Why Indian-Americans are likely to be a shoo-in for the Democrats

Because of the Indian-American community's wealth and largely conservative values there is often an assumption that it leans towards the Republican Party. But, as Samanth Subramanian reports, that assumption is false.

Republican Hindu Coalition chairman and a member of Hindus for Trump Shalabh Kumar (second right) helps the presidential candidate light a ceremonial diya lamp at a Bollywood-themed charity concert on October 15, 2016. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
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When Ramki Muthukrishnan moved from India to the United States in 1998, he often encountered the assumption that Indian-Americans leaned towards the Republican party.

"In those years, the Republican Party mirrored values close to those of the Indian community: hard work, fiscal discipline and thrift, and an element of self-righteousness," Mr Muthukrishnan, a financial analyst living in New York City, told The National. And many Indians who had settled in the US even earlier were, in fact, long-time registered Republicans.

But as Mr Muthukrishnan prepares to vote in a presidential election for the first time, having become a citizen earlier this year, the Indian-American community is likely to be a shoo-in for the Democrats.

There are around 3.9 million Indian-Americans, and roughly 37 per cent of them have been resident in the US for 10 years or less. Only 2.1 million are citizens, and at first glance, they appear to be a natural constituency for the Republican Party.

Among all ethnic groups in the US, Indian-Americans are the wealthiest, making a median income of US$100,547 (369,303) in 2013, according to the US census bureau. In comparison, the median income of the American population as a whole stood at $51,939.

For such a community, the Republican Party’s promises of lower taxes on the wealthy and support for entrepreneurship can be appealing. Devesh Kapur, a political scientist who directs the Centre for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania, also noted that Indian-Americans tend to hold socially conservative family values, which the Republicans champion.

During this election, a section of Indian-Americans supporting the Republicans has been particularly loud and visible.

On social media, a group named Hindus for Trump has made waves with its striking imagery: the candidate seated in a lotus position, hands poised in meditation. One member, a Chicago-based businessman named Shalabh Kumar, pledged to donate $1.1 million to Mr Trump’s campaign.

But despite all this, Indian-Americans tend to lean conclusively towards the Democrats, Mr Kapur said.

In a new book The Other One Percent: Indians in America, Mr Kapur, one of the co-authors, lays out the statistics: When surveyed in 2008, more than 90 per cent of Indian-Americans voted for Barack Obama, a Democrat. Four years later, half of Indian-Americans identified as Democrat, 47 per cent as independent or non-partisan, and just 3 per cent as Republican.

Another poll carried out in 2012, this one by the Pew Research Centre, found that “nearly 65 per cent of Indian-Americans identify with or lean to the Democrats, while 18 per cent identify with or lean to the Republicans”.

By comparison, a Harvard study carried out in 1996 found that 13 per cent of Indian-Americans identified as Republican, 39 per cent as independent or undecided, and 42 per cent as Democrat.

The reasons are not difficult to work out, Mr Kapur said.

“Like all immigrants, they are worried about the nativist, anti-immigrant stance among many in the Republican Party,” he said. The rise and power of evangelical Christianity in the party also concerned them, he added.

Another census bureau study in 2010 found that 70 per cent of Indian-Americans aged 25 or older had college degrees, compared to 32 per cent of the overall population in the same age bracket.

“Their education makes them in general more liberal than the average Indian in India or the average American in America,” Mr Kapur said.

The community is too small and too scattered to be numerically influential, but their ability to fund or donate to campaigns has grown to moderate levels. According to data from the federal election commission, Indian-Americans contributed $11.1 million in the 2004 presidential campaign; by 2012, that number had nearly doubled to $20.6 million.

The Republican Party has also changed over the past two decades, Mr Muthukrishnan said. It has become increasingly Christian, and its views “on matters such as climate change and evolution ... have alienated the educated Indian community.”

Regardless of their long-standing loyalty to the Democrats, however, the party has failed Indian-Americans in some ways, said Hrishikesh Joshi, a research fellow in philosophy at Princeton University. One persistent niggle concerns immigration.

“The current waiting time for Indian-born applicants to receive a green card based on employment is about 10 years,” Mr Joshi said, pointing out that, apart from Chinese applicants, most other immigrants are able to receive their green cards much sooner.

“Republicans have tried to modify these laws to make them more equitable, but Democrats have refused to consider these attempts at reform,” he said.

On paper, Mr Trump seems to want to fix this problem, said Mr Joshi. “He favours a system which prioritises skilled immigration and ... doesn’t send people back once they have studied in the US,” he said. “This would be beneficial to Indian workers in particular, a large portion of whom have US degrees and work in the engineering and IT industries.”

But Mr Trump’s lack of policymaking experience and his sweeping generalisations about immigrants make Indian-American voters wary, Mr Joshi said.

Mr Kapur too said that, Hindus for Trump notwithstanding, he had no doubts about which way Indian-Americans will vote.

“I don’t think all Indian-Americans will vote Democrat, but they will vote Democrat with large majorities.”