Essential Politics: How Trump motivated Asian Americans to vote for Biden and Harris

Kamala Harris stands at a lectern.
Vice President Kamala Harris delivers remarks to the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Unity Summit in Washington on May 19.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

This is the May 26, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

Less than two months after Kamala Harris was sworn in as the first Asian American vice president, she found herself in Atlanta, delivering mournful remarks with President Biden after a killing rampage at area spas that drew attention to a surge in hate crimes against Asian Americans.

Advocacy groups that helped Democrats win the White House and Congress say those moments of triumph and tragedy are closely connected. The COVID-19 pandemic and former President Trump’s rhetoric about it — slurs such as “kung flu” and “China virus” — helped drum up hatred of Asian Americans. And Asian Americans’ reaction to that animosity, as well as the belief that Trump mismanaged the response to the coronavirus, helped mobilize Asian Americans to vote in unprecedented numbers, putting Democrats over the top in key states.


Good morning and welcome to Essential Politics, Kamala Harris edition. Today I’ll dive a bit deeper into the impact of the Asian American and Pacific Islander vote, a topic I wrote about last week. It’s one that Harris touched on both during a high-profile political speech Wednesday and at a White House ceremony Thursday when Biden signed a bill intended to prevent and prosecute hate crimes against Asian Americans.

‘A referendum on racial division’

Asian American groups have been frustrated with the lack of reliable polling about the population’s views. That is a consequence of its relatively small size — while growing faster than other groups, Asian Americans still made up only about 4% of the electorate in 2020 — and its diversity, which means members speak a variety of languages. Also, polls of smaller groups are expensive, given the difficulty of identifying enough respondents to be a statistically meaningful sample size.

The AAPI Civic Engagement Fund, a nonpartisan but progressive organization, has been trying to fill that gap in recent years, conducting detailed polls of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders nationwide in multiple languages before presidential elections. Polls sponsored by advocates need to be considered with care given the sponsors’ clear bias, but they can give useful insight into groups or topics not typically surveyed by independent entities such as media companies and nonpartisan pollsters.

In 2020, the organization also surveyed Asian American voters in a pivotal congressional district in a swing state, Georgia’s 7th, where the constituency’s population had grown to about 16% in 2019, according to census data.

That district north of Atlanta is trending blue. The election of Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux was a rare Democratic pickup in last fall’s elections that helped the party retain control of the House. A pair of Senate victories in Georgia’s special elections Jan. 5 gave Democrats a majority in the upper chamber as well.

The most arresting findings from the district: 43% of Asian Americans polled said they had been the subject of slurs; 32% said they had been accused of spreading COVID-19; 23% said they had been the victim of assault or battery. Fully 85% believed the AAPI population had been scapegoated for the pandemic.

In all of the big contests — for president and the U.S. Senate and House — at least 60% of Asian Americans in the suburban Atlanta district voted for Democrats.


For Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, “2020 was like a referendum on the racial division,” said EunSook Lee, director of the AAPI Civic Engagement Fund.

Nationwide, just 24% of Asian American voters in the survey said they believed Trump “truly cares about AAPI voters,” while nearly three out of four either said he did not care (45%) or was hostile (27%).

Lee’s organization’s polling also found that some of the same big issues that motivated other voters were at the top of Asian Americans’ concerns: 58% nationwide cited the pandemic, 44% jobs and the economy, and 37% healthcare.

The anti-communist view from California

Democrats can’t rest on their margins among the AAPI population.

Trump won’t be around forever. And Asian American voters in a pair of Orange County’s House districts helped swing the results for Republican Reps. Michelle Steel and Young Kim. Their campaign strategist, Sam Oh, has said that anti-communist sentiment, particularly in the large Vietnamese American community, helped sway voters in an election year in which Republicans were tarring Democrats as “socialists.”

That mirrored Trump’s success in winning over Cuban American and Venezuelan American voters in Florida with his claims that Democrats would bring Venezuelan-style socialism to America. And it’s a reminder that broad categories such as “Latino” and “Asian American” do not reflect the diversity within them, and thus they don’t describe truly cohesive voting blocs. The voters have come from different countries, with separate cultures, backgrounds and languages, and immigrated at different times and for various reasons.

