Asian Americans voted for Biden 63% to 31%, but the reality is more complex

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Asian American voters heavily favored Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden over President Donald Trump, early exit polls indicate.

The NBC News Exit Poll of early and Election Day voters indicated that 63 percent of Asian American voters across the country voted for Biden. A minority of the group voted for Trump, at 31 percent. Janelle Wong, senior researcher at the data and policy nonprofit AAPI Data, said the results track with the behavior she has observed during the election cycle.

"Asian Americans have been distinct from the general U.S. public when it comes to progressive views on health care, the environment, gun control and a social safety net provided by the government," Wong said. "These issue positions have propelled Asian Americans toward the Democratic presidential candidate for the past seven election cycles."

In the NBC News Exit Poll, an estimated 440 Asian American voters were surveyed across 24 key states, as well as nationally, in options of English and Spanish. The breakdown is consistent with the margins among the group in previous years. Data from the 2016 election cycle indicate that in 2016, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton got 65 percent of Asian American votes, while Trump got 27 percent.

Biden has had strong support from Asian Americans throughout the election cycle, Wong said. Surveys in California — the state with the highest Asian American and Pacific Islander population — indicate that 45 percent of Asian Americans found Biden most favorable in the primaries, even with candidates of Asian descent — including Biden's running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, and Andrew Yang — contending early on in the race. Wong said that during this particular cycle, Biden invested more resources in targeted ads to Asian Americans than Democrats have in the past.

In October, the Biden campaign launched a get-out-the-vote effort targeting the electorate through local ethnic media in 16 key states, as well as nationally. In addition to a television spot titled "Stand Together," which prominently featured Harris, who is of Indian descent, the campaign released digital, radio and print ads.

"Paid media is big and shows real commitment," Wong said.

While Biden performed well among Asian Americans, the data suggest that Trump didn't lose support with the group, either. Paul Ong, a research professor at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, said he expected more movement away from Trump because of his use of xenophobic and discriminatory language to describe the pandemic, such as "kung flu" and "China virus."

Ong said that during the pandemic, anti-Asian sentiment across the country has contributed to both hate incidents as well as an unprecedented increase in Asian American unemployment and business closings.

A UCLA report revealed that 83 percent of the Asian American labor force with high school degrees or lower has filed unemployment insurance claims in California, compared to 37 percent of the rest of the state's labor force with the same level of education. In New York City, Asian Americans were found to have the highest surge in unemployment during the pandemic, according to a report released by the social services nonprofit Asian American Federation.

"What is surprising is that I would have expected a noticeable decline in the percentages given Trump's xenophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric," he said.

Ong added that overall, the narrow election indicates that "changes have only happened marginally, and not a massive shift."

"Worse, the racialized political divide has hardened, and we face a difficult next four years," he said.

Many campaigns down ballot, however, didn't sufficiently reach out to Asian Americans, Wong said. Even Biden, who did make an effort to reach out to Asian Americans, focused most spending on the group only in the last six weeks of the election cycle, she said.

"This is typical and has been the case our whole lives. No one pays attention to Asian Americans until the weeks before an election," Wong said. "Consistent, long-term investment could make a difference, but it's just not the way that campaigns operate. They focus on the next election, not long-term base building."

When looking at the gender breakdown, the NBC News Exit Poll found that 66 percent of Asian American men voted for Biden and 25 percent voted for Trump. Asian American women, on the other hand, broke for Biden by a smaller margin, 60 percent to 39 percent.

Wong said higher support among Asian American women for Trump wasn't observed in any previous surveys. That includes the 2020 Asian American Voter Survey, which examined almost 1,570 voters, targeting the six largest national origin groups, and was conducted in English and four Asian languages — which concluded the opposite.

Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder of AAPI Data, said there were a number of limitations to the NBC News Exit Poll, which may have produced an irregular result. Because it was conducted in English and Spanish, participants are likely to have skewed more U.S. born. Pew Research Center research on electorate shows that the majority are foreign-born naturalized citizens.

Survey participants of Asian descent were given the option of identifying only as "Asian" rather than by their specific ethnicities, and therefore the findings weren't weighted by detailed origin, potentially contributing to skewed results, Ramakrishnan added.

Ethnicities within Asian America have varying voting behaviors. For example, Vietnamese Americans historically lean more Republican, while Indian Americans tend to vote more for Democrats. So if the survey happened to include more Vietnamese American women and Indian American men, it would have produced an apparent gender difference that, in reality, is based on ethnicity, he said.

Ramakrishnan also noted that the survey was weighted to reflect the geographic spread of the overall electorate, rather than the spread of the Asian American community, potentially producing a geographic bias. Given those factors, he said, "it is not meant to be representative of the Asian American population."

That's not to say the poll doesn't have its utility. Wong said it's most useful for tracking changes over time, because its data collection on the group stretches to the 1992 election.

"I think we can learn some big picture long-term trends from looking at those exit polls over time," Wong said.