A surprising development in an already unprecedented American election season is the amount of attention being devoted to the Indian-American electorate, which collectively accounts for less than 1% of all registered voters.
Yet, thanks to the growing importance of Indian-Americans in closely contested swing states, their emerging status as key campaign contributors, and Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his running mate, both major parties are furiously courting their votes.
But significant attention is also being paid to Indian-Americans because a popular narrative is emerging that the supposed camaraderie between United States President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — compounded by concerns over how a Biden administration might manage US-India ties — is pushing Indian-Americans to flee the Democratic Party. The Trump campaign, smelling blood, has issued targeted ads featuring Trump and Modi on the stage at last year’s “Howdy, Modi!” rally in Houston.
A cursory scan of recent headlines demonstrates how widely this narrative has taken root. “Democrats Have a Loyal Base in Indian Americans, but Trump Is Fast Pulling Them to His Side,” asserts a piece in The Print. “Kamala, Kashmir and Modi’s Friend All on Ballot in US Election,” reads a BBC headline. An analysis in Quartz boldly proclaims: “The Modi-Trump Friendship Could Change the Way Indian-Americans Vote in November 2020.”
While this narrative is seductive, it has one central flaw. There is little empirical evidence to support it. A new study based on a nationally representative survey of nearly 1,000 Indian-American citizens — the Indian American Attitudes Survey (IAAS) — finds that 72% of registered Indian-American voters intend to support Biden in the 2020 presidential election, while just 22% plan to back Trump. This positions Indian-Americans between African-Americans and Hispanics in terms of the intensity of their support for the Democrats.
Furthermore, it appears that the speculation about the role US-India ties might play in shaping the Indian-American vote is overblown. Indian-Americans view US-India relations as a low-priority election issue compared to nationally salient “kitchen table” issues such as the economy and health care. While many Indian-Americans report that US-India relations are important to them, foreign policy ultimately gets crowded out by pressing daily concerns — especially in an election year marked by a pandemic, economic crisis, and a national uproar over race and social justice.
On issues ranging from immigration to press freedom, the policy preferences of Indian-Americans line up remarkably well with those of the political Left. Indeed, the leading reason Democrats and independents cite for their aversion to the Republican Party is the latter’s intolerance of minorities (followed by their apprehensions regarding the pervasive influence of Christian evangelicalism on the party).
The conjecture that the addition of Harris to the Democratic ticket could turn off more Indian-American voters than it attracts — presumably based on her past statements on India’s domestic policies or the perceived prioritising of her Black identity over her Indian heritage — finds little support. Forty-five per cent of respondents indicated that the Harris pick made them more likely to vote in November, compared to 10% who said it made them less likely (40% said her nomination made no difference).
This enthusiasm has largely worked in favour of the Democratic ticket: 49% of respondents stated that Harris makes them more excited about Biden’s candidacy, compared to 15% who felt less enthusiastic. Why so? A plurality of respondents enthused by her historic nomination cite the fact of her Indian heritage.
Many in India seem convinced that an inexorable migration of Indian-Americans toward the Republican Party is taking place. The reality is starkly different. Not only is this migration not transpiring but, given the growing number of second-generation Indian-Americans who are even more pro-Democratic Party than their parents (see figure), the median Indian-American voter will likely become even more aligned with the Democrats. Ironically, if Trump gets re-elected and issues additional curbs on legal immigration, this trend will only intensify since US-born Indian-Americans tend to be more liberal than their naturalised counterparts.
Consequently, it would be perilous for the Indian political establishment to ignore the reality of the Indian diaspora’s political orientation toward the Democratic Party. While Indian-American voters believe that a Biden presidency would be good for US-India relations, the degree to which a Biden administration will revisit US policies on India will depend on the extent to which progressive groups manage to secure a seat in his administration.
In the past year, Indian officials and members of the ruling party have routinely rejected the concerns myriad Democratic leaders have expressed over India’s current trajectory, especially with regard to democratic freedoms and civil liberties. Notwithstanding the powerful forces operating in favour of a deepening partnership — driven substantially by the spectre of an aggressive, expansionist China — with India facing intensifying health, economic, and security challenges, New Delhi would be tempting fate if it were to be dismissive of these concerns.
Sumitra Badrinathan is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Pennsylvania. Devesh Kapur is Starr Foundation Professor of South Asian Studies and director of Asia Programs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Milan Vaishnav is a senior fellow and director of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. They are the authors of a new report, “How Will Indian Americans Vote? Results From the 2020 Indian American Attitudes Survey”
The views expressed are personal