Still, many AAPI activists and historians see great potential to expand on voting and public engagement generally. Harris, in her speech Wednesday, amplified that point while decrying laws in Georgia and other states that will make it harder to vote. She said Asian American voters are more likely than others to cast ballots by mail, something that many states have made or are making harder.

“We must start by fighting against attacks on voting rights, and it is happening right before us in so many instances in such a blatant way, and in an unapologetic way,” she said.


The hug and kiss from the first lady

At another event last week, on Friday, Harris was greeted with a hug and kiss on the cheek by the first lady, Jill Biden.

As observers were quick to note, the highly public display of affection came just days after a new book about the 2020 presidential campaign, by Edward-Isaac Dovere, was excerpted in Politico.

The excerpt was a dishy recap of Harris’ decision, in a 2019 debate during the Democratic nomination contest, to attack her then-rival Biden for his opposition in the 1970s to federally required busing to desegregate schools, and for his nostalgia about working with segregationist senators on legislation.

In Dovere’s telling, Jill Biden was livid, telling close supporters a week later that Harris could go “f— herself.”

The first lady’s spokesman, Michael LaRosa, sent me the same nonresponsive statement he gave to Politico: “Many books will be written on the 2020 campaign, with countless retellings of events — some accurate, some inaccurate. The First Lady and her team do not plan to comment on any of them.”

Harris’ office did not comment.

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One year after George Floyd’s murder

— Members of Congress promised that this time they’d successfully reform policing, amid the national furor over George Floyd’s 2020 murder and the conviction of the officer responsible for his death. But Sarah D. Wire reports that qualified immunity has long been a sticking point, though tensions may be softening.

— The Black Lives Matter movement has achieved mainstream recognition. But the movement now faces the same challenge many grassroots efforts have: how to move beyond the recognition toward concrete solutions, Erin B. Logan reports.

— Biden, too, has struggled to achieve change despite his early promises. Tuesday marked a missed deadline, though the White House said he remains undeterred, writes Chris Megerian and Eli Stokols.

Around the world

— Biden will hold a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin next month in Geneva, a face-to-face meeting that comes amid escalating tensions between the U.S. and Russia.

— They’re cheap and abundant. But as armed drones crisscross Middle Eastern skies, targeting oil facilities and militant hideouts, David S. Cloud reports they’re bringing havoc and new threats to the U.S.

— Tracy Wilkinson writes that after receiving praise for helping to broker an Israel-Hamas cease-fire, the Biden administration is now looking to the next phase: a deeper and more complex resolution to decades of conflict.

The latest from Washington

— The Senate confirmed Kristen Clarke, the 46-year-old civil rights attorney who Biden nominated to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. She’s the first woman of color to lead the unit, write Del Quentin Wilber and Jennifer Haberkorn.

— Since at least 2006, Democrats have promised to drive down prescription drug costs. With control of Congress and the White House, they now have a shot — but progress is still sputtering, Haberkorn and Stokols write.

— The Paycheck Protection Program was supposed to be a lifeline for small businesses. But Don Lee reports that it has become so mired in confusion and delays as money runs out that hundreds of thousands of applicants may get no help.

— The Supreme Court upheld the removal of an immigrant who argued he was wrongly sent out of the country after a DUI conviction. David G. Savage writes that the ruling will have a strong impact in California, where federal judges considered challenges to “fundamentally unfair” deportation orders.

— From Janet Hook: Just months after Biden won the presidency on a wave of anti-Trump sentiment, a rematch by proxy is shaping up in Virginia, where voters are set to choose between an establishment Democrat and an outsider Republican for governor.


— New York prosecutors have convened a special grand jury to consider evidence in a criminal investigation into Trump’s business dealings.

The latest from California

— As the University of California faces huge demand for seats, state lawmakers are considering a plan to slash the share of out-of-state and international students to make room for more local residents, Teresa Watanabe writes.

— The federal government plans to open California’s coast to offshore wind development, the Biden administration announced Tuesday. The move could provide the state with a major source of renewable energy, write Anna M. Phillips, Sammy Roth and Rosanna Xia.

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