Research

Notes from the Field: Post-Script on the AAPI Vote in 2020

Published: November 16, 2021

Hard as it is to believe, we are just a year out from the 2022 election and eyes and ears have turned with full force to what next year’s midterm elections may bring. And with that turn to 2022, questions abound. What do we read from Gavin Newsom’s success in the California recall election? What about Glenn Youngkin’s success and Jack Ciaterelli’s near-success in Virginia and New Jersey? How will redistricting and the legal challenges that will likely follow affect the balance of power in the House? What impact will the efforts of Republican-led state legislatures to restrict access to voting rights and suppress voter turnout have? And, lurking in the background of these and other questions, will 2022 represent a renewal and reaffirmation of democratic elections, or a continuation of democratic backsliding?

To offer some hopefully useful context to these questions and, more specifically, how the civic and political engagement of AAPIs relate to these questions, the AAPI Civic Engagement Fund is launching the first in a series of semi-regular think pieces. I am excited to be writing these in my new role as Senior Fellow with the Fund. The menu of topics covered in these pieces will be broad ranging, but the main ingredient in their making will be facts and evidence and my interpretation of their implications for AAPI engagement and empowerment.

The lead-off in this series is a post-script on the AAPI Vote in the 2020 election because, as Maya Angelou puts it plain, “you can’t really know where you are going until you know where you have been.” The key elements of this post-script are what we know about turnout, vote choice, the engines of turnout and vote choice, and where 2020 leaves us.

Taeku Lee

Turnout

The first highlight to the 2020 election is the remarkable increase in turnout for AAPIs. In an election with remarkably high turnout overall and across all groups, the turnout for Asian Americans was extraordinary.

  • Overall, turnout for citizens of voting age increased from 60% in 2016 to 67% in 2020 according to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey Voter and Registration Supplement (CPS) estimates. The 67% mark is the highest since 1900.

  • For Asian Americans, 59% of citizens of voting age voted in 2020, the highest rate in a national election since these data were available for Asian Americans. This figure represents a 10% increase in turnout from 2016. By comparison, Latinx turnout between 2016 and 2020 increased 6%, white turnout also increased by 6%, and African American turnout increased 3%.

  • This increase in Asian American turnout in 2020 continues steady gains in turnout over several presidential election cycles. Since 2004—the election prior to Obama’s vaunted ground game—Asian American turnout has increased 14%, from 45% to 59%. For Latinx over that period, turnout increased 7%; for whites, it increased 4% and for African Americans, it increased 3%.

  • Analysis of CPS data by AAPI-Data finds increases in turnout were especially high among some AAPI subgroups: Korean American turnout increased 15% between 2020 and 2016; Pacific Islander turnout increased 14% over that same stretch of time; and Chinese American turnout jumped up 13%. AAPI-Data also finds turnout increases were higher among young voters aged 18 to 34 (increasing from 41% in 2016 to 56% in 2020) and for AAPI women (increasing from 48% in 2016 to 61% in 2020).

  • Catalist’s analysis of turnout estimated total number of votes cast by race. Comparing turnout in 2016 and 2020 this way, AAPI turnout increased by an even larger margin of 39%, compared to increases in votes cast for Latinx of 31%, and 14% for African Americans.1

  • TargetSmart analysis of voter files estimated an even more massive increase of 47% in the number of votes cast by AAPIs in 2020 compared to 2016. In select battleground states, TargetSmart also finds impressive increases in the number of AAPI votes cast: 85% increase in Georgia, 71% in Texas, 66% in Nevada, 58% in Arizona, 52% in North Carolina, 42% in Michigan, and 36% in Florida.

CPS, Catalist, and TargetSmart all use different methodologies to derive their estimates of turnout, each with their strengths and notable limitations. Yet they all clearly point to the same conclusion about what happened with the AAPI vote in 2020. By any measure, turnout was unprecedented. This is far from concluding “mission accomplished” on AAPI civic and political engagement. Firstly, even with the remarkable increases in turnout rate and turnout numbers, AAPIs still “underparticipate”: 59% of eligible AAPIs voted in 2020 compared to 67% nationally. Furthermore, the same engine that helps to drive this increase in turnout—rapid growth in the AAPI population, coupled to their high proportion of who are foreign-born—will also continue to expand the denominator. With each election, the numbers of newly naturalized AAPIs will grow and with that growth, so too will the numbers of AAPIs eligible to vote who have not yet registered and voted.

