In addition to marking a historic moment for women, Blacks and Asian Americans, the inauguration of Kamala Devi Harris as U.S. vice president casts light on the growing role of Indian Americans in the nation’s politics.
Not only are Harris, whose mother was born in India, and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, whose parents both immigrated from India, very early potential contenders for the two major parties’ nominations for president in 2024, but Indian American voters make up a growing segment of the electorate. At approximately 4 million, they are the second-largest Asian American subgroup in the U.S., trailing only Chinese Americans.
To examine the political attitudes and behaviors of Indian Americans, Pomona College Politics Professor Sara Sadhwani and Maneesh Arora of Wellesley College directed their first Indian American Election Survey shortly before the November election.
“What I found most surprising was the desire for descriptive representation,” says Sadhwani, using a term for wanting to be represented by someone who resembles you or is from your community.
Although 53% of about 1,000 Indian Americans surveyed identified as Democratic, nearly 60% of all respondents said they would support an Indian American candidate running for political office—regardless of their party affiliation.
“Indian Americans, more than any other Asian subgroup, are more likely to mobilize—meaning not just support Kamala Harris, but to get out and vote when they otherwise wouldn't—when there's an Indian American on the ballot,” Sadhwani says. “That was something that's really unique. It sets Indian Americans apart from other Asian American subgroups, as well as from prior research on the Latinx and Black communities.”
What’s more, with concentrations of Indian Americans living not only in California but also in Texas, Georgia, Florida and Pennsylvania, they play an important role in multiple swing states.
In Georgia, runoff victories by Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in January tipped control of the now evenly divided U.S. Senate to the Democrats because a 50-50 tie is decided by Vice President Harris in her role as Senate president.
As Sadhwani and Arora noted in an article for The Washington Post the day before the Georgia runoff, there are an estimated 58,000 registered Indian American voters in Georgia, and more than 30,000 Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders were first-time voters in the state in 2020—the majority of them Indian American.
“There are a number of Asian American organizations that were working on the ground there day and night,” Sadhwani says. “Organizations like the Asian American and Pacific Islander Victory Fund, and the Indian American Impact Fund who spent $2½ million just registering and mobilizing Indian American voters in Georgia.”
However, Democrats should not take Indian American support for granted, Sadhwani cautioned in a HuffPost interview. The survey also found that support for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist policies correlated with support for President Donald Trump, particularly among more recent arrivals to the U.S.
“The politics in India have shifted significantly over the last several years, and that really came to a head here in the United States with the ‘Howdy Modi’ event that took place in Houston, Texas, in 2019, in which President Trump took the stage and embraced Prime Minister Modi warmly,” Sadhwani says.
“We didn't see that support for Modi is necessarily translating into support for Trump here, except amongst that younger cohort. And so one of the things that we hypothesize is that those who have come more recently to the United States are more engaged in politics in India. Those sentiments that are growing and building in India, they're bringing with them here.
“That's an important insight, a reminder that while the majority of Indian Americans today are heavily aligned with the Democratic Party, that's not to say that couldn't change as future waves of migrants come to the United States.”