The Indian factor

- August 28, 2020
| By : Sushant Kumar |

Biden’s likely already got the Indian American vote and the Black vote, so what else is left? Joe Biden painted himself into a corner. Back in March, during the last Democratic primary debate, he proclaimed that his vice-presidential pick would be a woman. In the wake of the George Floyd protests in the following months, it became […]

Biden’s likely already got the Indian American vote and the Black vote, so what else is left?

Joe Biden painted himself into a corner.

Back in March, during the last Democratic primary debate, he proclaimed that his vice-presidential pick would be a woman. In the wake of the George Floyd protests in the following months, it became imperative that the woman should also be a person of colour. This significantly narrowed down his choices to few non-white Democratic women, though two white women (Gretchen Whitmer and Elizabeth Warren) made it to the final list. Among Black women, Biden’s top choices were Kamala Harris, Susan Rice and Karen Bass.

Rice’s baggage included controversial statements made in the aftermath of the Benghazi attack. That, coupled with her lack of experience in running for office, vitiated her lobbying efforts. Then there was Bass, whose praise for the late Cuban communist dictator Fidel Castro might have become a political headache for the Biden campaign. As a result, it didn’t require much political perspicacity to predict that the relatively less controversial and more experienced Harris would become Biden’s running mate.

To Harris’s credit, her term as a senator from California, the largest state in the United States, built her a national presence over the last few years. She’s also been known for her confrontational exchanges during Senate hearings. Nevertheless, her own uninspiring and insipid presidential bid ended last December — much before a single vote was cast in the primaries — due to her abysmal polling numbers and lack of campaign donations.

With this background, though Biden can indubitably boast about a historic presidential ticket, he can’t claim that his pick emerges from an exhaustive and fastidious search among all Democrats. It was a search highly constrained by both gender and race, and reinforced the idea that the Biden team favoured tokenism over true progress. It’s an appeal to the identity politics of a voter base in a well-vetted, albeit uninspiring, package.

The Indian American vote

For many on the Left, the unforeseen defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016 by a pugilistic, populist demagogue has been a despairing ride. Donald Trump somehow alchemised a country that had voted for a Black president for two terms into a nation of bigoted rednecks. The narrative, however, obfuscates the fact that the election was nip and tuck, where Trump won the electoral college by a slim margin of mere 80,000 votes across three battleground states.

Four years later, the ongoing Covid pandemic has infused such uncertainties that even with Biden’s persistent double-digit lead over Trump, pundits and pollsters are wary of making assertive predictions. The lessons from 2016 and the pandemic have left campaign managers watchful and cognisant of the importance of undecided and moderate voters in the swing states.

In such a scenario, how much does the Indian American vote matter? And will Kamala Harris help?

With roughly 1.6 million voters of Indian origin eligible to vote this year, it seems reasonable to expect that the Democrats and the Republicans must be relentlessly attempting to woo this demographic. While no community votes as a monolith, post-election surveys indicate that a whopping 80 percent of Indian Americans voted for Clinton in the last general election.

As noted by the Washington Post, a closer look at the statistics reveals a rather intriguing picture. In some of the key battleground states (Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida), the number of Indian American voters was greater than or close to Trump’s margin of victory. However, given that a plurality of them voted for Democrats last time and a consistent decades-long voting pattern of Asian Americans in general, it seems unlikely that this demographic is going to pull the lever for Trump in November. Besides, a good number of the Indian Americans live in Democratic states like California, New York and New Jersey, which makes their vote less relevant.

study shows that a candidate of the same ethnicity has the potential to increase the voter turnout in a district. But a Kamala Harris ticket might not help Biden in this respect. With a voter turnout of 62 percent among Indian Americans in 2016, it would be rather difficult to improve it considerably. (The overall voter turnout among Americans was 61.4 percent and 61.8 percent in 2012 and 2016, respectively, and has hovered around this mark for decades.)

Meanwhile, Trump’s appearance at last year’s ostentatious “Howdy, Modi” rally (remember “sab changa si”? ) could be an endeavour to ride Modi’s coattails and sway some Indian American voters. But even so, the likelihood of that materially affecting his fortunes seems low. The temporary suspension of work visas (H1B) and his unsuccessful attempt to suspend student visas (F1) for international students attending online courses has only served to alienate Indians.

The favourability of Democrats among Indian Americans is probably emblematic of the greater support that Democrats enjoy among college-educated Americans in general. (Note that as much as 70 percent of Indian Americans have college degrees compared to 28 percent of the US population.) Polling shows that among Indian Americans, 84 percent support raising the minimum wage and increasing taxes on the rich, 83 percent support federal help to students paying off college loans, and 65 percent want illegal immigrants to have a pathway to citizenship.

These stances place Indian Americans firmly on the Left of American politics. It’s wishful thinking on the parts of both Trump and the Indian Right that there will be a significant erosion of support for the Democrats just because Trump decided to pander to a Hindu nationalist prime minister and his supporters. Indian Americans already disproportionately favour the Democrats, and Harris would be unlikely to deliver additional votes where they are needed.

African American voters and Harris

It’s actually less convincing that Harris will mobilise and substantially increase voter turnout and the support of African Americans come November. Biden doesn’t need Harris for that. In February, this demographic gave his campaign much-needed momentum and voted so overwhelmingly for him that it thwarted Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid and precipitously ended the Democratic primary.

If Blacks were indeed so heavily inclined towards candidates of the same race, the campaigns of African American presidential hopefuls Corey Booker and Kamala Harris wouldn’t have ended so soon. And Biden is fully aware of this.

I subscribe to Kevin D Williamson’s rationale for the choice of Harris. Williamson posits that it is not the African American voters that Biden is targeting through Harris but the suburban white college-educated voters who are more amenable to the appeal of diversity in society. Racism, Williamson writes, has plenty of stink on it and is “enough to rub off on everybody around you, fairly or unfairly.” Biden’s ticket is meant to lure such voters who lean towards conservatism but are beginning to find Republicans, and especially Trump, repellent on race and gender issues.

Historically vice-presidential picks have not significantly affected the chances of presidential candidates. In around 30 percent of the general elections since 1948, they haven’t even carried their home states. Kamala Harris would probably not affect Biden’s performance in November, but she is a safe pick.

For all her flaws as a district attorney, attorney general and senator, she is a passionate, telegenic speaker. David French in The Dispatch rightly observes that she was trained as a lawyer and right now, Biden is essentially her client. She might have some own misbegotten ideological positions but as of now she has to defend and follow Biden’s policy proposals.