Survey shows a significant proportion of Indian-American voters does not know Sen. Kamala Harris

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U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks during U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 4, 2018. (Photo: REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

The highest Indian-American elected official in the U.S. who is shortlisted as a potential presidential candidate in 2020, has low recognition within her own community, according to a latest survey.

A significant percentage of Indian-American registered voters have either never heard, don’t know, or have an unfavorable opinion of Senator Kamala Harris, D-California, considered the “shining star” of the Democratic Party whose name is bandied about not just inside the liberal establishment, but by talking heads and analysts, as a worthy opponent to President Donald Trump.

The Indian-American community, which has the highest average household income in this country as well as the highest education levels, has over the last decade become more active than before in the political arena, not just as donors, but also as candidates for races up and down the ballot. The 2018 Asian American Voter Survey carried out by Asian Pacific Islander American Vote (IAPI Vote) and AAPI Data, shows that over the last 12 months, at least 22 percent of registered Indian-American voters contributed to a political campaign, the same level as Filipinos. And 90 percent of Indian-American voters said they would be at the polls come Nov. 6.

And as Harris positions herself for a possible choice of her party in 2020, analysts say she will have to do more to reach out and win over this minority to which her late mother Shyamala Gopalan, belonged.

The survey showed 20 percent of Indian-American voters have “never heard” of Harris, another 10 percent “don’t know” how they feel, and another 16 percent have an unfavorable opinion of her. The survey was conducted in partnership with Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, AFL-CIO (APALA), and Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, the survey presents the results of interviews conducted by telephone and online from August 23 – October 4, of 1,316 Asian American registered voters.

“If Harris is going to tap into the Indian-American community for financial help, she is going to have to do more,” says Karthick Ramakrishnan, professor at University of California, Riverside, and founder of AAPI Data.

Compare that to Hillary Clinton who continues to have a 72 percent high favorability rating among Indian-American voters, and former Vice President Joe Biden, also considered a 2020 presidential candidate, with 68 percent favorability and 18 percent unfavorable, with 8 percent of registered Indian American voters never having heard of him. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders on the other hand, matches Clinton in favorability and way fewer (6 percent) never having heard of him.

In fact, Harris matches New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s numbers. Twenty percent of registered Indian-American voters have never heard of him either.

Meanwhile, President Trump, after nearly two years in office, cannot boast doing better, but certainly everyone in the Indian-American community knows his name, even if only 30 percent have a favorable opinion of him, 62 percent unfavorable, and another 8 percent have no opinion.

Harris, for her part, has been seen more than before. She recently headlined a fundraising gala organized by – Pratham, a non-profit involved in education projects in India, where she gave the keynote speech.

And Harris has spoken often about her Indian ancestry. Her father was of Jamaican descent.

Trump Support

Another finding of the survey showed relatively unchanged support for President Trump among registered Indian-American voters. That may be the result of the dual tracks Trump has followed during his presidency, which have possibly cancelled each other out based on the perception of Indian-Americans. While the highly visible importance Trump gave to India has brought him supporters, rhetoric on issues such as immigration and race relations may have diminished some of that gain. “So a mix of things have the support standing in the same place as before,” Ramakrishnan said.

But some of the onus may be on the small proportion of Indian-Americans who have been contacted by the GOP. The survey shows 60 percent of  Indian Americans say they were “not at all” contacted, but 12 percent said they were contacted “a great deal” by the Republican Party. In contrast, 22 percent of Indian-Americans said they had been contacted “a great deal” by the Democratic Party in the past year, and 24 percent said they had “some” contact, and another 10 percent that said “a little.”

Regardless of other factors, data has shown that traditionally, partisanship and party-identification have played a strong role, and these remain fairly stable even within the Indian-American voting community.

“So no matter what Trump does or says, it’s not going to move the needle much among Indian voters, Ramakrishnan believes.

For Republicans the gap in support from Indian-American voters shown by the survey,  reveals there’s work to be done by the GOP. “I feel there’s a huge opportunity for Republicans to make a case to this very important segment (Indian-Americans),” said Puneet Ahluwalia, who served in President Trump’s Asian Pacific Advisory Committee. “And an opportunity to get to the ‘independent’ voter in the Indian-American community,”

“President Trump has been the most friendly and extended a hand toward India to be a partner on so many fronts,” Ahluwalia said. On the other hand, attempts to limit H-1B or doing away with H-4 employment authorization for spouses, are not directed at any ethnic group specifically, Ahluwalia. “You can’t take H-1B and H-4 visas as singling out Indians and India. It is more  about creating jobs for Americans,” Ahluwalia said.

Other Results

The survey contains a wealth of data on Indian-Americans’ views on multiple issues such as 58 percent disagreeing on increasing the federal minimum wage; 84 percent supporting stricter gun control; 64 percent agreeing with government expanding access to health insurance for all immigrants regardless of legal status; 76 percent supporting unducmented immigrants having the opportunity to a pathway to citizenship; 54 percent disagreeing that it was right for the federal government to take away the legal status of immigrants with green cards who have used government assistance; 78 percent believing in general, that affirmative action programs designed to increase the number of black and minority students on college campuses are a good thing; 72 percent saying the Democratic Party doing a better job on health care;

On party identification going into the Nov. 6 midterm elections, 50 percent of the registered Indian-American voters thought of themselves as Democrats, 18 percent as Republican, 24 percent as Independent and 6 percent do not think in terms of political parties.

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