Time to Get Out the Indian American Vote

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With all eyes on the presidential election, victory appears likely to be wrought on the thinnest of margins. The latest polls place President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney in a virtual dead heat with less than two weeks to go. But facing a deeply divided electorate, strategists in both camps have largely shifted their focus from persuasion to mobilization. After battling tooth-and-nail for American hearts and minds over the past year, the final moments of this race will be decided by a single factor: who can ensure that more voters cast their ballots.

Indian Americans should consider this push to “get out the vote” as a call to arms. Today, few doubt that this 3 million-strong community has come into its own as a political force. They are one of the nation’s fast-growing ethnic minorities, and India remains a major source of inbound migration to the United States. Moreover, Indian Americans’ socioeconomic success is notable. Their reputation as a “model minority” was confirmed once again by a Pew Research Center report released this past June, which found that seventy percent have earned a college degree (compared to less than a third of the general population), and maintain a median household income that is nearly twice the national average.

Status has translated into rising political salience. Few blinked an eye when former White House Director of Public Engagement Kal Penn (better known to adoring fans as the pot-smoking slacker of Harold and Kumar fame) appeared on stage at the Democratic National Convention last  month. This was not an empty gesture of tokenism. Indian Americans’ appointment to an array of senior government positions and the emergence of congressional candidates like Manan Trivedi (competing in a high-profile race recognized as one of the country’s most promising by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee), underscore the community’s growing role in mainstream politics.

That is not to say their political engagement is evenly distributed. Prominent Republicans like Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley notwithstanding, the majority of Indian Americans are Democrats, and when it comes to Barack Obama, they lean well to the left. In 2008, over 80 percent supported President Obama, and four years later, they remain amongst his most ardent backers. Last month, the National Asian American Survey found that the president’s job approval rating among Indian Americans was 82 percent – more than 30 percentage points higher than the national average.

While Indian Americans are solidly within the Obama camp, the challenge now lies in making sure their voice is heard. Only 63 percent of eligible Indian Americans voted in the 2008 presidential election. This matters. With a highly polarized electorate, 2012 is shaping up to be a “base election” in which voter turnout will be critical. One in six Asian Americans lives in a battleground state, and Indian Americans are disproportionately represented in these contested geographies. Moreover, their widespread distribution – roughly 31 percent live in the Northeast, 29 percent in the South, 17 percent in the Midwest, and 24 percent in the West – means that they can move the needle in places where it counts.

In one sense, at least, Indian Americans are not exceptional: their historically weak turnout reflects a broader problem that President Obama faces. Many of the president’s staunchest supporters, including African Americans, Latinos, and youth voters, are much less likely to show up at the ballot box than members of those constituencies in which Romney has a sizable lead.

This is a worrying fact, and one that demands action. Indian Americans are among Obama’s most committed backers, but words are not  enough. In 2008, less than two-thirds of the community’s eligible voters showed up at the ballot box. This time around, no one can afford to stay on the sidelines. Each of us must head to the polls not only because we believe in a better future – the very reason our families came to this country – but because we are committed to shaping it ourselves. Doing so will strengthen the community’s political voice. But more importantly, it could help decide an election where the stakes are high, margins are razor-thin, and every vote counts. So tell your aunties and uncles to get registered, postmark those absentee ballots, and show up on November 6th. It’s time to get out the Desi vote.

Manik Suri
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Manik Suri is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Advanced Study of India, a Truman Security Fellow, and a J.D. candidate at Harvard Law School. He has previously held positions at global investment firm D. E. Shaw & Company and the White House National Economic Council. His writing is available at www.maniksuri.com.

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