When Long Tran, a liberal organizer of Vietnamese descent, hosted a meet-and-greet for Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff in early 2017, he was hoping in part to engage more Asian Americans like himself in politics.
While AAPI voters comprise only about 4 percent of Georgia’s population, that amounts to roughly 238,000 eligible voters, more than enough to determine races in the narrowly divided state. Georgia saw a 91 percent increase in AAPI voter turnout over 2016, according to an analysis by the Democratic firm TargetSmart, and exit polls showed Asian American voters preferred Joe Biden to President Trump by 2 to 1.
Strong turnout among Latino and Black voters also contributed to Biden’s win, in Georgia and across the country. But the near-doubling of turnout among Asian American voters — who historically have had some of the lowest turnout nationally — suggests a far-reaching change that could resonate for decades.
That change also played out in swing states like Arizona, Michigan and Nevada, where changing demographics and rapidly diversifying suburbs are reconfiguring the political map. In every battleground state, the AAPI community increased its turnout more than any other group, and in Georgia and Arizona, traditionally red states that went for Biden, the vote was decided by a margin that was less than the increase in AAPI voters, TargetSmart noted.
“We are that new electorate,” said Stephanie Cho, executive director of the Atlanta chapter of Asian Americans Advancing Justice. “Us along with Black women voters, along with Latino voters, along with young people, really have changed the trajectory of what Georgia looks like.”
In Gwinnett County outside Atlanta, which has the state’s largest AAPI population, more than 30,000 AAPI voters cast their ballots early this year compared with 9,500 in 2016. Of those who voted early this year, 43 percent had not voted in 2012, 2016 or 2018, according to Cho’s group.
That affected more than just the presidential race. Progressive organizers say the surge of AAPI votes helped Democrats retake a U.S. House seat in the 7th Congressional District, where Carolyn Bourdeaux won by fewer than 9,000 votes. That was the only seat in the country that Democrats flipped this year, other than two in North Carolina that were reshaped by redistricting.
A similar transformation was evident in the five-person Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners, which went from being all-White and all-Republican in 2016 to an entirely Democratic commission this year, consisting of four Black members and one Asian American.
Now, with two crucial U.S. Senate races to be decided in Georgia on Jan. 5, both parties are keenly aware that the jump in newly engaged Asian voters could make the difference. Tight races are unfolding between Sen. David Perdue (R) and Ossoff, as well as between Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R) and the Rev. Raphael Warnock (D).
The reasons for the increase in Asian American turnout are complex. Democrats cite Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as attacks on Muslims and the “Chinese flu,” which fueled hostility against Asian Americans. They also credit the impact of Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris, the first Asian American on a major party ticket.
But organizers say the effort to engage Georgia’s AAPI community has been years in the making, requiring careful, sustained outreach far beyond Trump. “The wins don’t happen overnight,” Cho said. “We’ve been working and organizing and talking to folks for years and years. This is the year that everything sort of came together.”
When Cho moved to Georgia from California in 2015, she was shocked at the lack of Asian involvement in the state’s politics, despite already sizable populations in Gwinnett, Fulton and DeKalb counties. Because Asian Americans were seen as unengaged, campaigns did not seek them out, which in turn gave them little reason to join the process — “almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Cho said.
Michelle Au, a Chinese American anesthesiologist who just won a seat in the Georgia State Senate, told The Lily earlier this year that one factor was the dynamic within some families. “Growing up, I never saw any Asian people in politics. It just wasn’t a thing,” Au said. “It wasn’t something that Asian families push their kids to do.”
Determined to change the landscape, Cho founded the Asian American Advocacy Fund to engage and register Asian Americans in Georgia.
In the three months before Election Day, AAPI organizers estimate they called 92 percent of the estimated 238,000 eligible AAPI voters in Georgia. By Election Day itself, 50 percent of the state’s registered AAPI voters had already voted — a 141 percent increase over the early vote in 2016.
“Without a doubt, we helped serve as that margin of victory, along with other young communities of color,” said Georgia state Rep. Sam Park (D), who became the first Asian American Democrat elected to the Georgia General Assembly in 2016 and helped lead a group called Young Asian Americans for Biden.
Park began his political activism in 2012 by phone banking for Stacey Abrams, who at the time was the minority leader of the Georgia House. When he decided to run for office himself, he was keenly aware that someone like him — a gay, American-born, 30-something child of Korean immigrants — would have different concerns than, say, a recently naturalized Pakistani immigrant with limited English.
“I was very intentional with ensuring that we had an understanding of the various Asian American communities,” Park said. “I think it’s always important not to overgeneralize.”
Indeed, national polling rarely distinguishes between the groups that fall under the broad AAPI umbrella, which in Georgia includes people of Indian, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Filipino descent, among others.
