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Growing progressive force in the electorate, AAPI voters turn out at higher rates than 2016

Tabitha Mueller
Tabitha Mueller
Savanna Strott
Savanna Strott
Election 2020

Early data shows that white voters again heavily backed Donald Trump this cycle, but it's a diverse coalition of younger voters and people of color who helped push Joe Biden over the edge in Nevada and nationwide. Here's a closer look at what polls and experts tell us about turnout trends within different demographics.


Kim Murat didn't grow up talking politics; she doesn't know whether her parents even voted. It never came up in her home in Mobile, Alabama, where she moved from Vietnam when her mom married a U.S. Marine when Murat was 14. 

Since her teenage years, her political activity has been a bit scattered — changing from a registered Republican to a nonpartisan to a Democrat and only voting in 2004, 2016 and 2020.

She donated to Donald Trump's campaign in 2016 because she thought the businessman could help with the national debt. But after Trump started "name calling," particularly attacking Jeb Bush, the younger brother of the man she cast her first ballot for, Murat decided to vote for Hillary Clinton. 

For this year's election, the 57-year-old said she spent the past year researching candidates and the situation in Washington, D.C. to prepare herself. She went to the ballot box thinking of the government's response to COVID-19, misinformation she heard from the president and lack of action from Republican leaders like Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell — and voted for Democrats down the ballot.

"These are leaders we elected, and we're paying them, and I want my money back," she said.

Murat is part of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, commonly shortened to AAPI, that is not only rapidly growing in numbers in Nevada and the rest of the U.S., but also is becoming increasingly politically engaged after being historically underrepresented and overlooked by political campaigns.

In Nevada, where the AAPI community is the fastest-growing population in the state, AAPI voters make up about an 11 percent share of the electorate and represent an estimated 209,384 eligible voters. AAPI voters in the Silver State increased their turnout compared to 2016 more than any other racial demographic.

The term AAPI covers a diverse group of people with roots in more than 30 countries. Originally created because of the racial categories of the U.S. government and efforts within the community to build coalitions, the term for grouping of various demographics has had several variations, including "Asian and Pacific Islander American" (APIA) and "Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander" (AANHPI), both critiqued by scholars for combining two groups with distinct experiences and histories. Depending on the type of research, "AAPI," "Asian," "Asian American" or another label could be used to discuss the rapidly growing voter bloc.

Historically, AAPI communities have garnered little attention from politicians and political organizers, leading to alienation from the political process and lower voter turnout, said Duy Nguyen, executive director of One APIA Nevada, a progressive AAPI political advocacy group. 

“A lot of the Asian community folks don't get talked to by any campaigns, because a lot of them assume that we don't vote,” Nguyen said.

This year, however, he said every campaign made a concerted effort to reach out to Nevada’s AAPI voters. Though Nguyen is a registered Democrat, he said both the Trump and Biden campaigns knocked on his door.

“I think both of the major campaigns started to realize that no, we're not just sitting on the sidelines anymore. We are participating in this process and they better talk to us,” Nguyen said.

Campaign and organizer efforts to get out the vote among the AAPI community resulted in record turnout for Nevada’s AAPI voters, according to Christine Chen, the executive director of APIA Vote. She said in a press briefing call on Wednesday that Nevada made incredible gains from 2016 to 2020, with AAPI voters more than doubling their early voting turnout.

“2020 has solidified AAPI voters as the margin of victory, and it is time for everyone to take notice of the unique needs and challenges of our communities,” Chen said in a press release last week. “APIA Vote will continue to make sure that every voter understands their power and has an equal opportunity to vote in every election.”

Vida Benavides, the founding chair and former executive director of APIA Vote who moved to Nevada in 2008, explained that along with dedicated organizers conducting outreach, anti-Asian rhetoric, violence against Asian American communities, and AAPI leaders aligning themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement sparked a rise in activism and turnout for the Asian American community.

“It took a decade for Nevada to turn purple and blue, but also candidates and the party understanding the importance and the rise of the Asian vote,” Benavides said. “I was there back when we had to knock on the doors of elected officials and party leaders [for them] to pay attention to us. But this year, specifically, they finally came to us.”

Early results from exit polls indicate that President-elect Biden carried AAPI voters by a margin of almost 2 to 1 nationally, which organizers say suggests that AAPI turnout made the difference in states with close races such as Arizona, Nevada, Georgia and Michigan.

In Nevada, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund exit poll indicated that about 57 percent of Asian Americans cast a ballot for Biden while about 40 percent chose Trump.

‘Make their voices heard’

Tom Bonier, a Democratic political strategist and the chief executive officer of the Democratic data firm TargetSmart, noted in a newsletter that there was what he called an “unprecedented” surge in AAPI voter participation in battleground states such as Nevada this year.

