Donald Trump has worked for years to make inroads with Indian Americans in ways Republican presidential candidates never have — recruiting volunteers at Indian grocery stores, holding events in five Indian languages and paying for targeted digital ads.
Joe Biden undercut those efforts in a matter of weeks.
First, Biden selected Kamala Harris, the daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father, as his running mate. Within days, Harris was speaking to Indian Americans on India’s Independence Day about her grandfather, who helped push for India’s liberation. Then she was boosting the campaign’s launch of a new Indian coalition. And last week, Biden supporters released a video with a song remix from the popular Bollywood movie “Lagaan” about an Indian village fighting British rule.
“There was a level of enthusiasm that came out of the diaspora almost immediately when Sen. Harris was named as the vice presidential nominee,” said Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), one of four Indian American members of the House. “There was palpable excitement definitely from the younger generation.”
About 1.8 million Indian Americans are eligible to vote this year, many living in contested states, including Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Nevada, where their vote could make a difference. Traditionally, Indian Americans have voted for Democrats at a higher rate than other Asians — Trump garnered just 16 percent of the Indian American vote in 2016 — but polling has shown rising Indian American support for the president. Now, 28 percent of Indian Americans support Trump, though 68 percent support Biden, according to the latest Asian American Voter survey released Tuesday.
Trump supporters predict the initial burst of excitement for Harris among Indian Americans — one of the fastest growing groups in America that votes at high rates — will wane. Indian Americans, they say, will back the president because of Trump’s policies, including tax cuts and his outreach to the popular Indian prime minister. And they argue the Harris pick indicates Democrats are anxious about losing Indian American support.
“Kamala Harris has been brought in as a vice presidential nominee to attract not just African American votes but to stop the mass exodus of the Indian American Democrats towards President Trump in the battleground states, where for the first time Indian American votes will make a big difference,” said Al Mason, who leads an effort to raise money for Trump from Indian Americans.
And some Indian Americans also say they believe Harris identifies herself more as an African American woman than as an Indian American woman, even though her Senate biography identifies her both as African American and South Asian American.
Harris’ spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request for comment, but others say it’s a common dilemma for those of mixed race in the United States.
“Anyone biracial like her probably struggles with it,” said M.R. Rangaswami, a software executive from San Francisco who founded the group Indiaspora to get Indian Americans involved in politics. “The issue is whether she is Black or she is Indian. I think the country is having that debate right now. But I think as we move forward history will judge her as the first woman of color” on a major presidential ticket.
As a presidential candidate, Harris teamed up with two Indian American entertainers, cooking masala dosas, a South Indian dish, with actress Mindy Kaling, and appearing on comedian Hasan Minhaj’s show “Patriot Act.” And while she speaks less frequently about her Indian roots to mainstream audiences, Harris regularly talks about the influence of her mother, who came to the United States from India to attend graduate school.
“She raised us to be proud, strong Black women. And she raised us to know and be proud of our Indian heritage,” Harris said in her speech at the Democratic National Convention in which she used the Tamil word “chittis” to describe her mother’s younger sisters.
“There is definitely going to be splitting of votes as some Indian Americans will have a tough decision to make, as their loyalty may be towards a so-called candidate of Indian heritage or a candidate of pro-Indian stance as President Trump,” said Sampat Shivangi, an Indian American physician from Mississippi who was a Trump delegate at the Republican National Convention.
Indian American groups say their community’s support will be critical for states that both Trump and Biden are targeting through the Rust Belt and Southwest.
“In an era where elections are being won so narrowly, you cannot write anyone off or count anyone out,” said Neil Makhija, executive director of IMPACT, an Indian American advocacy group. “Indian Americans can make all the difference in critical swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Texas.”
Younger Indian Americans born in the United States tend to be more liberal, so Trump has tried to appeal to an older generation of Indian Americans who legally emigrated to the United States for work or school, still follow Indian politics and support populist Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Republicans have recruited supporters at Indian markets and grocery stores, registered voters in predominantly Indian neighborhoods, organized in-person events in three states with heavy Indian American populations — Nevada, Virginia and Texas — and held online events in five Indian languages — Hindi, Gujarati, Tamil and Telugu and Kannada, according to a Republican National Committee official.
