About 1.8 million Indian-Americans are eligible to vote in the 2020 US elections. While this makes up less than 1% of all registered voters in the country, both the Democratic and Republican parties have tried hard to woo the community. Why?
First, with a median income of $120,000 (compared to $62,000 for the United States as a whole), Indian-Americans are notably wealthy and therefore capable of mobilising considerable resources in support of political candidates. Second, many Indians live in hotly contested states such as Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania – states which, under the US’s opaque Electoral College rules, could well determine the winner of the presidential race.
Where, then, do Indian-American voters stand?
Recent studies indicate that, consistent with previous elections, Indian-Americans continue to show a strong preference for Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden. In the 2020 Asian American Voter/AAPI survey, 65% of Indian-origin respondents said that they would pick Biden over US President Donald Trump. The Indian American Attitudes Survey found an even stronger Democratic leaning, with 72% indicating that they would vote for the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris ticket.
At the same time, supporters of President Trump contend that the Republican party has made inroads into the Indian-American community. Members of the Republican Hindu Coalition, for example, argue that Trump’s “conservative” positions aligns with the values of Indian-Americans.
They also point to the supposed personal rapport between Trump and Modi to suggest that the Trump-led administration is a better friend to India than a Biden presidency would be. In fact, actual policy positions demonstrate that the Democratic candidate offers, by far, a stronger record and promise in addressing the concerns of the Indian-American community.
Both the AAPI and the IAAS surveys show that Indian-American voters are most concerned about the economy and healthcare, issues that are closely linked to one another. The pandemic has resulted in historic rates of unemployment in the US. Trump’s irresponsible and disastrous response to Covid-19 has led to unparalleled infection and death rates in the country.
In fact, President Trump’s unwillingness to deal with the pandemic has dismayed even some of his strongest Indian-American supporters. In contrast, Biden has followed the science and offered a detailed plan to address the disruptions caused by the virus and to build back the American economy.
Racism, a hot button issue in the US, is another matter of concern for Indian-Americans. President Trump has never been shy about his racist leanings – and this extends to Indians and Americans of Indian origin. For example, he has mocked how Indians, including Modi, speak English. Trump also referred to Kamala Harris, who is of Indian origin, as a monster, a term that he has previously used to describe terrorists and murders.
This disdain is echoed by others in his party. Recently, Republican Senator David Perdue, who is a close ally of the President, derisively referred to Senator Harris as “Kah-mah-la or Kah-ma-la or Kamamboamamla.” In sharp contrast, on representation and on policy matters, Biden has demonstrated a steadfast commitment to inclusiveness and diversity.
Then, there is the question of immigration.
There are almost four million persons of Indian origin in the United States. Over 60% of them arrived in the last two decades, many on work or education visas. On convenient occasions, Trump has claimed to favor high-skill immigration. He lavished praise on Indian-Americans at the ‘Howdy Modi’ rally in Houston.
During the Republican Party convention in August, Trump showcased a citizenship ceremony at the White House, which included a person of Indian origin. Yet, his administration’s policies have been marked by thinly disguised racist hostility towards immigrants of color. The Trump years have been marked by abrupt and ad hoc policy changes, putting Indian students, workers, and families in difficult positions.
It is not surprising, then, that many Indian-Americans view Trump, and his Republican Party, as unwelcoming. In contrast, during President Barack Obama’s tenure, the Obama-Biden administration introduced a number of reforms aimed at streamlining the immigration process. The Biden-Harris team, recognizing the unwieldiness of the American immigration system, has offered a platform that is both fair to American workers and systematic in its approach to aspiring immigrants.
Indian-American voters rank US-India relations as being of lower priority to them than domestic conditions in the US. Nonetheless, the Trump campaign claims that the Modi-Trump rapport, marked by flashy rallies and photo-ops, translates into a commitment to strong bilateral ties. His supporters have indicated that a Biden-Harris team would not be as respectful towards India’s interests. The actual record tells a different story.
First as senator and then vice-president, Joe Biden repeatedly worked to bolster ties between the two countries, and was the driving force behind the Obama-led administration’s India outreach. It is worth noting that President Obama was the first, and only, sitting US president to have visited India twice.
On critical issues – trade, defense, and clean energy – the Obama- Biden team worked steadily to build a broad spectrum relationship with India. In contrast, President Trump, for all his tweets and photo-ops, has delivered little by way of mutual gain. He imposed punitive tariffs on Indian exports and started a trade war.
Trump also abandoned bilateral cooperation on clean energy, a critically important area for both countries. By abdicating a leadership role in the Asia-Pacific, the Trump administration has emboldened China—to India’s detriment. It is no wonder, then, that a majority of Indian-Americans believe that the Democratic Party does a better job on US-India relations than the Republican Party. That is, after all, what the record shows.
The stark differences between Joe Biden and Donald Trump is well illustrated in the content of their recent outreach to Indian voters. Trump’s ads repeatedly showcase his rallies with Prime Minister Modi –which means they showcase Trump himself. The Biden campaign, on the other hand, offers clear, substantive plans on economy, healthcare, racial justice, immigration, and bilateral relations. While Trump offers Indian American empty talk and flashy photo-ops, Joe Biden offers respect, experience, and forward-looking policies.
The author is a professor of political science at Western Washington University.