Election 2020

Indian Americans Stir Blue Wave in Deep Red Texas

Trump’s touted his rallies with India’s leader, but the Indian American community is leaning left—and nowhere like in Texas.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Supporters cheer as Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi speaks at NRG Stadium on September 22, 2019 in Houston, Texas.
Supporters cheer as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at NRG Stadium in Houston on Sept. 22. Photo by Sergio Flores/Getty Images

It would have been nearly unthinkable to see Texas in the toss-up column just four years ago. But less than a week out from Election Day, pollsters see President Donald Trump and his rival Joe Biden in a dead heat, and the Biden campaign’s hopes are riding on a growing community of 160,000 Indian American voters in the Lone Star State to help turn the tide.

It would have been nearly unthinkable to see Texas in the toss-up column just four years ago. But less than a week out from Election Day, pollsters see President Donald Trump and his rival Joe Biden in a dead heat, and the Biden campaign’s hopes are riding on a growing community of 160,000 Indian American voters in the Lone Star State to help turn the tide.

“Texas might be turning purple,” said Devesh Kapur, the director of Asia programs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “You see in that area there are a lot of Asian Americans, not just Indian Americans but other Asian Americans. That’s the group that will make or break it.” 

Indeed, there are few other immigrant groups that have done more to remake the U.S. electorate. Around two-thirds of Indian Americans came to the United States in the past 20 years—a higher rate than any immigrant community other than Mexican Americans. The Indian American community is by no means a monolith, but polls show a majority are leaning blue.

Despite Trump touting close ties with India—hosting Prime Minister Narendra Modi in front of 50,000 fans in a Houston football stadium last year—polls show that Indian Americans are turning decisively to the left, alienated by the Republican Party’s divisive rhetoric toward immigrants and minority groups. According to a recent YouGov poll in partnership with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Pennsylvania, 72 percent of registered Indian American voters plan to support Biden, compared with just 22 percent for Trump. 

Political action groups are picking up on the trend and mobilizing in Texas on an unprecedented scale. “Where we’re spending the vast majority of our time, our energy is in Texas,” said Varun Nikore, the president of the AAPI Victory Fund, a progressive super PAC focused on mobilizing Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) voters.

That could be a problem for the Republican Party going forward, whether or not Trump wins on Tuesday. Indian Americans have also emerged as more powerful than other immigrant voting blocs: In the 2020 Democratic primary season, Indian Americans, many in Silicon Valley, gave more to campaigns than all of Hollywood. They’re wealthier than most other U.S. immigrant groups and are represented in the highest levels of government and U.S. tech companies—and they tend to be better assimilated into suburban communities. 

Texas is still a long way off from being a solid blue bastion for Democrats, but the trendlines are hard to ignore. In 2012, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney won Texas by about 16 percentage points. In 2016, Trump won the state and its 38 electoral votes (minus two defections) by 9 points. The latest polls show that Trump’s advantage in Texas has whittled down to 4 points ahead of Biden, and the nonpartisan Cook Political Report officially moved the state to a “toss-up” on Wednesday.

“If Texas is not listed as a battleground this election, it will be in the next four years, during the next presidential campaign,” Nikore said. “All of the demographic trends are going in that direction, and AAPIs are the fastest-growing population in Texas.

The dynamic is playing out in the Houston suburbs, where the Indian American ex-foreign service officer Sri Preston Kulkarni has thrown his hat into the ring to flip Texas’s 22nd Congressional District to the Democrats. As one indication of how drastically demographic trendlines in Texas have shifted, Kulkarni’s campaign has organized phone banking events in 27 different languages—including six of the most commonly spoken dialects in India.

There are a handful of local and national left-leaning voter groups mobilized in the area, such as South Asian American Voter Empowerment Texas. Prominent Indian American conservatives have risen to top jobs in U.S. politics too, such as recent U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, but they are Christian, unlike more recent immigrants who are practicing Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus.

Though Trump has spoken to their concerns about the rise of China, Indian Americans have been turned off by the president’s racially tinged rhetoric and fear that a second term could mean further curbs to U.S. H-1B immigrant visas for highly skilled workers in technology. The demographic trendlines—and controversies from incumbent Republican leaders—could hurt other GOP politicians down the ballot.

Texas Republicans had to apologize after releasing a campaign ad likening the party’s elephant symbol to the Hindu deity Ganesha during the 2018 campaign cycle. During that cycle, Texas Republican Rep. Pete Olson drew fire for calling Kulkarni, his Democratic opponent, an “Indo-American who is a carpetbagger.” Olson narrowly beat Kulkarni in 2018 but announced he would be retiring from office ahead of the 2020 elections.

“What’s happening, and Texas is emblematic of this, is [AAPI voters] are certainly questioning Trump out of the gate, but they’re questioning, why did we even vote for Republicans? Because that party’s platforms, that party’s ideals and words and actions are antithetical to us even being in this country,” Nikore said.

“You see South Asians mobilizing as interest groups on the left more than the right,” said Milan Vaishnav, the director of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a Texas native. “They are concentrated in largely urban sections of Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston. That gives them power in those electoral districts. I think that is a trend to look out for.” 

But pro-Modi Indian nationals have also mobilized in the United States, after Modi’s rally with Trump in Texas and a sold-out appearance at Madison Square Garden in New York stoked concerns that members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would get involved in the 2020 campaign. In August, the party’s American wing—the Overseas Friends of BJP-USA—registered as a foreign agent with the U.S. Justice Department, after leaders asked American members not to campaign for either side. 

Though the so-called “Howdy Modi” rally in Houston became fodder for Trump campaign ads earlier in the election cycle, experts said the gatherings haven’t mobilized Republican voters. Instead, they “have kind of brought home to Indian Americans that they are an important political constituency here,” Vaishnav said. 

“I think there is a tendency in many immigrant communities where the first generation really does focus on assimilation, really trying not to rock the boat, trying to take care of the basics,” Vaishnav said. “The second generation is when the political awakening happens. I think we are seeing that.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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