Joe Biden's selection of Kamala Harris as his running mate could help boost turnout among a key voting bloc in 2020: Indian Americans.
The California senator isn’t just the first African American woman ever picked to be a major party nominee; the daughter of an Indian mother who came to the United States to study at the University of California, Harris is also the first Asian American ever to be on the ticket.
As a representative of the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States, Harris' candidacy can potentially shake up the electoral map, particularly among her fellow Indian Americans.
“I think very broadly the Asian American electorate will be energized by this pick as she is identified as the first Asian American candidate, and obviously that will be more acutely felt by the South Asian community who will identify more with her particularly as she tells her story,” said veteran Democratic strategist Hari Sevugan.
According to the U.S. Census data, there were nearly 3.9 million Americans who identified as “Asian Indian” in 2018. In particular, there are concentrations in key swing states. Neil Makhija, the head of IMPACT, a political action committee that helps Indian Americans run for office, noted that there are between 150,000 and 200,000 Indian Americans in Pennsylvania and between 125,000 and 150,000 in Michigan. President Donald Trump narrowly won both states in 2016.
It’s a community that has voted Democratic in recent years though not overwhelmingly. “As a group Indian American and South Asian Americans tend to vote more Democratic and identify more Democratic but certainly not with margins in lines with African American voters, probably closer to margins we’ve seen with Latino voters,” said Tom Bonior, the CEO of TargetSmart, a top Democratic data firm.
One survey of Asian American voters found that 77% voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
However, the community has been a target of Republican outreach as well. In 2016, Trump appeared at a rally in Edison, New Jersey, held by the Republican Hindu Coalition less than a month before the election. There, he said to cheers, “I am a big fan of Hindu and a big fan of India” in a speech that appeared on a program that also included Bollywood-style dance routines.
Since taking office, Trump appeared at “Howdy Modi,” a 2019 stadium rally held in Houston for the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. An ardent Hindu nationalist, Modi has drawn parallels to Trump with his populist, anti-Muslim rhetoric. But there were questions about how much that connection alone would have an electoral appeal among Indian Americans, particularly Hindus. As Sevugan noted while “there will always be parochial interests, among any community, and, if it is an immigrant and ethnic community, the connection or the relationship between the United States and that country of origin will be part of the conversation, Indian Americans are moved by other issues.”
Trump’s outreach to the Indian community has been more than just trying to appeal to nascent Hindu nationalism. Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democratic congressman from Illinois, said some of Trump’s policies have wide appeal to the Indian-American community, which has a significant number of entrepreneurs and small businessmen.
“When Trump passed that first tax bill . . . that really appealed to a lot of business people including Indian American business people and the same with his move on regulations,” said the four-term Democrat who disagreed with both policies.
But Trump’s appeal in the India-American community is also limited by his hard-line immigration policies, particularly his efforts to limit H1B visas, which allow skilled workers to come to the United States for employment. This has long been a program that has brought a significant number of Indians to the United States. Makhija contrasted Harris’ sponsoring legislation to get rid of country caps on H1B visas with Trump’s “Stephen Miller-led policy on immigration,” which he characterized as “destructive.”
But Harris’ historic candidacy has the potential to increase turnout among the community for reasons besides policy. When asked if her candidacy could have the same impact on South Asian Americans as John F. Kennedy did for Catholics, Krishnamoorthi said it depends on how Indian Americans perceive her candidacy.
“I saw pictures of her mother’s family, and Kamala among them, and it looks like a picture straight out of my family’s album.”
“She has done a very good job talking about her mother’s family . . . I saw pictures of her mother’s family, and Kamala among them, and it looks like a picture straight out of my family’s album,” he said. “And the more that they share that story and they more able to talk about that, the more people get magnetized and go ‘wow, that’s me.’”
In his view, it could also win back potential Trump voters in the Indian American community.
“The more she can continue to talk about [her heritage] and develop people’s understanding of what her life was like and how it was influenced by being raised by a Indian mother and having so much time around Indian culture, I think that will be powerful,” said Krishnamoorthi. “I think that absolutely could sway some of the people who were voting for Trump back to our column.”
Increased Indian American turnout won’t just have an impact on the presidential race. It can help Democrats to win down-ballot races as well. There’s a significant Indian American community in Georgia’s 7th Congressional District in suburban Atlanta, which had the closest race in the country in 2018, decided by 400 votes.
However, the race where the community might make the most impact is in Texas’s 22nd district, in suburban Houston, where Sri Preston Kulkarni, an Indian American Democrat, is hoping to become the first Asian American to represent the Lone Star State on Capitol Hill.
“It’s really hard to overstate how big of a deal this is for the Asian American community,” Kulkarni told VICE News. Growing up here as an Asian American kid, I didn't see anybody who looks like me in our leaders … and now to know someone with an Indian mom is going to be vice president of the United States has energized our community in a way I’ve never seen before.”
Kulkarni’s district has a significant Indian American population, but he said traditionally they “don’t participate in the political process.” Kulkarni noted that when he first ran for Congress in 2018, he was told that his campaign shouldn’t bother with Asian American outreach because “they don’t vote.” He pointed to a statistic that 72% of Asian Americans had never been contacted by any campaign. The Democrat said he’s taking a different approach and boasted that his campaign “powered by aunties” had both more Muslim volunteers and more Hindu volunteers than any other campaign ever in Texas.
Harris’ selection is only likely to boost Indian American engagement in politics.
“We have had record numbers of Indian Americans running for office in the last couple of cycles,” Sevugian said. “This event will inspire more people to run for office, more in the community to give money, give time and see themselves as being invested in the political process.”
Cover: Kamala Harris and her mother Shyamala Gopalan Harris, a cancer researcher who was born in Chennai, India. (Provided by Kamala Harris.)