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Kamala Harris is likely to bring in Indian American voters, this research finds

Indian Americans are especially likely to vote when another Indian American is on the ballot — more so than people of other minority racial or ethnic identities.

Sen. Kamala D. Harris and her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, visit the Lunar New Year parade in 2007. (Kamala Harris campaign via AP) (AP)
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President Trump has been working to win over a bloc he lost in 2016: Indian American voters. Nearly 70 percent of Indian Americans surveyed by the 2016 Collaborative Multiracial Post-Election Survey said they voted for Hillary Clinton, compared with just 20 percent who voted for Trump.

Since then, Trump has gone to some lengths to change their sympathies. He fondly embraced India’s prime minister Narendra Modi at the “Howdy Modi” rally in Houston in the fall. He has elevated prominent Indian Americans to public positions, including such appointments as Nikki Haley as U.N. ambassador, Ajit Pai as chair of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, and Seema Verma as the administrator for the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). —The Trump campaign has even run ads targeted at Indian American voters.

But Trump’s efforts may be in vain, now that presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden has selected Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) as his running mate. Harris’s parents are immigrants from Jamaica and India. In a new study, I evaluate whether having Indian and other Asian American candidates on the ballot affects voter turnout. More than any other Asian subgroup, I find Indian Americans mobilize based on shared identity.

Before Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) became the first Black woman and Asian American to join a major party ticket, she was a trailblazer in California politics. (Video: The Washington Post)

How I did my research

To see whether Asian Americans were more likely to vote if an Asian American was on the ballot, I looked at voter turnout in California state assembly elections from 2012 to 2018. Using vote returns that identify a voter’s race or ethnicity based on their surname, I could see whether Asian Americans — or subgroups thereof — were more likely to vote if they had the chance to vote for someone Asian American generally, or from their own national origin specifically.

On average, Asian American voters were measurably more likely to turn out if their district had a candidate of any Asian American background on the ballot. That was especially true in areas with a high proportion of Asian Americans. Asian American Democrats, Republicans and independents all show statistically significant increases in turnout for Asian American candidates.

These results suggest that living among other Asian Americans increases the likelihood of feeling motivated to vote when an Asian American candidate is running. That’s consistent with prior research on Black and Latinx candidates. Simply offering someone the chance to vote for a candidate from their own ethnicity doesn’t necessarily make a difference — unless the voter lives among a large proportion of others of that racial or ethnic group.

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Of course, Asian Americans are a highly diverse group, as Asia hosts nearly 60 percent of the world’s total population. After narrowing the analysis to groups with the same national origin, I found that different groups behave quite distinctively. For instance, Korean and Filipino Americans are more likely to turn out to vote for a candidate with the same national origin only if they live in a community with a great many others from the same group, much as is true for Blacks and Latinos.

But Indian Americans are more likely to vote when an Indian American candidate is on the ballot no matter what kind of district they live in. For Harris, if Indian Americans perceive her as sharing their identity as an Indian, she will probably see not only strong support but a boost in voter turnout from Indian Americans. That was certainly the case during her senatorial run in 2016, when she received support from a majority of Indian American voters in California.

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Implications for 2020

This change in turnout can influence the outcome of races up and down the ballot. In a congressional district in the Houston suburbs (TX-22) for example, Democrat and Indian American candidate Sri Preston Kulkarni is seeking to replace retiring Republican Rep. Pete Olsen. Twenty percent of the district’s residents are Asian American. Since the district has such a large proportion of Asian Americans, my research suggests that Kulkarni’s ethnicity could help motivate them to vote, and that the candidate may wish to prioritize targeted outreach to this community.

Indian American — and more generally, Asian American — communities are growing nationwide. They’re especially growing in swing districts located in Nevada, Texas, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Georgia. The Pew Research Center projects that by 2055 Asian Americans will be the largest immigrant group in the United States.

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Harris’s vice-presidential candidacy could mobilize this growing constituency, giving them a larger political impact in the 2020 election and possibly beyond. If Harris wishes to stress her Indian ancestry to targeted audiences, it might make them more likely to cast ballots in her favor.

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Sara Sadhwani (@sarasadhwani) is an assistant professor of political science at Pomona College.——