Vote Choice

On vote choice, the headline on AAPIs for the last several election cycles has been the same. Asian Americans, who a little over a generation ago were more or less split in their partisanship, have become solidly Democratic in their vote choice. And as they have become solid Democrats as their numbers have grown, AAPIs have been recast in elections from a previous role as potential swing voters to a new role as the margin of difference and key partner in a progressive multiracial coalition. Did this headline change in 2020? If not, where did AAPIs play a key role in the 2020 elections?

Such questions, important as they are, continue to be tough to answer comprehensively because the data available to answer them continue to be unavailable, incomplete, or otherwise limited. In 2020, these constraints were further magnified by the methodological challenges of calculating reliable and representative estimates of the AAPI vote in the context of a global pandemic and given the increasingly high rates of voting absentee and by mail for Asian Americans. Yet in one sense, notwithstanding these limitations, all the available evidence points in one direction: namely, that AAPIs continue to turn out and vote solidly behind Democratic candidates.

  • Pre-election polls showed Asian Americans favoring Joe Biden over Donald Trump by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, 54% to 30%. They also favored Democratic candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives to Republican candidates by nearly the same margin, 53% to 28%.

  • The Election Eve poll, a long-standing project sponsored by the AAPI Civic Engagement Fund (among other organizations), found a 68% to 28% margin in the presidential race between Biden and Trump and a 66% to 29% margin in congressional House races.

  • Mainstream media exit polls also estimated a solid margin for Biden over Trump by a margin of 61% to 34%. In House races, that margin was an even larger 68% to 32%.

  • In the most recent major academic survey on the 2020 election, the Collaborative Multiracial Post-Election Survey (CMPS) finds that 68% of Asian American reported voting for Biden and 26% for Trump. The CMPS margin favoring Democratic House candidates to Republican ones was a similarly one-sided 67% to 29% difference.

  • Finally, Catalist estimates also found strong support for Biden among Asian American voters in 2020 at 67%.

This story of Asian Americans continuing to be a solidly Democratic electorate, however, was not the headline about AAPIs in the 2020 election. Most of that attention was consumed by the question of whether 2020 signaled the erosion of Democratic support among voters of color. Chiefly, this curiosity burned around whether Latinx voters were being pulled into Donald Trump’s orbit, but AAPI voters were drawn into that narrative as well.

  • The Election Eve poll, for instance, estimated the Asian American Democratic vote share in presidential elections at 73% in 2012 and 75% in 2016 prior to the 68% figure for 2020.

  • The National Election Pool exit polls for mainstream media outlets also finds a downward trend from a highwater mark of 73% in 2012 to 65% in 2016 and 63% in 2020.

  • Perhaps the most consequential change comes from Way to Win’s analysis of TargetSmart’s voter file data, which finds a shift in favor of voting Republican rather than Democratic between 2020 and 2016 in all ten of the battleground states for which partisanship could be modeled. According to this analysis, a majority of Asian Americans voted Democrat in only six of those ten battlegrounds.2

Thus, there is some support for the idea of eroding support. But it is still unclear how much to make of this. For one thing, other data sources, like Catalist find almost no such evidence. Rather, Catalist finds the Asian American support for Democratic presidential candidates has held pretty steady over the same three election seasons: an estimated 67% of AAPIs voted for Biden in 2020, 68% for Clinton in 2016; and 66% for Obama in 2012. On a similar register, Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel finds, based on validated votes, that 72% of Asian Americans voted for Biden. According to Pew’s numbers, that figure backs up the 73% of Asian Americans who voted for Democratic House candidates in 2018 and exceeds their estimates that 66% of Asian Americans voted for Hilary Clinton in 2016.

