Trauma and Trump make Asian American voters a more cohesive bloc, new poll reveals

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In 2020, amid a year of violence and fear, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders were hypervisible — and that changed the way they look at themselves and politics, according to a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll.

As the global pandemic took hold, former President Donald Trump started using xenophobic terms to blame Chinese people for spreading Covid-19. Anti-Asian hate crimes spiked, with people self-reporting more than 9,000 incidents to the advocacy organization Stop AAPI Hate. A shooter in Atlanta killed eight people, six of them East Asian women, and sparked national outrage. Then came a shooting in Indianapolis that had Sikhs mourning.

All of these events created a political solidarity unlike anything the community has seen before. The POLITICO/Morning Consult poll — one of the most extensive surveys across nearly 50 ethnic groups that make up the diaspora — shows that two in 10 adults are now more likely to identify with the broader “AAPI” label than they were pre-pandemic, a notable shift for a racial group that tends to be “nationality-first.” This movement in identity, on the heels of a massive voter turnout jump from 2016 to 2020, is key to building electoral clout, experts say.

The heightened solidarity promises to change both the way Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders vote and the way campaigns reach out to them, according to interviews with numerous people involved in AAPI politics or campaigns that made overtures to AAPI voters.

Candidates have historically overlooked AAPIs for several reasons: They were largely concentrated in noncompetitive districts; they made up a small piece of the likely electorate; and it took a lot of resources to target a community that speaks hundreds of languages and has different policy priorities. But now, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are more likely to be mobilized by a shared fear of violence and discrimination — and as the fastest-growing demographic, they’ve become consequential in swing states like Georgia and Arizona.

This creates new opportunities for both parties, but mostly for Democrats, given the intense feelings about Trump’s comments.

“This is new ground for political parties and candidates to lean into,” said Christine Chen, executive director of the nonprofit APIAVote. “We saw such a large growth of the AAPI electorate in 2020 — it’s really going to be the next two elections that decide whether or not these voters become part of the base.”

The POLITICO/Morning Consult poll — which surveyed 2,000 AAPI adults over the course of June — found several points of commonality across the community.

Ahead of closely watched local elections this fall and the 2022 midterms, the poll revealed five key takeaways.

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Roughly 2 in 10 AAPI adults said they were more likely to identify with the AAPI community than they were before Covid-19.

Twenty-one percent of adults surveyed said they were more likely to identify with the AAPI community than they were before the pandemic.

Across ethnic groups, Koreans were most likely to say they identified with the broader community more (30 percent). Liberal respondents also led moderates and conservatives in saying they identified with “AAPI” more than they did before the pandemic: 34 percent compared with 16 percent and 14 percent, respectively.

“It’s interesting to see that much movement,” said Janelle Wong, a professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. “Asian American identity is politicized to some degree, and I think it’s hugely significant to see that change in such a short time.”

The challenge, as always with big coalitions, is flattening the AAPI experience and leaving people out. The face of Asian American politics has usually been East Asian, with the movement often isolating South and Southeast Asians. Now, Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians have also been grouped into the racial category.

But organizers said the polling result is promising for political mobilization, which is linked to a common identity, and that they’ve seen more unity among AAPI voters on the ground. The pandemic-related violence was a “big wake-up call” for many AAPI voters Sung Yeon Choimorrow said she spoke to.

“So many Asian Americans are now seeing there’s a limit to us being the ‘model minority,’” said Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. “They’re finding — despite our cultural and linguistic differences — that we actually care about a lot of the same things.”

APIAVote’s Chen said many out-of-state community leaders approached her about helping Georgia build political power and providing support to its AAPI population. She expected those efforts to pivot after the presidential and special elections — but was happily surprised when she was proven wrong.

Chen added that local races, like the mayoral elections in Boston and New York, are empowering more and more AAPI voters.

“The context of what is Asian American/Pacific Islander is more of a political construct here in the U.S.,” she said. “When you have over two-thirds of the community being first-generation immigrants, they have the viewpoint that, ‘I come from this particular country.’ But at times like this, when you’re being attacked, that’s when the community comes together.”

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Many AAPI adults believe violence, discrimination and white supremacy are major threats during the pandemic.

Sixty-five percent of respondents said violence was a major threat during the pandemic. Sixty-two percent said discrimination was a major threat. Though the number dropped off for white supremacy, 50 percent of respondents still considered it a major threat.