The campaign also launched an Indian Voices for Trump coalition with Trump’s son Eric appearing at the group’s MAGA meetup in Duluth, Ga., on Tuesday, according to the Trump campaign. And it ran digital ads focused on the economy, education and the relationship between Trump and Modi, who both rode to office on a wave of populist rhetoric.
Trump supporters recently released a video — promoted by the president’s son Don Jr. and his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, a top Trump campaign official — featuring clips of two massive rallies headlined by Trump and Modi: First, the 2019 “Howdy Modi” gathering in Houston, hailed as the largest event in the U.S. for a foreign leader, then the February “Namaste Trump” rally in Ahmedabad, India, attended by 110,000 at the world’s largest cricket stadium. Supporters claim it has been viewed 10 million times.
“We have great support from India. We have great support from Prime Minister Modi,” Trump said at a recent news conference. “I would think that the Indian [American] people would be voting for Trump.”
Trump has celebrated Diwali, the most important holiday for Indian Hindus, and appointed Indian Americans to numerous high-ranking positions. But he has disappointed some Indian Americans with some of his actions, including his decision to block high-skilled workers — overwhelmingly from India — from entering the United States during the coronavirus outbreak. He also kicked India out of a trade preference program for developing countries and angered Indian lawmakers with an offer to mediate a long-standing land dispute between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir region.
The Biden campaign has criticized some of these policies, including restricting visas, and unveiled its own agenda for Indian Americans, which includes measures aimed at curbing bigotry and addressing security needs at houses of worship.
Rep. Bera, an early Biden supporter, said he traveled in January and February to Iowa and Nevada to host roundtables with Indian Americans — one event was dubbed a “chai and chat.” After the pandemic hit, he has kept up his outreach through online events. Biden’s campaign is also coordinating efforts with two Indian Americans running for Congress in competitive districts in Texas and Arizona. For its two most recent online events targeting Indian Americans, the campaign got more than 1,000 people to sign up, according to the Biden campaign. The videos were also broadcast on TV Asia, a channel about the South Asian community broadcast in North America.
Separately, a South Asians for Biden group has hosted 10 virtual events since May. And after Harris was selected, Democrats launched a National Indian American Leadership Council. Harris’ tweet on Indian Independence Day garnered 73,000 likes.
“It’s up to us to educate and mobilize the community because the Indian American community’s future hinges upon this election,” said Sanjeev Joshipura, director for the Indians for Biden National Council.
The outreach to Indian Americans this year is a marked increase from 2016. Already, 56 percent of Indian American registered voters say they had been contacted by the Democratic Party in the past year, while 48 percent said they had been contacted by the Republican Party, according to the Asian American Voter survey.
Republicans, including Trump, have been trying for years — with limited success — to make inroads with Indian Americans. In 2016, Trump held an event with 10,000 Hindus waving “Trump for Hindu Americans” signs at a Bollywood-themed event. Yet on Election Day, Trump won roughly the same percent of the Indian American vote as 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Those numbers have crept up in the years since. By 2018, 30 percent of Indian Americans had a favorable impression of Trump compared with 68 percent for Biden, according to the Asian American Voters Survey. Only 52 percent had a favorable impression of Harris, though 30 percent said they were not familiar with her. Still, this year, only 16 percent of Indian American registered voters identified themselves as Republicans, while 54 percent said they were Democrats and 24 percent said they were independents.
Mason, of the Trump Victory Indian American Finance Committee, predicted more than 65 percent of Indian Americans in 2020 battleground states who previously voted for Democrats will support Trump. He claimed his information was collected through a network of Indian American friends, business owners, community leaders and others in several key states.
But those who have studied the Indian American vote say those numbers were far-fetched even before Harris joined the Biden ticket. Instead, they say, Trump is more likely to increase his Indian American support by 5 to 10 percentage points.
“It was always going to be an uphill climb for the Trump campaign to make significant inroads with the Indian American population,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political science professor at the University of California, Riverside, who directs the Asian American Voters Survey. “That has become near impossible now with Kamala Harris’ appointment.”