue. The education of their children is a motivational factor for immigrants, many of whom escaped repressive regimes. In California, The Orange Club, an Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) activist group, pushed hard to defeat Senate constitutional Amendment No. 5, which would have allowed for affirmative action in state university admissions.

Many AAPIs are fixated on Ivy League and other elite schools, believing them to be guarantees of success. Trump's decision to side with the plaintiffs in the Harvard admissions case has endeared him to some immigrants who see elite education as a racial zero-sum game.

Further, Trump’s vociferous denunciations of socialism and the Green New Deal may be soothing to those who escaped communism or, as the Chinese Communist Party euphemistically puts it, "socialism with Chinese characteristics." Immigrants are known for their ability to endure uncertainty and overcome obstacles — no one is handed the American Dream. This rugged individualism has always been a big part of the legend of America (never mind the various social safety nets like Social Security that we now consider indispensable). However unsuccessful, Trump's insistence that Medicaid recipients meet work requirements exalts, on the surface, the concept of personal responsibility that some hardworking immigrants hold so dear.

Pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson noted that most Asian Americans voted for Democrats in 2018, continuing a leftward pivot that began in the last decade. Thus, any seemingly vociferous support for Trump, especially in the echo chambers of social media, should be placed in context: His adherents are not more numerous; they are simply louder. There is also a distinction between AAPI voters and AAPI community members at large, not all of whom vote.

Nonetheless, congresswoman Grace Meng, D-N.Y., the vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, points out that AAPIs are more likely to be independent or unaffiliated than Democrat or Republican, which means that they are persuadable.

AAPIs are more likely to be independent or unaffiliated than Democrat or Republican, which means that they are persuadable.

Religion may also play a role. Growing up in an immigrant church, I experienced firsthand the intense religiosity of these new Christians and their strong adherence to conservative values like traditional marriage, which they champion with the indomitable zeal of a convert. Although the vast majority of AAPIs support gay marriage (and those who do tend to be better educated), the values of the 42 percent of Asian Americans who are Christian may align more with bedrock GOP principles than Democrats assume.

Trump has also widened the chasm between the young and the old — those AAPIs who do support him tend to be older and male. Princeton Prof. Jeff Nunokawa told me that "many Asian American students suggested that their parents' support for Trump incited their first explicit opposition to them. Young Asian Americans were departing from their parents' views." His premonition is supported by the APIAVote poll, which shows that in 2018, 76 percent of 18- to 34-year-old Asian Americans disapproved of Trump, whereas only 46 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds did, mirroring the gap between young and old white voters.

The vocal enthusiasm for Trump within some immigrant communities, though not representative of the entire demographic, should serve as a warning to Democrats that these voters cannot be taken for granted. In an electoral landscape in which fewer than 80,000 voters can determine the presidency, every single vote matters.