The Lessons the Democratic Party Must Learn About Asian American Voters to Win in 2020

Kamala Harris (middle) pictured at a campaign event. (Photo credit: Ebony)

For over a decade, political strategists have contemplated tactics for winning over the Asian American electorate. Routinely noted as one of the fastest-growing electorates in the country, Asian Americans currently make up about 5% of the electorate and is projected to double to over 12 million voters by 2040. Because Asian Americans are geographically concentrated in a few states, their impact on state and local elections in these states is even higher: in California, for example, Asian American voters wield profound influence in the heavily-Asian American Orange County. In swing states like Virginia, the Asian American electorate is large enough to swing narrow elections; indeed, Senator Hillary Clinton narrowly won the state in 2016 by a margin smaller than the number of Asian American voters in the state.

Going forward, Democrats need to include Asian American voters as part of its core base, and as part of its fundamental electoral strategy.

As the Democratic party sets its sights on the presidential election in 2020 — and the first opportunity for voters to unseat President Trump at the ballot box — The New York Times reports that several early voices have emerged as potential candidates to take the Democratic presidential nomination. They include Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris as well as former Vice President Joe Biden.

The speculation around these rumored candidacies is fierce; but all of these candidates must implement the following lessons as they advance towards the 2020 election season, particularly when it comes to courting the “sleeping giant” of Asian American voters.

Contact is Key: Asian American Voters Want to be Talked To

In 2016, a survey of Asian American and Pacific Islander voters revealed that less than 30% of them had been contacted by a candidate of a major political party; this is in contrast to 44% of white voters who are contacted by at least one political party. In a different survey, Democrats were marginally better than Republicans at contacting Asian American voters, but more than two-thirds of voters were not contacted by the Democratic Party. As a consequence, just over half of Asian American voters believe that mainstream politicians “don’t care” about the Asian American community.

Given the persistent disinterest that Democrats and Republicans display towards the Asian American electorate, could we really be blamed for believing that both parties have abdicated any interest in us?

This trend represents an opportunity for Democrats. Even without consistent voter contact, Asian American voters are twice as likely to identify with Democratic Party ideology, and we voted by a three-to-one margin for Senator Clinton in 2016. Yet, without strong voter contact, Asian American voter enthusiasm is lower than it could be, resulting in persistently below-average voter turnout rates.

Diversify the Discourse around Asian Americans

The Asian American electorate is highly diverse and includes voters with disparate political interests and ideologies. Asian American voters include immigrants and refugees – both documented and undocumented. Many of us are wealthy, but many, too, live far below the poverty line; and, indeed, Asian Americans have the fastest-growing income divide of any group.

Mainstream politicians rarely talk about Asian Americans, and when they do, they often confuse our interests with those of international trading partners like China or Japan. Few speak about or to Southeast Asian American populations who collectively represent nearly one-quarter of Asian Americans and whose experiences as Asian Americans are as pressing as they are different from that of many East Asian Americans.

The candidate the Asian American community will rally behind in 2020 must recognize the nuances of the Asian American community and must put in the work to address us with that sophisticated understanding. Bring Asian Americans into the political conversation beyond that boilerplate lip service to American diversity that often leads politicians to mention voters of colour in passing while never addressing our core issues; instead, talk about Asian Americans and other communities of colour on topics of immigration and economic justice, tax policy and mass incarceration. Diversify the discourse; don’t deracinate it.

Reject Tokenism: Don’t Write-Off the Asian American Vote

If Senator Kamala Harris runs for the 2020 Democratic party nomination, she will be the first South Asian American woman to seek a major political party nomination for the presidency. If she wins, she will be the first Black and Asian American woman to represent a major political party in a campaign for the White House.

While Asian Americans would be excited to see the first Asian American woman elected to the White House, the Democratic Party must not write-off the Asian American electorate as if representational politics are reason alone why we might vote for Harris and/or against other candidates. Racial representation matters; but it’s not an excuse to divest resources away from the Asian American electorate.

Speak to Us Where We Are, Not Where You Expect Us To Be

Many Asian Americans are English-language limited, and nearly one-third of Asian Americans rely on non-English language media for our news. We are highly politically engaged, but rarely does the mainstream Democratic party invest resources in building infrastructure within our community. This is surprising because not only is the Asian American electorate only growing in influence, but it is well-accepted political dogma that efforts to cultivate party loyalty pays dividends for generations to come. Yet, the Democratic party has done almost nothing to sincerely appeal to Asian American voters.

In 2020, the Democratic party must break out of traditional tactics that have proven largely ineffective at reaching Asian American voters. Taking a page from the Obama campaign machine, the Democratic party should recruit field organizers from the Asian American community to help build a lasting infrastructure to enter into conversation with Asian American voters. Asian American political outreach efforts should do away with the lip service efforts, and instead coordinate a genuine campaign to engage Asian American voters in the political process. Organize townhalls in areas of high Asian American residential density and hold those events with Asian language support and in partnership with well-respected community groups. Engage those of us who have already been creating political content for the Asian American community in the digital space. Reach out to Asian Americans in social media, but also in our Asian-language ethnic media outlets and on the streets of our ethnic enclaves and senior centers. Create voter registration drives specifically aimed at Asian American voters, and develop efforts to specifically turnout the Asian American vote.

Go where we are, not where you expect us to be.

Venture Beyond Never-Trumpism: Give Us Something to Vote For

The “Never Trump” horn is already sounding within the Democratic party leadership, with this message likely to serve as a cornerstone of the Democratic presidential candidate’s platform. This is obvious political strategizing: Trump’s unfavourability and disapproval ratings are at record-breaking highs, including among Asian Americans. In 2016, 20% of Asian American voters crossed party identification lines to cast a vote for Clinton. Yet, some of Trump’s fiercest adherents are also within the Asian American community: including conservative Chinese Americans who see a Far Right ally for their anti-affirmative action activism in the Trump White House.

If there is any lesson to be learned from 2016 for Democrats, it is that Asian American voters – and indeed, all voters — don’t just want to vote against someone or something; we want to be energized to vote for something. Democrats must move away from the strategy of capturing minority voters – that is, pandering to the center while capturing progressives and voters of color on the left through their lack any other viable alternatives. Since the 1990’s, when Asian Americans shifted our party identification to the Democrats, we have been captured to the left-of-center by a Democratic party happy to take our donor money while spending little-to-no time addressing our progressive interests or passing legislation that appeals to our issues.

Where are the Democratic party candidates willing to speak to Asian American voters on the issues that compel us to action? Where are the Democratic party leaders interested in prioritizing immigration reform and immigrant justice, education access, healthcare access, and income inequality, as each of these issues affect the Asian American community and other people of color? Where are the Democrats on issues of racial justice such as state violence, mass incarceration, and racial profiling? What reasons have Democrats given us to vote for them in 2020?

This trend cannot continue. It is time for the Democratic party to reject the politics of minority voter capture and to genuinely work to build a populist message that includes all voters, including voters of colour.

It is time for Democrats to stop expecting the Asian American vote; it is time for Democrats to finally work to win it.

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