About 42 percent of Asian adults have limited English proficiency, so outreach typically requires multiple languages, as well as an understanding of the diversity within the Asian American community.
In September, an annual survey by APIAVote and AAPI Data found that Vietnamese Americans were the only group to prefer Trump over Biden, while Indian Americans were the most likely to vote for the Democrat.
If Democrats seek to appeal to Asian Americans based on their image of a tolerant, inclusive America that welcomes immigrants, some Republicans see an opening based on appeals to social and fiscal conservatism and anti-Communism. During the campaign, Republican officials stressed Trump’s support for tax cuts, and even some Democrats conceded such messages could resonate.
“Having talked to older Korean American voters as well, they tend to be more fiscally conservative,” Park said. “Their understanding of American politics is somewhat tied to the ’70s and ’80s. I know many older Vietnamese Americans vote Republican because it was a Republican administration that allowed Vietnamese refugees to come in and resettle.”
Park and others said that combating disinformation in foreign languages on social apps like WeChat and KakaoTalk was also a growing challenge this year.
This year, though, Asian Americans’ preference was clear. The National Committee of Asian American Republicans even switched sides to endorse Biden, blasting Trump’s rhetoric as discriminatory and self-aggrandizing.
“This sounds too familiar to many Asian American immigrants who came from places where authoritarians make themselves godly above people,” the group said in its endorsement.
Organizers said both parties could do far more when it comes to AAPI outreach. The September survey of Asian American voters found that across the country, 50 percent had not been contacted by the Democratic Party at all regarding the 2020 elections, and 55 percent of them had not been contacted by the Republican Party.
Local groups are trying to make up the difference. Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood, director of the Asian American Advocacy Fund, said the most effective strategy has been engaging new AAPI voters on local issues, where the impact on their lives is more direct.
“Everything’s so politicized at the top of the ticket and frankly, people don’t like talking about it all that much,” Mahmood said. “But when you start talking to them about the school board member who can help determine when your kids can go safely back to school, I think they are a lot more willing to talk to you.”
She said the biggest challenge in the lead-up to the Georgia runoffs will not be the lack of a presidential race at the top of the ticket, but the absence of local races. Nevertheless, Mahmood said her group plans to ramp up its efforts “because so much is at stake.”
The Advocacy Fund launched an “Asians for Ossoff & Warnock” campaign last week and after Thanksgiving planned to resume door-knocking, something it avoided during the general election because of the pandemic.
When it comes to AAPI outreach, some things “won’t cut it” anymore, Tran said. Campaigns can no longer create ads with a token Asian figure or run their standard English ads through Google Translate, he said, and they likely need to hold several events with multiple groups within the AAPI community.
Tran added that the “model minority” myth — which portrays Asian Americans as uniquely successful and well-integrated — can obscure the economic challenges faced by many. More than 50,000 Asian Americans in Georgia lack health insurance, and more than 40,000, including a third of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders, live in poverty.
Many others are blue-collar workers or small-business owners trying to stay afloat. Tran himself opened a coffee and bubble tea shop called Peachy Corners Cafe in Gwinnett County just before the pandemic. “We’re not just engineers and doctors,” Tran said.
The rise in Asian American political clout has not been lost on the Democratic Senate campaigns. Warnock last week attended two AAPI mobilization events, and his campaign has advertised in Korean, Chinese and South Asian newspapers.
The Korean and Chinese ads say Warnock will work to give opportunities to everyone; the ad targeting South Asians, in English, says Warnock “is fighting for health care and an economy that works for all Georgians.” The Chinese ad contains a small error in place of one of the characters.
Ossoff’s campaign said he is continuing to build on his efforts to engage with AAPI voters that started in his 2017 congressional campaign, when they had a field office in Johns Creek, Ga., which is nearly a quarter Asian, and that they plan to hire an AAPI constituency director soon.
The Perdue and Loeffler campaigns did not respond to requests for comment. But both took steps earlier in the campaign that prompted outcry from many Asian Americans.
Loeffler echoed Trump in blaming China for the coronavirus that has killed at least 265,000 Americans. And Perdue mocked Harris’s first name, which is of Hindi origin, at a Trump rally in October — “Ka-ma-la, Ka-ma-la, Kamala-mala-mala, I don’t know, whatever,” he said dismissively.
Ossoff called that “vile, race-baiting trash talk” and raised $2 million in the 48 hours after the rally. Perdue’s campaign said at the time that the senator “didn’t mean anything by it.”
But liberals organizers said Democrats would be making a big mistake if they made lackluster outreach efforts on the theory that Asian Americans automatically lean Democratic.
“Demographics are not destiny,” Park said, quoting his former boss Stacey Abrams. “As we’re looking at the runoff races, quite frankly it will be absolutely essential to reach out and do everything we can to turn out young Asian Americans voters. . . . We went from that marginalized community to the margin of victory.”
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