The 2020 Asian American Voter Survey, conducted through online and phone interviews between July and September with registered voters who identified as Asian American, found that 54 percent of Asian Americans said they were more enthusiastic about voting in 2020 than in previous elections.

In presidential battleground states, 751,778 AAPI voters cast a ballot in the 2016 presidential election, Bonier wrote. In 2020, 911,393 AAPI voters turned out during early voting alone — 21 percent more voters than turned out in battleground states in 2016. 

TargetSmart estimated that in Nevada, Asian voters cast 41,390 early and mail-in ballots, a 127 percent increase from the 18,226 cast in 2016. Asian voters' share of Nevada's early and mail-in ballots also increased from 2.4 percent in 2016 to 3.1 percent in 2020. 

Nevada's increase in turnout for the AAPI community wasn't an "overnight" success, said Eric Jeng, director of outreach for the Asian Community Development Council and deputy director for One APIA Nevada. 

He partly attributed the increase to years-long investment from organizations in the community — such as the annual GraduAsian ceremony for college graduates and offering resources for those struggling during the pandemic — that build community connections and lay the groundwork for civic engagement in elections.

Increased AAPI voter turnout in the Silver State comes with increased AAPI population growth, as well.

More than half of all eligible Nevada AAPI voters (67 percent) live in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, sometimes referred to as Hawaii's "Ninth Island" for the large population of Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders who move to the city.

Data shows that the AAPI population in Nevada has experienced a roughly 167 percent growth rate since 2000. The number of eligible AAPI voters in Nevada grew about 49 percent, compared to a 14 percent growth rate for the statewide eligible voting population, within the same time period.

Nguyen said he was excited by higher AAPI youth turnout than in the past, especially because once voters cast a ballot, they are more likely to do so in the future.

“I'm very overwhelmed by the amount of youth votes,” he said. “It's quite astounding from the standpoint of being a very invisible group in the last few cycles.”

Understanding the vote

Early data shows that the majority of AAPI voters supported Biden, but breaking down the diverse voting bloc shows differences in voting trends by national origin, party and age — and what issues were the most critical in this year's election.

In the national American Election Eve poll, conducted through phone interviews with registered voters and self-completed online surveys from mid-October until the day before the election, 73 percent of AAPI voters across the country said they chose Biden while 24 percent said they chose Trump.

The poll shows that Biden won the majority of votes across AAPI national origins surveyed, with the widest margins existing for voters of Korean and Chinese heritage. Trump had the most success with Filipino and Vietnamese voters, taking 38 percent of the vote of each ethnic group.

The largest AAPI ethnic group in Nevada by far is Filipino, followed by Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean and Indian.

Across the country, the 2020 Asian American Voter survey shows that Asian Americans across most national origins identify as predominantly Democrat or independent/other — except for Vietnamese voters, who have a higher share identifying as Republicans than either of the other two categories.

The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund exit poll, taken through in-person and online surveys during the early voting period in Nevada, noted that nonpartisan Asian Americans in Nevada were split evenly: 46 percent went for Biden and 46 percent went for Trump.

AAPI organizers said that Biden’s selection of California Sen. Kamala Harris, a Black and South Asian female candidate, helped solidify support for the candidate.

“I think with Harris being on the ticket, it gives people hope that one day they too [or] their kids … can be in a leadership role in this country,” Nguyen said.

Benavides added that many Asian communities have been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus, especially health care workers within the community, and that Biden’s emphasis on health and safety also appealed to many voters.

Breakdowns of the national Election Eve Poll show that there was almost no gender gap between AAPI voters. Women voted for Biden 69 percent to 28 percent, and men voted for Biden 68 percent to 28 percent.

Similar to other racial groups, young AAPI voters ages 18-39 overwhelmingly voted for Biden, 72 percent to 25 percent for Trump. Among AAPI voters between 40 and 59, 67 percent cast a ballot for Biden and 31 percent voted for Trump. Among AAPI voters 60 and older, 65 percent voted for Biden and 31 percent voted for Trump.

But across almost every category of AAPI voters in the Election Eve poll, the pandemic, economy and health care costs topped the list of issues.

The 2020 Asian American Voter survey indicated that in addition to the economy and health care, education and racial discrimination were top voter concerns. Although Republicans were favored on the economy, Democrats held a strong advantage over the other issues.

The survey found that more than 75 percent of Asian Americans worry about discrimination during COVID-19, and Jeng pointed out that discrimination and anti-Asian rhetoric, including from the president, has increased in visibility since coronavirus was associated first with China.