Women were also 6 percentage points more likely to cite violence as a major threat than men were. According to Stop AAPI Hate, women also self-reported Covid-related hate crimes at higher rates, and were deeply affected by the Atlanta shootings, when a white gunman killed eight people, six of them East Asian women.

Fear and anger are activating the community. Wong, the University of Maryland professor, believes it’s creating a whole new context for AAPI mobilization.

Outreach to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, she said, has traditionally been stereotype-driven, solely about immigration policy (the myth of the “forever foreigner”) or education policy (the myth of the “model minority”).

“This is to me what should have happened long ago among those who have been trying to mobilize Asian Americans — and that is focusing on racial bias and racial discrimination as something that is very important to Asian Americans as a whole,” Wong said.

Certainly the pandemic is not the first time Asian Americans have been targeted by racism, but organizers said it’s the first time so many people are reckoning with an impossible-to-ignore example, reminiscent only of the 9/11 aftermath when Muslims, South Asians and anyone who looked “brown” were targeted.

AAPI adults were less likely to say white supremacy was a major threat than they were violence and discrimination.

In some ways that makes sense, organizers say: Violence and discrimination represent more immediate threats as kids are being singled out in school and elders are attacked in public. Studies find that over three-fourths of perpetrators are white (despite viral images and media portrayals of people of color as anti-Asian perpetrators), but it’s hard for many AAPIs to connect that to “white supremacy,” Choimorrow said.

“That’s very normal. That’s not a term everyday immigrant folks use when they talk about not feeling safe,” she said.

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Seventy-one percent of AAPI adults blame Donald Trump for the discrimination against the community — the highest blame directed toward an individual.

As the pandemic hit the United States, Trump began to call Covid-19 “the Chinese virus,” “the China virus” and other xenophobic terms. In the week after he first tweeted it, studies show the number of Covid-related social media posts with anti-Asian hashtags rose steeply.

In the POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, 71 percent of AAPI adults said the former president was a major or minor reason for the discrimination against their community.

Sixty-six percent of Chinese respondents listed Trump as a major reason — the highest across ethnic groups. Pacific Islanders were the least likely to blame Trump, though 55 percent still said he was a major or minor reason. Citizens and noncitizens had a 20 percentage point gap (74 percent to 54 percent, respectively) in saying Trump was a reason for discrimination.

Cliff Li, head of the National Committee of Asian American Republicans, said many Asian Republicans were initially excited by Trump’s explosion on the political scene. In 2016, Li was an adviser to the Trump campaign and noted that many conservative Chinese Americans appreciated the candidate’s “outsider” status. Plus, they were looking for a change from President Barack Obama’s policies on the economy, education and national security.

Still, under the pandemic, AAPIs grew increasingly turned off by Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-China rhetoric. In 2020, Li’s organization officially endorsed Joe Biden a week before the election.

“Especially this time last year, many people feel disoriented and feel really hurt in this. Some conservatives feel like, ‘We’re part of the team, but why did you suddenly just turn against us?’” Li, who no longer supports Trump, said. “So, you know, feeling like they were being used.”

But there’s also a confusing data point, Wong notes: Yes, AAPI adults largely blame Trump. Yet, from 2016 to 2020, there was a slight growth in his support among Asian Americans.

“It’s hard to argue he was actually punished,” Wong said. “Now, it was before the Atlanta shootings, so there could be a change in context. We don’t know what it’s going to look like, he’s not on the ballot.”

Choimorrow sees more political leaders buying into Trump’s ideology and anti-China sentiment persisting with the intense focus on the origins of Covid-19 and the Wuhan lab.

As recently as August, a GOP-led investigation claimed the virus was leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology and was covered up — a conclusion that U.S. intelligence agencies have not reached. A July report from Pew Research Center found that members of Congress, especially Republicans, are increasingly discussing China on social media, with the right using critical language in the context of the pandemic. Lawmakers set on competing with China’s tech and science gains have cast the country an “existential threat” to America and often failed to differentiate between the government and its people.

With all that, organizers are closely watching GOP outreach efforts and the candidates they’re putting up as they try to win back AAPI adults.

“We need to demonstrate enough power … so that people running for office can’t ignore us and still get elected. That’s our tall order for next year,” Choimorrow said. “By 2050, Asian Americans are going to be the largest minority group.”

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AAPIs still mostly trust Democrats over Republicans to handle major policy priorities. There are double-digit gaps in confidence.

There are double-digit gaps in AAPI adults’ confidence in how the major parties would handle policy priorities.

