As the 2020 presidential election in the United States approaches, Indian Americans are unexpectedly in the spotlight thanks to the growing affluence and influence of the Indian American community in political circles, the supposed camaraderie between US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris (who is of partial Indian origin) as his running mate.
Biden’s selection of Harris as his vice presidential nominee triggered widespread speculation as to whether Harris’s addition to the ticket would be a net positive, net negative, or simply have no impact on the voting behaviour of Indian Americans.
This question is significant because a narrative is emerging that the Modi-Trump partnership, compounded by concerns over how a Biden administration might manage US-India ties, will push Indian Americans to abandon the Democratic Party in droves.
A new study finds that Harris has in fact brought new enthusiasm to the Democratic ticket. The analysis is based on a nationally representative online survey of 936 Indian American citizens—the Indian American Attitudes Survey (IAAS)—conducted between September 1 and September 20, 2020, in partnership with the research and analytics firm YouGov. The survey has an overall margin of error of +/- 3.2 percent.
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The Kamala Harris effect
This question of Harris’ selection became especially salient in discussions about the Indian American community given the spate of stories on Harris’s Indian mother and the impact of her Indian heritage (which was often juxtaposed to Harris’s self-identification as a Black woman). Some news reports suggested that the Indian American community enthusiastically embraced her selection, while others hinted at rifts within the community due to Harris’s previous positions on Indian domestic policy as well as her downplaying of her Indian identity relative to her Black identity.
The survey approached this issue through two lenses. First, the survey asked respondents whether Biden’s selection of Harris made them more or less likely to vote in the November election (the turnout effect). Second, the survey asked whether Harris’s selection makes them more or less enthusiastic about Biden’s candidacy (the enthusiasm effect).
With regards to turnout, 45 percent of respondents indicated that Harris’s selection made them more likely to vote in November while just 10 percent indicated that it would make them less likely to vote (see Figure 1). Another 40 percent said it made no difference either way. In all, the Harris pick does seem to have galvanised a large section of the Indian American community with respect to turning out to vote.
Figure 1: Impact of Harris on voter turnout
However, voters could be mobilised to vote either for Biden-Harris or against them. The survey data indicate that the mobilisation effect is largely working in favour of the Democratic ticket (see Figure 2): 49 percent of respondents indicated that Harris’s nomination made them more enthusiastic about Biden’s candidacy while just 15 percent reported that it made them less enthusiastic. To be sure, diminished enthusiasm cannot simply be equated with support for Trump, although it raises this possibility. Another 31 percent said it made no difference to them either way.
Figure 2: Impact of Harris on enthusiasm about Biden
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The survey further unpacks the enthusiasm effect, both positive and negative. For those who responded that the Harris selection made them more enthusiastic about Biden’s candidacy, the survey asked why (see Figure 3). The modal response is that Harris is Indian American (26 percent), followed by the belief that she would be a centrist/moderate voice in a putative Biden administration (19 percent) and the fact that she is a woman (16 percent). Interestingly, and somewhat contrary to the media narrative, 15 percent of respondents report that Harris makes them more enthusiastic about Biden’s candidacy because they believe she will strengthen US-India ties.
Figure 3: Why Harris might help Biden
Finally, the survey also investigates the reasons why Harris’s addition to the Democratic ticket makes respondents less enthusiastic about Biden (see Figure 4). The most popular reason given is that respondents had already made up their mind about their vote choice (22 percent), followed by the fact that Harris identifies more with her Black roots than her Indian roots (20 percent). Nineteen percent of respondents reported that they believe that Harris will weaken US-India ties.
Figure 4: Why Harris might hurt Biden
Sumitra Badrinathan (University of Pennsylvania), Devesh Kapur (Johns Hopkins-SAIS), and Milan Vaishnav (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace). Views are personal.
This article is an edited excerpt from the authors’ report ‘How Will Indian Americans Vote? Results From the 2020 Indian American Attitudes Survey’, first published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Johns Hopkins-SAIS, and the University of Pennsylvania. Read the full report here.