One of the first attempts to measure the political leanings of South Asian voters in the US has confirmed that they are and remain stalwarts of the Democratic Party. Exit polls of four Senate elections last November showed that, on an average, nearly 87 per cent of South Asians voted for the Democratic Party.
The polls were conducted by the Asian-American Legal Defence and Educational Fund and had a sample size of 1200.
The conventional wisdom has been that Indian-Americans split their vote between the two main US parties 70-30, with the majority going to the Democrats. However, this figure has been based on anecdotal evidence or informed guesses rather than any empirical evidence.
These polls would seem to indicate that Democratic support among South Asians is much higher than previously thought. Maryland and New Jersey reported Democratic support among South Asians at 86-87%, 79% in Pennsylvania and even higher in Virginia.
However, more data would be needed to confirm these exit polls represent a national trend.
First, most of the polls were conducted in East Coast states, areas that are traditionally strongholds of liberal politics. The sizeable Indian-American populations in states like Texas or Ohio, for example, are believed to vote Republican. Democratic party activist Ramesh Kapur has claimed Indian-Americans played a crucial role in ensuring the swing state of Ohio went to George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential elections.
Second, the poll measures all South Asians rather than only Indian-Americans. The sizeable Pakistani and Bangladeshi populations in the US are generally less likely to vote for the Republicans. They have a particularly strong aversion to Bush because they perceive his policies to be anti-Muslim.
Third, the Virginia Senate election showing an astonishing 95% support for the Democratic candidate Webb, among South Asians. However, this may be a statistical anomaly. The election was infamous for Republican candidate George Allen’s publicly describing an Indian-American as a “macaca” – an obscure French racist slur against Arabs. Allen, otherwise rated by New Delhi as among the most India-friendly congressmen, saw his electoral lead evaporate following the incident.
Observers who track Indian-American political leanings, like Robert Hathaway of the Woodrow Wilson Center, have argued the community shifted rightwards about six or seven years ago. However, distrust of the Christian right and unhappiness with Bush’s Iraq policies, led many young Indian-Americans to return to the Democratic fold. In a reference to the Allen incident, this group is sometimes referred to as the “Macaca Democrats.”
However, Indian-Americans are rarely decisive in any US election. They number only about 2.5 million and, according to Sanjay Puri of the lobby group USINPAC, have a low voter participation rate. Where they count more is in the area of funding because they are among the richest ethnic groups in the US. Because the wealthier Indian-Americans tend to vote Republican, many conservatives believe the community’s political contributions are evenly split between the two parties.
One irony is that Indian-American fondness for the Democrats stands in stark contrast to the increasing comfort levels New Delhi is finding with Republican administrations.