For another, even if the Democratic vote share declined, say, from 75% in 2016 to 68% in 2020, that decline has to be reckoned in the context of the overall boom in turnout. TargetSmart estimates that 4.07 million AAPIs voted in 2020, or 1.28 million more than their estimates that 2.79 million AAPIs voted in 2016. Combine the Eve poll’s 68% and 75% figures with these turnout numbers, and an estimated 2.77 million AAPIs voted Democratic in 2020, compared to an estimated 2.09 million who did so in 2016. In short, even if there was a dip in Democratic support in 2020, the bigger story is the massive increase in turnout. Where elections were close and AAPIs made up a significant and growing share of the electorate—like Georgia’s 7th congressional district—this turnout story is what made AAPIs the margin of victory.

The Story Behind the Numbers: Issues and Organizing

In this last section, let’s turn then to the story of turnout in 2020. The first thing to remember is that the remarkable mobilization of Asian American voters in 2020 did not happen overnight, as the earlier figures on turnout noted. That mobilization can be seen in the findings from the 2016 and 2020 Eve polls:

  • In 2016, only 42% of AAPI voters reported being contacted by a campaign, a political party, or a non-partisan organization about registering to vote and turning out to vote. In 2020, that number jumped up to 51%. And in select races, like the Georgia 7th congressional district race, fully 68% of AAPI voters were contacted.

  • Non-partisan outreach played an especially big role in 2020. In the 2016 Eve poll, 27% of AAPI voters who were contacted about vote registration and turnout said they were contacted by non-partisan, community-based organizations. In 2020, that figure nearly doubled, jumping up to 47%. Again, that non-partisan outreach was even greater in Georgia’s 7th, with 63% of AAPI voters who were contacted reporting that the contact was from non-partisan organizations. 

  • The 2020 Eve poll also asked AAPI voters in Georgia’s 7th about whether they received any communication from specific organizations. Thirty-four percent said they received something from Asian American Advocacy Fund, 32% from Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, and 27% from New Georgia Project.3

  • Between 56% and 58% of AAPI voters receiving contact from non-partisan Asian American or racial justice organizations reported that the communications were “very informative.” By contrast, only 41% and 42% of those receiving contact from the Republican or Democratic party found partisan communications very informative.

Polls in 2020 also found that AAPIs were highly motivated to vote by issues they cared about and by the twin threats of COVID-19 and the Trump Administration. Here are just a few findings from the 2020 Eve poll:

  • On the issues, an overwhelming majority of Asian American voters in 2020 took liberal positions, such as favoring universal access to health care (89%), favoring a national mask mandate (86%), demanding accountability for police violence (85%), supporting a Green New Deal (85%), opposing family separation at the US-Mexico border (81%), supporting a pathway to citizenship for undocumented Americans (81%), and taking a pro-choice stance on abortion (75%).

  • On Donald Trump and COVID-19, 72% of AAPI voters said that the ex-President either “does not care” or “is hostile” to AAPIs; 58% felt that racism and discrimination against AAPIs had increased during the Trump Administration; and 80% saw white supremacism as a “major threat” to the United States. In addition, 67% of AAPI voters believed that Trump mismanaged the COVID crisis and 85% said that AAPIs were wrongly scapegoated for COVID-19.4 A Politico / Morning Consult poll this fall found that 71% of AAPIs continue to blame Trump for anti-AAPI discrimination.

Looking Ahead to 2022

This first “note from the field” has been heavy on the numbers. So, what’s the bigger picture here and what does this post-script on 2020 tell us about the 2022 midterms? If nothing big changes between last November and next November, there is reason to believe that Asian Americans will again outperform the expectations of campaigns and continue to close the turnout gap with the voting rates of whites. Also if nothing big changes, there is also reason to believe that a solid majority of AAPIs will continue to vote Democratic, even if the rates of Democratic voting may be plateauing at some level around a 2-to-1 margin favoring Democrats. And with these two ingredients, AAPIs should continue to be an integral partner in the multiracial coalition that solidly backed Democratic candidates and whose support Democratic candidates need to win in 2022. Remember, in 2020 nearly 40% of Biden’s support came from voters of color.

