Indian Americans in the 2020 U.S. Elections

The 2020 American presidential election is one of the most historic and dramatic the country has seen. The end of voting on November 3 marked the culmination of three concurrent crises: a jobs crisis brought about by a collapsing economy, a healthcare crisis thrown into light by the pandemic, and the problem of racism and police brutality all over the country. As a non-citizen living in the United States, these crises were playing out in front of my eyes without me being able to undertake the most fundamental exercise to play my role to help combat them: voting.

But although I could not vote in the election, I realized I could play a small role in another way. Combining my interest in Indian an American politics with my expertise in survey methods, along with co-authors Devesh Kapur and Milan Vaishnav I undertook a pre-election survey of 1500 Indian-American adults residing in the United States, aimed at understanding their political attitudes, foreign policy attitudes, voting behavior, polarization and ideology ahead of the American 2020 general election.

One of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s most consequential foreign policy innovations is his government’s sustained emphasis on the Indian diaspora. Since first coming to power in 2014, Modi has harnessed the diaspora like no Indian leader before him, seeking to leverage the size as well as political and financial clout of non-resident Indians in order to bolster India’s standing. This “diaspora diplomacy” has inspired a burgeoning debate on both the causes and consequences of this recent foreign policy shift.

In reaching out to diaspora communities, Modi has devoted disproportionate time to cultivating Indian-Americans through high-profile events such as the 2019 “Howdy, Modi!” rally in Houston and an earlier 2014 address to a packed Madison Square Garden crowd in New York City. There are several reasons for this outsize emphasis on Indian-Americans.

Indian-Americans are one of the fastest-growing immigrant communities in the United States. At present, there are roughly 4.6 million people of Indian origin in the United States; this is a six-fold increase from the 450,000 Indian immigrants living in the United States in 1990 (Kapur, 2019). Over the last 15 years, more Indian immigrants have obtained permanent legal residency in the United States than over the entirety of the 20th century. Indian-Americans are among the most highly educated racial or ethnic groups in the country. The median annual household income of Indian-Americans is the largest of any Asian immigrant group and nearly twice that of the average American household (DeSilver, 2014). Indian-Americans are a major provider of remittances, foreign portfolio investment, and inward foreign direct investment to India. In recent years, the political clout of Indian-Americans has grown with the community’s representation expanding in the halls of the Congress, in leadership positions in the executive branch and on Capitol Hill, and in state houses across the country.

And yet, Indian-Americans are a severely understudied immigrant population. To date, there not been a single, dedicated survey of Indian-American political and social attitudes. Nor has there been a systematic effort to analyze the attitudes of Indian-Americans vis-à-vis India. As a result, there are key gaps in our knowledge.

There is a small body of survey data on the domestic political attitudes of Indian-Americans. (for example, the National Asian American Survey). However, this data comes from broader surveys of Asian-Americans and so the sample size of Indian-Americans is invariably small, rendering analysis of variation within the Indian-American community impossible. Furthermore, none of these studies (to our knowledge) examined how Indian-Americans view developments in their homeland. For instance, Pew surveys regularly ask Americans about their views on India, but Indian-Americans constitute–at best–a tiny (and unmeasured) fraction of their sample of respondents.

Previous surveys of Asian-Americans (of which Indian-Americans constitute a small subset) suggest Indians are among the most loyal constituents of the Democratic Party (according to the 2016 National Asian American Survey, 77 percent of Indian-Americans voted for Hilary Clinton while just 16 percent backed Donald Trump). Yet, their socio-economic status suggests precisely the opposite should hold true. Indian-Americans are commonly described as fervent supporters of Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s nationalist agenda in India, but this conventional wisdom is based largely on anecdotes and a small (but vocal) coterie of high-profile boosters.

The Indian-American community is a young one; each year, more than 150,000 of them become newly eligible to vote in U.S. elections. Yet, we did not have a survey dedicated to Indian Americans in the country. To remedy this, we launched the Indian American Attitudes Survey (IAAS), a nationally representative survey of 1,200 Indian Americans ahead of the 2020 US elections.

My next blog post will analyze the results from our survey data.

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About Sumitra Badrinathan

I am a fifth year Ph.D. student in Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. My research interests include studying misinformation, media effects and comparative politics, with a regional focus on India. I use experimental and survey methods to study the relationship between newer forms of social media like WhatsApp and their effect on fake news, polarization, political participation and quality of democracy. I hold an M.A. in Political Science from the University of Chicago and a B.A. in Psychology from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai.