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  • Writer's pictureYilun Cheng

Don't Take AAPI Voters For Granted

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

Photo Credit: China US Focus. Donald Trump's support among AAPI voters increased 7 percent in the 2020 election.

Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders are a diverse group of people with drastically different ethnic backgrounds, socio-economic needs and immigration histories.

So why do the two major political parties continue to treat them as a monolith?

Democratic politicians, yet again, proved their tragic incompetence in understanding the needs of these voters in the run up to the 2020 election. Yes, Joe Biden may have won the national popular vote by more than seven million votes, but Donald Trump made significant gains among the Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) bloc.

At first, it surprised me that Trump did not lose his support among these voters. Was his anti-immigrant rhetoric and his routine xenophobic attacks on the Chinese population not enough to dissuade Asian-Americans from voting for him?

True, it was still only a minority of the group that preferred Trump, but the president's share rose from 27 percent four years ago to 34 percent this year, according to CNN’s exit polls. Even Indian-Americans, the AAPI sub-group with the strongest Democratic identification, saw a 12-point jump in their support for Trump, surveys from research center AAPI Data show.

This is a president who cheerfully debated whether to call COVID-19 the “China virus” or “Kung Flu” at a time when pandemic-induced fear has caused a nationwide increase in hate crimes against Asian-Americans. Something must be seriously wrong with Democrats’ campaign strategy that Trump was able to snatch votes from a third of the AAPI population.

Let me make one thing clear. Both the Biden and Trump campaigns did a terrible job reaching out to AAPI voters. Research by AAPI Data shows that half of all surveyed Asian-Americans reported not having been contacted by either party in the year leading up to the election. No other ethnic group experienced such low rates on the national level.

The Republican Party is known for its lack of engagement when it comes to the Asian population. But Democrats are not much better. The Democratic National Committee and the Biden campaign invested in AAPI-specific ad campaigns only a few weeks before Election Day. This is typical. No one pays attention to Asian-Americans until it is time for them to cast their votes.

Behind these abysmal figures and half-hearted campaigns are the two parties’ assumption that the Asian-American vote is not worth fighting for. The Democratic Party might have gotten away with taking AAPI voters for granted until now, since the majority of the Asian population lives in California, New York, Texas and other states that are not historically competitive in presidential elections. But things are changing.

Not only are AAPIs the fastest-growing segment of eligible voters, but their political power can no longer be ignored. This year, AAPI populations residing in Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania and Georgia were well within the margins of victory.

The lack of bilingual voting materials is appalling. Local community organizations are often left alone in offering culturally and linguistically specific guidance on the most basic information, like how to register to vote and polling-place locations.

This year, even these piecemeal attempts were widely disrupted, as the ongoing pandemic crippled local organizations’ ability to provide direct services. Nearly 60 percent of Asian-Americans said they were not contacted by any community organization in the past year, according to surveys from AAPI Data.

This means that many Asian-Americans were forced to lean on unreliable sources filled with rumors, gossip and misinformation.

While disinformation campaigns on Facebook and Twitter are under increased scrutiny, similar attempts targeting AAPI voters continue to run amok on WeChat and WhatsApp –– popular social media platforms among the Asian population.

Last month, I received multiple forwards of a fabricated flyer on WeChat, in both English and Mandarin, that falsely announced a Department of Homeland Security plan to send troops to polling sites in order to deter rioters. What a blatant attempt to intimidate and debilitate Chinese voters! If I were a Mandarin-speaking immigrant with limited English skills and no access to official information sources, I, too, might be too frightened to go out to vote.

It is even worse when Asian politicians, like former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, make it clear that they also lack empathy for AAPI communities suffering from COVID-19 and the racial hostility that came with it.

In a Washington Post op-ed, Yang urged Asian-Americans to “wear red, white and blue,” and “show our American-ness in ways we never have before,” in order to counter Trump’s racist “Chinese virus” narrative. What an outrageous idea, that we have to hide our ethnic identity behind the American flag in order to not get spit on and yelled at!

We might be a vastly diverse group. But as immigrants and the children of immigrants, one thing we have in common is the fear of being antagonized and scapegoated. Now that Asian Democratic leaders have proved themselves to be complicit in stereotyping and scapegoating AAPI communities, it is not surprising that only 30 percent of the electorate feels a connection to the party, even though about half of us believe our views more closely align to its policy platform.

I should remind you that roughly two-thirds of AAPI voters are foreign born. These are people who did not grow up in a traditionally Democratic or Republican household. It only makes sense for politicians to invest greater-than-average resources into the AAPI electorate in order to cultivate party affiliations over time.

In fact, most AAPI groups are already ideologically aligned with the Democratic Party on a variety of issues, including immigration, environmental protection, gun control and affirmative action. It, therefore, seems like a missed opportunity that Democrats are not doing more to capture their votes and are instead treating them as a mass of generic white-adjacent voters.

Going forward, once Trump is out of office, the Republican Party will likely return to traditional conservative values.

Democrats need to radically change their outreach strategies in order to build real trust with our communities and consolidate their votes in the coming years.


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