Of course, many big things have changed and will continue to change between now and next November. Turnout is typically depressed in midterms and it is unclear whether changes will make 2022 look more like a typical midterm or like 2018, when turnout reached historic levels. The California recall election in September saw turnout levels much like a typical midterm election, but an early report from Civis Analytics on Virginia’s gubernatorial election finds higher turnout levels than in the last three gubernatorial cycles as well as early warnings of an enthusiasm gap, with Democrats lagging behind Republicans.

There are many known unknowns over the next year that will almost certainly affect AAPI turnout and vote choice in 2022. For one thing, Americans’ uncertainties over the future course of COVID-19 and anxieties over inflation and the economy may result in the continued politicization of a public health crisis and redirecting voters’ energy and attention on the Big Lie, Critical Race Theory, and other diversions. The future course of COVID-19 and the economy are known unknowns largely beyond the control of politicians. Other key knowns firmly in the design of politicians to impact the election include redrawing electoral districts and enacting new voting laws that seemingly take aim at voters of color. The latter threat—the political epidemic of voter suppression laws in states with Republican-led legislatures—is especially ominous given things like the high rates of limited English proficiency in the AAPI community and the high reliances on absentee and mail-in voting by AAPIs.  

Ultimately, how these known unknowns will affect AAPI turnout and vote choice in 2022 will depend on continued investments in AAPI civic and political engagement. The 2020 election reminds us that more than ever, AAPIs, like other BIPOC voters, cannot be taken for granted. If anything, the spectre of redrawn districts and voter suppression laws makes grassroots mobilization campaigns that much more crucial in 2022.  There is a growing body of research among political scientists suggesting that voter suppression laws can be used as a powerful message to mobilize voters of color.5 Research also shows that AAPIs who experience discrimination are much likelier to identify with and vote Democratic, both in general and in response to the COVID-19 outbreak of anti-AAPI hate and violence. This threat can be powerfully mobilizing. So too can hope and the possibility of change that comes with AAPIs running for office, as we saw with the successful mayoral bids of Michelle Wu in Boston, Aftab Pureval in Cincinnati, Bruce Harrell in Seattle.

Whether hope or threat, engaging AAPIs in 2022 will depend on organizing, outreach, and mobilization. Which summons the last post-script from 2020: as we saw in key battlegrounds nationally and in key congressional races like GA-7, organizing, outreach, and mobilization that is sustained and that involved organizations trusted in the AAPI community delivers known results.

Footnotes
1 Catalist estimates of turnout rates show 62% of the citizen voting age population of AAPIs voting in 2020, slightly higher than the 59% estimate from the CPS.
2 The TargetSmart voter file data codes partisanship and race and ethnicity for each record using a combination of self-reported values and imputed values. The modeling of race and ethnicity—relying on names and geography—has known limitations and biases for findings such as the above.
3 The 2020 Eve poll also interviewed AAPI voters in the Texas 22nd district race, where about one in four (between 23 and 25%) reported receiving communications from the following non-partisan groups: OCA-Houston, RUN-AAPI, Voto Latino, and the AAPI Victory Fund.

4 There is also evidence from the Eve poll’s GA-7 sample that AAPIs were also aligned with progressive movements for change. Roughly two-thirds said they were “somewhat” or “strongly” aligned with the following movements: LGBTQ+ rights and equality, DREAMers, #Black Lives Matter, environmental justice, #MeToo, and March 4 Our Lives.

5 See, e.g., Nicholas Valentino and Fabian Neuner, 2017, “Why the Sky Didn’t Fall: Mobilizing Anger in Reaction to Voter ID Laws,” in Political Psychology. See also Kyle Endres and Costas Panagopoulos, 2021, “Who is Mobilized to Vote by Information about Voter ID Laws?” Politics, Groups, and Identities.
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Taeku Lee has conducted survey research for over two decades, with a particular expertise on AAPI public opinion and political participation. His related experience includes roles as co-Principal Investigator of the National Asian American Surveys (2008, 2012, and 2016) and Managing Director of Asian American Decisions (2012-2020). He currently serves on the U.S. Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee and has served on the Board of Overseers of the American National Election Studies (twice) and the Board of Overseers of the General Social Survey. Lee is George Johnson Professor of Law and Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley.