Results from a new survey of Indian Americans provide strong evidence that contradicts an emerging narrative that these voters are shifting their support from the Democratic Party, which a majority of them have traditionally supported, to the Republican Party. The results also show that U.S.-India relations feature low in the list of issues that motivate voting choice among Indian Americans.
A significant 72%, of registered Indian American voters plan to vote for Democratic candidate Joe Biden in the presidential elections while 22% plan to vote for incumbent U.S. President Donald Trump. Three per cent do not plan to vote and 3% plan to vote for a third party candidate, as per the 2020 Indian American Attitudes Survey (IAAS) published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), Johns Hopkins SAIS and the University of Pennsylvania. The study surveyed (online) a nationally representative sample of 936 Indian Americans in September and the overall margin of error for the survey is +/- 3.2 % as per the publishers.
The narrative (as the report notes) of this shift from the Democratic Party to the GOP, is based on the bonhomie between Mr. Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi as well as criticisms of the Modi government by Democrat lawmakers (including Mr. Biden’s running mate Kamala Harris). In fact, a recent survey report by AAPI Data and Indiaspora showed that support for the Democrats had fallen a little since 2016. However, this IAAS survey suggests that Indian Americans still strongly identify with the Democratic Party.
“The data really challenge the emerging conventional wisdom that Indian Americans are abandoning the Democratic Party thanks, in part, to concerns over how a Biden-Harris administration might handle relations with India,” said Milan Vaishnav of the CEIP, who co-authored the survey with Sumitra Badrinathan (University of Pennsylvania ) and Devesh Kapur (Johns Hopkins SAIS).
Of the 4.16 million Indian Americans, some 1.9 million are eligible to vote. A survey of their political attitudes is important as the community is being courted by both Democrats and Republicans, in the hope that they can help win battleground states for their respective presidential candidates. These states could, like in 2016, play a decisive role in picking the next President.
A majority still skew Left, identify as Democrats
Consistent with historical patterns, 56% of Indian Americans generally identify as Democrats and 15% as Republicans. Twenty two per cent identity as independents. In terms of political ideology, the results show that Indian Americans “clearly skew Left.” This Leftward tilt is more visible among U.S. born Indian Americans relative to their foreign-born counterparts.
On a seven point scale that ranged from extremely conservative to extremely liberal, a total of 47% of respondents fell in the extremely liberal, liberal or slightly liberal categories while 23% fell in the slightly conservative, conservative and extremely conservative categories. Twenty nine per cent said they were moderate.
Economy, healthcare more important than India-U.S. relations
Respondents were asked to list the top three issues that influence their vote choice. The biggest issue was the economy (21% said it was their first choice), closely followed by healthcare (20%), then racism (12%) and taxes (9%).
Contrary to the narrative around Indian Americans being driven by India-U.S. relations , the bilateral relationship was second from the bottom with just 3% ranking it as their most important election issue.
“This is not very surprising since the top foreign policy priority of American voters overall appears to emphasise reorienting U.S. foreign policy to more explicitly serve the everyday concerns of Americans and for the United States to be ‘strong at home’,” the survey report says.
Nevertheless, priority issues are also subject to partisan variation. A larger proportion (36%) of likely Indian American voters who are Republicans rank the economy as their number one priority, relative to Democrats (16%). More Democrats (21%) than Republicans (12%) rank healthcare as their top issue.
The survey finds that Indian Americans tend not to identify with the Republican Party because it is perceived as unwelcoming of minorities and “overly influenced by Christian evangelicalism.” Those who identify with the party, primarily do so because they differ with Democrats in economic policy and healthcare policy.
Impact of Kamala Harris
Mr. Biden’s Vice-Presidential candidate choice of Ms. Harris, who has Jamaican and Indian roots, has had a significant “turnout effect” — with 45% of respondents saying the choice made it more likely they would vote in November while 10% said the choice made it less likely they would vote and 40% said it had no impact on their motivation to vote.
The survey data indicate that the mobilisation effect is working in favour of Democrats: 49% say Ms. Harris’s nomination made them more enthusiastic about Mr. Biden’s candidacy while 15% said it made them less enthusiastic about him.
The authors conclude that on balance, the Harris-effect may not impact large numbers of votes because of the underlying tilt towards the Democratic Party.