The Indian-American community has suddenly been thrust into the spotlight as a politically influential community — partly due to Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris’s Indian heritage, and partly due to the narrative that support for the Republican party amongst the historically Democrat-supporting community has been increasing.
A new report entitled “How Will Indian Americans Vote? Results from the 2020 Indian American Attitudes Survey,” pushes back against this emerging narrative. The Indian American Attitudes Survey is a collaboration between the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Johns Hopkins-SAIS, and the University of Pennsylvania, and is a nationally representative online survey conducted in the month of September of nearly 1,000 Indian-Americans.
The survey has several key findings, including the fact that Indian-Americans remain committed in their support of the Democrats, and issues of foreign policy are not a priority for voters.
Scroll.in spoke with Milan Vaishnav, Director and Senior Fellow South Asia Program at Carnegie and author of the report alongside Sumitra Badrinathan and Devesh Kapur, about their findings.
Why is the Indian-American electorate so important, and why have both the Republicans and Democrats worked so hard to woo Indian-American voters?
There’s a lot of attention being showered onto the Indian-American community — a somewhat disproportionate amount, since they’re less than 1% of registered voters. Given how close some of the margins were in electorally critical states in 2016, campaigns aren’t taking anything for granted. In at least a handful of states, Indian-Americans are a larger part of the electorate, and people are expecting a close contest.
In addition, Indian-Americans have proven themselves to be important campaign mobilisers for the right and the left, both in terms of individual giving as well as in political action. There’s also a sense that their vote is up for grabs. The survey shows that Indian-Americans are largely Democratic, but the Republicans have made a big push to show what Prime Minister Modi and President Trump can do together.
This has certainly made the Democrats nervous and sit up and pay attention, and I think that’s a good thing because there have been moments in American political history when both parties have taken their core supporters for granted.
What additional data would you like to have on Indian-Americans?
We’re curious about how Indian-Americans view India. Part Two of our report, coming out next month after the election, is about that. The other thing we would have liked to have dug into a bit more is understanding differences between generations. We have such a large number of young Indian-Americans, particularly those born in the US who are now eligible to vote.
We don’t know enough about how they view India, and how they view Indian politics. How are they behaving, and how are their attitudes different from their parents? This is an interesting question for all migrant communities, but particularly for Indian-Americans. The research on this shows that Indian-Americans typically don’t talk about politics at home, and tend to pick up their political views through socialisation from their peers and networks, unlike a lot of non-immigrant families where politics is discussed at the dinner table.
The survey conclusively goes against the narrative that President Trump is shifting votes among the Indian-American community. Do you worry about the power of media narratives that define a community without data?
I do worry about that, for a couple of reasons. It’s very easy for this kind of narrative to be spread through social media like WhatsApp — we know the Indian community is highly networked both in the US and in India. I also worry that it could demobilise certain kinds of voters, who might be frustrated that their vote won’t count. Part of the objective of doing this survey is for it to be a resource for the public, the media, and for elected representatives and people in power so they can have a snapshot of how the community views both politics and changes in American society.
Why was Kamala Harris’s vice presidential nomination more emotional and galvanising than her presidential bid?
I’m entering the realm of speculation here, but I think there are a couple of reasons behind this. One is that Indian-American voters were very comfortable with Joe Biden and were large supporters of the Obama administration, so undoubtedly there is a familiarity and a comfort already. Secondly, the kind of media attention given to her Indian heritage simply wasn’t there when she was running in the primary, and I don’t have a reason for that. Maybe it was because she was one of many whereas now she’s one of four people in the spotlight?
There are many Indian-Americans who were not even aware at the time that she had an Indian mother because the public narrative was shaped around her African American roots, her Black heritage, and so on and so forth. I think there’s an information update taking place. When someone is named the vice presidential nominee, it elevates them in the public consciousness to a new and different light, and invokes a kind of respect. Very few people have been placed in that category.
15% of Indian-Americans think that Kamala Harris will actually improve India-US relations. Why?
For a lot of Indian-Americans, the fact that she is of Indian origin is enough. When it’s put into practice, these opinions are based on how leaders connect, people-to-people ties, and soft power. There’s a sense that she will recognise that India is not just a big country, but also an important one. The opinion that a Biden-Harris administration will be anti-India is coming from mildly critical comments she’s made about India in the past.
There are elements where the Indian voter goes against the American grain: for example, there’s no big gender gap. Do you have a theory for this?
The reason one doesn’t see such a big gender gap is precisely because the Indian-American community tilts so heavily Democratic. It’s not as if the average Indian-American woman is somewhere between the right and the left — no, she’s already left of the median, unlike the average American woman who is more centrist.
I don’t think this is a gendered issue, which again goes against the narrative of Indian-American men who are rebelling against the Democrats and voting for Trump. Of course there’s going to be instances where that’s true: 24% of Indian men plan to vote for Trump as opposed to 19% of Indian women. But that’s not a very statistically meaningful difference.
You’ve mentioned generational differences within the community. Are older Indian-Americans politically active?
Older Indian-Americans are actually becoming much more politically engaged. Speaking anecdotally, I know people who are hosting fundraisers for political candidates who are actively debating issues. Older Indian-Americans are established and have money. There’s been a political awakening as they’ve spent a large part of their formative years assimilating to America and now there’s a sense of comfort. Their views have also coalesced over time.
What’s interesting is the middle group — people in their 30s and 40s — who tend to be slightly more pro-Trump. That’s a very heterogeneous category with some of the newer arrivals who are now naturalized citizens, who have a different pattern of political socialisation. I think for the older folks, their experiences in America have pushed them towards the Democratic party.
What about religious disparities within the Indian-American community? For example, 49% of Christian Indian-Americans support Biden, while 45% support Trump. (In contrast, 82% of Muslims and 67% of Hindus support Biden.)
The issue of Christianity runs across American politics. It’s a reason why political scientists believe that the Hispanic community does not support the Democrats as much as one might think, particularly given their policies on immigration or law enforcement. The typical example used is that the Hispanic community tends to find the Republican party more amenable to them because of things like abortion policy and their “family values.”
There’s a similar issue with Christians who are Indian: the Republican party has now become so closely identified with the Christian evangelical movement and conservative values, and they wear it very openly on their sleeves. That tends to hurt them among Indian-Americans — when you ask people why they aren’t Republican, the top two answers is that the Republicans are intolerant of minorities and that they’re influenced by the Christian evangelical right. I think that explains why Christians lean towards them, but it also explains why everyone else tends to go in the other direction.
What surprised you the most about your findings?
Given how much talk there has been about the importance of India and US-India relations, it just didn’t seem to register among Indian-American voters. We asked them to rank the issues that are most important to them and will help decide their vote, and US-India relations was next to last. That was a surprise, because it went against so much of what I’ve been hearing and reading about in the media.
The second thing I was surprised by is that Indian-Americans have a very interesting view of Narendra Modi. Democrats and Republicans look at him very differently: you are much more likely to support Modi if you are a Trump voter than if you’re a Biden voter. When asked to rate Modi on a scale of 0-100, Trump voters rated him at 76 and Biden voters rated him at 52. That’s a considerable gap, but 52 is still an above-average rating. There are differences in the intensity of support for Modi.
What are you looking for in your next report on Indian-Americans?
Indian-Americans tend to hold more liberal policy positions in the US and more conservative policy positions when it comes to domestic politics in India. There’s sort of a paradox between the Obama or Biden supporters and Modi supporters. We’re looking for evidence to establish if this is true and if so, why. We may end up finding that there aren’t big differences, but if we were to take a poll, I have a feeling we will find this push-and-pull between the two.