The Election Eve poll shows a stark difference in how AAPI voters across the country perceived each candidate: 54 percent said Biden "truly cares" about them while only 24 percent said the same thing about Trump. About 5 percent of voters said Biden was "hostile" toward them compared to 27 percent who said the same for Trump.

"You see it from the president using racist language like the 'kung flu' or the 'China plague' down to our local candidates,” Jeng said. “And it's just really heartbreaking to see that — using the community as scapegoat and then … shifting that mismanaging of the plague to the community." 

Jeng emphasized that racism against the AAPI community in Nevada isn't new. He pointed to the destruction of Reno's Chinatown in 1908 after the Reno Health Board described it to be a "plague spot" and "disease-breeding place," which Jeng said reverberates into some racist sentiments today.

Included in representation and participation

Even with improvements in turnout and outreach from campaigns, organizers say there's still work to be done.

Nguyen said that sustained outreach and connection from political leaders to the AAPI community is necessary and that organizers and leaders alike need to reflect on how to improve engagement with members of the AAPI community.

“I think Asian Pacific American community are starting to realize that they, too, can have a voice at the table where they just need to go out to the polls,” he said. “And so, this time around we focused a lot of the narrative on, we need to get involved. We need to be very, very deliberate.”

Data from the national Election Eve poll indicates that voter contact continues to be relatively low for the AAPI community. The poll showed that 38 percent of respondents said they were contacted by Democrats, 29 percent said they were contacted by Republicans, 24 percent said they were contacted by community organizers and 46 percent said they received no contact.

Benavides said there is not enough investment in the AAPI community at the state or national level in terms of either support for AAPI candidates or outreach efforts to the community, but she believes that will change, especially through partnerships formed with the Latino and Black communities and increased advocacy.

Along with increased contact, Nguyen emphasized the importance of language access in including voters of color.

In Nevada, 69 percent of Asian Americans speak a language other than English at home, and of those, more than 40 speak English less than “very well.” Data from the 2020 Asian American Voter Survey indicates that Asian Americans are the only racial group in the U.S. that is majority immigrant, and the language need is higher among Asian Americans than Latinos.

The national 2012 AAPI Post-Election Survey found that 63 percent of AAPI voters say that language support at polling places would be useful.

Jeng emphasized that having information available in multiple languages was especially important this election cycle because of the large amount of misinformation that was sent out through WhatsApp and WeChat, two messaging services that many first-generation immigrants use.

He also said that having information in multiple languages is especially helpful for people with limited English proficiency (LEP), who may benefit from being able to double check English information in their native language.  Turnout is 9 percent lower for LEP voters than non-LEP voters, according to the 2012 survey.

But even beyond that, Jeng, who also speaks Chinese, said voters receiving information in their native language can help them feel heard.

"I speak English just fine but if you are trying to reach out to me for the election and then you put in like an accurate Chinese thing, I feel like, oh yeah, I'm being appreciated or I'm being recognized," he said. "That shows our respect and recognition of the community as well."

In addition to language barriers, Asian Americans in Nevada also face socio-economic challenges that may affect voting patterns. 

Data from AAPI Data and APIA Vote indicate that about 21,400 Asian Americans in Nevada, or roughly 9 percent, lack health insurance. Another approximately 9 percent of Asian Americans in Nevada live in poverty, and roughly 3,383 Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (NHPI) in Nevada, or about 18 percent of the NHPI population, live in poverty.

Studies show that income affects voter turnout, with lower incomes correlated with decreased voter turnout because of struggles with taking time off work, difficulty finding time to research candidates and policies, among other barriers.

Although there's room for improvement, Jeng said that outreach from both parties has improved this year. He cited creative efforts from Democrats preparing for the caucus, from Sen. Elizabeth Warren's campaign doing an explainer in Tagalog and Chinese about the caucus process to Sen. Cory Booker hosting a dinner at a Chinatown restaurant

Ahead of the election, Jeng said both campaigns held virtual events with leaders in the AAPI community, hosted car parades and coordinated groups such as "Filipino-Americans for Trump" and "Chinese for Biden." Jeng said the state Democratic Party also put advertisements in AAPI and community-centric newspapers in various languages.

But Jeng urged candidates to go beyond just taking photos holding boba tea — they should also have the "meat" of outreach by having staff members connected to the local community and policies to persuade voters. One example that impressed him was Warren's working agenda for the AAPI community, which included policies such as expanding affordable housing because AAPI families have a lower homeownership rate than the national rate.

"Having the events, at least that's acknowledging the community, at least that's celebrating the culture and that supported small businesses, those are all awesome," he said. "But then the next part is having a policy, having a platform. That's amazing."


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