Indian Americans of Loudon County like telling this story. It was 2011, and a little -known Lebanese-American businessman running for the state legislature was not doing too well. Friends and well-wishers asked him to go see a bunch of local Indian-Americans who had been active locally. They may be able to help, he was told. They met at an Indian restaurant, things happened and it did indeed help. He won.
Loudon County Indian-Americans believe they are ready for the big one now, the biggest in the game actually: The race for the White House. And as incredulous as it may sound, strategists in both parties agreed until recently that the community could determine the outcome, in the complex way Americans elect their president.
“If there was one place this election could be won or lost, it’s Loudon County,” said Democratic strategist Shekar Narasimhan, an Indian American, adding, “And the Indian-American community holds the key to the county.”
Loudon is one of three northern counties of Virginia, a state that abuts the national capital on its south, that have turned what used to be a Republican stronghold into a swing state that can go either way, Republican or Democratic. The other two — Arlington and Fairfax — are so far gone over to the Democratic side, that Republicans think it a waste of money and resources to try to win them back.
Loudon, however, is the outlier.
“It’s a battleground county that will determine the outcome in Virginia,” agreed Puneet Ahluwalia, an Indian-American official of the Republican party in charge of the area, adding, “and one which we will do everything to win.”
Indian-Americans, in short, are likely to determine which way Loudon will go. Loudon will determine who Virginia will go with — Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. And Virginia being a swing state, it would have been one of few to have determined the 2016 race to the White House, giving the minority community a major say, much in excess of its firepower.
They now watch with mounting disappointment that opportunity slip away as every poll and forecast is awarding the state to Clinton. Trump is making a fight for it though, announcing a personnel shake-up in his campaign unit there and a $2-million ad-buy.
Indian-Americans of Loudon County are watching.
American presidents are not elected by popular vote — Al Gore won that race, but lost the White House to George W Bush in 2000, remember — but by something called the electoral college which is the aggregate of elected representatives from all the 50 states. They add up to 538; whoever gets past 270 wins.
Candidates need to win states to win electoral college votes. And while most states are firmly on the side of one party or another, such as California and New York for Democrats and Texas and Missouri for Republicans, some are not, and they are variously called swing or battleground states. They are neither solidly Republican nor Democratic.
Some states such as Ohio, Florida, Iowa and Virginia are nearly always counted among swing states in every election and there are others that come and go. For 2016, there are between six and eight more, depending on whose list you are looking at. Politicos’ list, for instance, has Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Michigan and Colorado, apart from the four above. And if, and only if, it all boiled down to Virginia, Loudon it would be.
“Loudon County is so important,” Trump said at a rally in Ashburn, one of the largest cities in the county, in August; the same event at which he accepted a Purple Heart medal, which is given to soldiers wounded in action, from a veteran, saying he always wanted one. He had gone on to tell the crowd, “You are doing lousy over here.” This to people of a county that is often called the richest in the country.
That was just Trump being Trump.
Loudon is a prosperous county, with an annual median salary of $100,000. It is home to IT workers, government contractors and airline employees. It was one of few areas untouched by the Great Recession of 2008.
It was overwhelmingly Republican once upon a time. And had the reputation of voting for the candidate who went on to win the White House. George W Bush won it in 2000 and 2004, and the election.
But it had begun to change with the influx of minorities, specially Indian Americans, who have been historically Democratic, around the turn of the century. And Barack Obama won there in 2008 and 2012, tossing it over into the swing category. Its immigrant population, which was around 20,000 in 2000 was had shot up 70,000 a decade later, the last census. And Indian Americans were the fastest growing ethnic group in that mix — going up from an estimated 1,200 in 2000 to between 20,000 and 25,000 now. That’s a big jump for a county where elections are won or lost by a few hundred votes.
Indian Americans would now be the difference between victory or loss. Politicians understood that.
Rajesh Gooty, an IT entrepreneur and an independent political activist who has worked and lived in the county for around 15 years, described a recent visit of a popular politician to a local Hindu temple to help make that point.
Worried that the politician may not know footwear was not allowed inside, a friend asked him to get that message conveyed to the visitor. “But I told him to be patient,” Gooty said, adding, “and watch the politician, who took off the footwear before entering, without being prompted by anyone.”
In Loudon County, it helps to know Indian Americans, and well.