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Despite Trump-Modi Friendship, Survey Says Indian Americans Back Biden

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A man holds up an Indian flag during a rally with President Trump and Prime Minister Modi in Houston in September 2019. Trump and Modi have spoken of their friendship, but most Indian Americans say U.S.-India ties are low on their political priorities.

Indian Americans — a small but possibly pivotal voting bloc — are overwhelmingly voting for Joe Biden this election, according to a new survey.

Both Joe Biden and President Trump's campaigns have been courting Indian American voters this year. Indian Americans are about 1% of the U.S. population and make up .82% of all eligible voters in the U.S. — but are large enough in numbers to make a decisive difference in certain swing states.

Indian Americans historically lean Democratic. In 2016, 77% voted for Hillary Clinton and 16% for Trump.

President Trump's embrace of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi fueled speculation that it could drive many Indian American voters to the Republican Party.

But researchers from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the University of Pennsylvania say there's "little indication of a shift toward the Republican Party" among Indian Americans, who view U.S.-India ties as a low-priority issue.

"The survey is pretty unambiguous," says Milan Vaishnav, one of the study's authors who directs the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment. Of the 936 Indian American citizens surveyed in September, 72% planned to vote for Biden and 22% for Trump.

"And that is actually in keeping with past trends of the pro-Democratic orientation of Indian Americans in this country in terms of their voter turnout," Vaishnav tells NPR's Noel King on Morning Edition.

Vaishnav talked about the issues important to Indian American voters and how campaigns are reaching out. Here are excerpts from the interview:

What are the issues that draw Indian Americans to the Democratic Party?

The top three issues across the board were the state of the economy, health care and racism and racial discrimination. And in some ways, this isn't all that surprising, given that these are precisely the issues that all Americans are really worried about in the face of an economic crisis, a pandemic, and the kind of national conversation we're having around race and social justice.

What surprised us was the extent to which foreign policy really didn't rate very much. We asked Indian Americans, you know, "Will U.S.-India relations be an important determining factor for you?" And there's been a lot of talk about this because of the close partnership between President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And just 3% of Indian Americans said that this was going to be their No. 1 election issue this fall.

A person might look broadly and say, OK, 1% of the electorate spread throughout the country. The Indian American vote doesn't really matter. It's not a swing vote, for example. Any truth to that?

There is certainly truth in the absolute numbers. In fact, Indian Americans are less than 1% of the eligible electorate. However, there are two caveats to that. The first is that their numbers are growing rapidly. Indians in America have grown by more than 150% since the year 2000. Secondly, they are now sizable enough in certain swing states, places like New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Michigan, that their numbers are actually larger than the margin of victory in the 2016 presidential election. So while in aggregate they are not huge, they can be pivotal in certain swing states.

How have Republicans and Democrats reached out to Indian Americans?

We're seeing it in an unprecedented way this election. I mean, both the Trump and the Biden campaigns have cut television and online ads just for this demographic.

What the Republicans have tried to do is really emphasize again the partnership between Donald Trump and Narendra Modi to say, "We have formed a unique personal bond. And for this reason, if you want to see U.S.-India relations succeed in the future as Indian Americans, you should really come to our side."

What Joe Biden, the Democrats have really done is to say, "Indian Americans have really been the poster children for America's legacy of relatively open immigration. And if you want an America that is more inclusive, that is more tolerant, that is more welcoming to you and your family members and those who may wish to come from India after you, then there's really only one choice in this election: that is the Democratic Party."

And so we are seeing both sides really court this vote, I think, in new and interesting ways, which is a recognition that their, sort of, time in the political spotlight has really arrived.

Jeevika Verma and Reena Advani produced and edited the audio interview. Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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