On gun safety, 46 percent of respondents trusted Democrats in Congress compared with 16 percent who trusted Republicans. On immigration, 44 percent trusted Democrats versus 21 percent who trusted Republicans. On health care, 51 percent trusted Democrats and 15 percent trusted Republicans. On the economy, where the GOP has traditionally picked up support, 38 percent trusted Democrats and 24 percent trusted Republicans.

A significant chunk of adults said they didn’t trust either party to handle these policy issues. That number was usually greater than the number for those who trusted the GOP.

With Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders making up the fastest-growing racial group in the nation, no one should feel too comfortable, specialists in AAPI politics said. “Regardless of party right now, people understand that there is a critical need for cultural competency and understanding how the community thinks,” said Madalene Xuan-Trang Mielke, president of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies.

AAPI adults have a long-standing tendency to vote blue (Biden won that demographic in a landslide, according to exit polls), but also think of themselves as “independent” or “unaffiliated.” Indian Americans, the most progressive under the AAPI umbrella, now outnumber even Chinese Americans. This could have a significant effect on the community’s political profile.

Both the GOP and the Democratic Party have launched a string of efforts — staffing up, investing in more translation resources and organizing early — to gain momentum heading into the next election cycle, Xuan-Trang Mielke said. Of note is the Republican National Committee’s new experiment in Orange County, the first Asian Pacific American community center to recruit volunteers and build deeper relationships.

Still, Li said the messaging in Orange County — which has a high Asian population and is considered purple — is atypical: “The outreach to the Asian community is a smart move, Orange County is the right place to do that. However, what happens there does not reflect what happens with the base, in Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Alabama.”

And the former president is still an elephant in the room.

“He is still going to have such a chokehold effect on the party,” Li said. “Right now, we don’t see any way this gets better for the GOP. Probably the best is to just wait and see how politics evolves on both sides — which it seems to be getting more and more extreme on both sides.”

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AAPI adults feel represented by politicians who share their values more so than those who come from similar backgrounds or look like them.

What does political representation really look like?

AAPI adults overwhelmingly said it was very or somewhat important for politicians in office to have the same values — 87 percent compared with the 30 percent who wanted politicians to look like them and the 43 percent who wanted politicians from similar backgrounds.

Along those lines, AAPI adults said they felt the most represented (very or somewhat) by elected officials who shared their values.

“Andrew Yang is a good example of that, right?” Wong said. “We saw in our preelection surveys [in 2020] that Andrew Yang didn’t get majority support from Asian Americans, even Chinese Americans.”

For people of color, experts say descriptive representation is highly correlated with substantive representation. But as more AAPI candidates run against each other and other candidates of color in New York, California and elsewhere, the electorate is looking deeply into what they stand for.

“That’s part of what it means to be a new American majority,” Xuan-Trang Mielke said. She pointed to Boston, where a woman of color becoming the mayor is all but certain. “That in itself is an indication that voters across the country are getting choices they weren’t getting before.”

AAPI voters are going to be much harder to ignore — and so are their preferences for candidates who can speak to the threats they’re facing and invest in relationships with them earlier than the few months before Election Day, she added.

It’s no secret campaigns have fallen short on AAPI outreach before. Politicians preferred to invest their limited time and resources into mobilizing other racial groups, since white voters and Black voters had higher turnout rates for a long period of time. In 2016, a survey of Asian American adults by AAPI Data found that around 70 percent hadn’t seen contact from either party.

Unlike for Hispanic/Latinx voters, campaign materials need to be translated into several different languages. Plus, the AAPI community contains not only people with varying English-language proficiency, immigration protections and socioeconomic statuses — but also people whose home countries might be at war with each other.

Candidates might be able to find new ground, though, with the latest emphasis on AAPI solidarity. University of California, Berkeley professor Taeku Lee said AAPIs do share common ground on policy issues like securing access to health care, improving public education funding and creating a pathway to citizenship. Last year, given strong feelings about the pandemic, hate crimes and politics, there were major increases in voter engagement: roughly a 21 percent increase for Asian Americans since 2016 and a 35 percent increase for Pacific Islanders.

“Just appealing on the basis of ‘common identity’ was often quite difficult because the community is remarkably diverse,” Lee said. “What often works is this sense of shared threat or hardship.’ If you’re going to micro-target AAPI voters, that’s going to continue to be a pretty powerful framing for why they need to get involved in politics.

Methodology: Data from Morning Consult.

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