Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) have struggled to achieve national visibility as a political population for many decades. Now the AAPI population stands at around 5 percent and is achieving increasing visibility. Will the 2020 election finally be the moment when presidential candidates and other national political figures put AAPIs into the foreground?
In the past, AAPIs have appeared on the national political landscape usually only in moments of crisis, like the campaign finance scandal involving Chinese or Chinese-American donors to the Democratic Party during the Clinton administration; the concern over Chinese or Chinese American scientists and China’s attempts to steal American technology; or the Asian American role in affirmative action debates.
In many of these cases, Asian Americans do not control the political narrative. The last national AAPI political movement that did control the narrative was the successful Japanese American effort for national recognition of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. That led to an apology from President Reagan and symbolic financial reparations from Congress.
AAPIs, who have often felt overlooked by both Democrats and Republicans, have struggled to make themselves heard in both parties. But while Asian Americans have in the past been drawn to both parties, their numbers have begun moving towards the Democratic Party, even as the Democratic Party has not always been responsive to Asian American concerns. Nevertheless, in 2016, AAPIs helped Hillary Clinton to win in swing states with large AAPI populations, such as Nevada and Virginia. Democratic wins in these states were accomplished despite minimal investment from the Clinton campaign and were due to the tremendous groundwork done by grassroots AAPI organizations to get out the AAPI vote.
The mid-term elections of 2018 further emphasized the increasing political power of AAPIs. AAPI voters helped to flip four seats in Orange County’s (California) congressional delegation from Republican to Democratic. AAPI candidates added to their gain from 2016, when Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) were elected to the U.S. Senate and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) to the U.S. House, leading to a record high 20 AAPI members of Congress, with three senators and 17 representatives.
The 2020 election cycle has already seen a continuation of the momentous growth of AAPI political power. Previously, the only Asian American candidates for president were both Republicans, Hawaii Senator Hiram Fong in 1964 and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal in 2016. As of now, there are still three Democratic presidential hopefuls of AAPI descent in the 2020 race — Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Harris and New York entrepreneur Andrew Yang. The presence of these AAPI candidates has energized the AAPI grassroots, donors and other influencers.
The Democratic Party has historically taken the AAPI vote for granted. This is a mistake. Of all the major racial and ethnic groups, AAPIs are least likely to be adherent to one party or the other. Almost 40 percent of AAPIs do not identify as Democrat or Republican. The Republican Party has recognized that this population is crucial to its hopes in current and future elections as the demographic shifts in this country lead to fewer white voters and more African American and Latino voters, who tend to vote for Democrats.
In 2016, it could be argued that if Hillary Clinton had paid more attention to the AAPI population, she would have won the Electoral College vote. Wisconsin, for example, contains approximately 70,000 AAPI voters. But the Clinton campaign didn’t reach out to them, and she ended up losing the state by 22,748 votes. Clinton did not even show up to the only national AAPI presidential forum in 2016 in Nevada.
But it appears that Democratic candidates still do not grasp that in a divided country, AAPIs can be the margin of victory. For example, only Gabbard, Yang and Marianne Williamson have committed to the only AAPI national forum for Democratic presidential candidates, the AAPI Progressive Democratic Presidential Forum, being held in Costa Mesa, California, on September 8.
This despite the fact that California is an early voting state with a large number of votes that may determine who wins the Democratic nomination. This despite the fact that AAPIs constitute 15 percent of California’s population.
The Democratic candidates have clearly recognized the importance of appealing to minority voters. Ten were present at the Native American Presidential Forum in Iowa in August; eight candidates were present at a Latino-focused forum in Miami in June.
Why do they neglect the AAPI population? Ignoring AAPIs as a valued minority group plays directly into the conservative strategy of using AAPIs as the counterweight to America’s demographic shifts, first exemplified in the creation of the model minority myth in the 1960s.
AAPIs have made progress in the fight for their voices to be heard across fields such as art, film and television, and literature. Political power and representation are where they fight for their rights to exist, to contribute and to thrive. While many AAPIs will line up to fight against President Trump and his administration’s attacks on the AAPI population through anti-immigration policies such as the new public charge mandate, many more will stay at home if their issues are not addressed and their votes are not courted.
As the 2016 election showed, national elections can turn on thousands of voters. Asian American and Pacific Islander voters can make a difference, and they certainly will in the near future. Whether Democrats or reasonable, moderate Republicans will win their votes remains to be seen.
Tung Nguyen is formerly chair of President Barack Obama’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and is currently chair of AAPI Progressive Action, an organization dedicated to empowering Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for a strong and diverse America.
Viet Thanh Nguyen is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer and the short story collection The Refugees. He is a professor at the University of Southern California.