Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Democrats’ Strained Grasp on the Emerging AAPI Vote—What Needs to be Done

By Jessica ChenPublished January 9, 2022

Cornell Roosevelt Institute
Asian American and Pacific Islander voters in recent years have often voted blue. Yet, with new Republican strategies winning votes in the 2021 New York City mayoral campaign and Republicans winning the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial race, it’s time that Democrats revisit their efforts to win these votes.

In 2020, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) increased their voter turnout by 25.5% from 2008 and 10% from 2016. A quarter of AAPI voters submitted their ballots for the first time in 2020. National Public Radio (NPR) reports that their turnout was crucial for Democrats in battleground states during the 2020 presidential election. The data is clear: Asian-Americans are a new and upcoming voting block. However, recent Republican wins among AAPI voters are revealing how Democrats are failing to attract this growing demographic.

Asian-Americans are the fastest growing racial group in the US, growing by 81% from 2000 to 2019, with a greater than 50% increase in every state in the same time period. With the increase in hate crimes motivated by the pandemic, Asian-Americans have coalesced into a more significant voting bloc than we’ve seen in recent years. These populations are also shifting blue, with an almost 50-50 split around 9/11, transforming into two thirds supporting the Democratic Party today. Trump, with his Sinophobic comments about the pandemic, has galvanized the demographic. Across Asian ethnicities, 71% consider Trump to blame for discrimination against AAPI people. For now, AAPI voters trust Democrats over Republicans on major issues such as gun safety, the economy, and healthcare.

Republicans have caught on. In Virginia, Governor Glenn Youngkin’s strategists targeted the AAPI vote, more specifically Polynesian, Central Asian, and Middle Eastern voters. Youngkin’s strategists chipped away at voters in the AAPI voting bloc, whose preferences are often masked by AAPI ethnicities that consist of greater proportions of the population. Additionally, Youngkin hosted one of his first events at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, in order to capitalize on the claim that changes to the admissions process designed to increase Black and Hispanic representation were lowering academic standards. In doing so, he centered his platform around fears regarding education and critical race theory, which resonated with AAPI voters. Curtis Sliwa, a Republican mayoral candidate in New York City, used a similar strategy to win 44% of votes in districts that had an over 50% Asian demographic.

Education, more typically an issue that appears in Democratic platforms, is driving AAPI voters to the Republican Party. Jay Caspian Kang argues that, in the past, neither party significantly courted voters based on the most critical issues to AAPI voters: “affirmative action, anti-Asian attacks and so-called merit-based educational issues.” He asserts that high-level and generic anti-racism rhetoric isn’t as appealing anymore. The outreach we’re tentatively starting to see in local elections is revealing that the appeal Democrats have towards AAPI voters is fraught.

In another article, Kang writes that efforts by Democrats to reach out to AAPI voters have been mostly targeted towards second-generation immigrants. These voters have grown up in the United States and have a much greater understanding of the abstract fallacies of our political machine that Democrats target. Republicans have collected the support of first-generation immigrants via rhetoric about the “American Dream”—a concept strong enough to pull people across seas.

With the fracturing of opinions within the AAPI block and increasing Republican party outreach, it seems as though Democrats are losing ground among AAPI voters. This outcome does not necessarily have to occur, especially regarding the education battleground. One of Youngkin’s strategists even said that they could have lost the education fight if his opponent had been smarter about his strategy. Most Asian-Americans support affirmative action. It isn’t a foregone conclusion that Republicans have won these issues; Democrats just haven’t made an effort.

Democrats need to change their language to speak to the individualist nature of voting. For example, intangible language about defunding the police and Supreme Court composition has alienated what would be an increasingly important voter base. Talk about how increased police presence won’t protect elderly Asian-Americans from hate crimes. Talk about how it took 74 years to overturn Korematsu v. United States and how the ban on internment camps aligns AAPI and Muslim interests. Democrats can’t afford to wait for younger AAPI voters—they need to appeal to first-generation immigrants and AAPI minorities.