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'GOP has driven Indian Americans Democratic'

Last updated on: October 02, 2012 17:28 IST

Karthick Ramakrishnan, co-author and director of the National Asian American Survey believes the Indian American community's massive shift to the Democratic Party -- which was manifest in the polling data that showed overwhelming support for President Barack Obama over Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney -- apparently began during the Clinton years and accelerated to the growing negative image in their eyes that the GOP was now hostage to the conservative Christian right wing of the party.

Ramakrishnan, who strongly defended his report's findings that Indian Americans in 2012 overwhelmingly support President Obama over Romney and that this support is the highest among Asian American voters, told -- when this correspondent noted that there was this perception that the older generation of Indian Americans, particularly physicians, entrepreneurs and small businesspeople, tended to be Republican as they were more in sync with the GOP's fiscal conservatism even if they were only moderately conservative, when it came to social issues -- that "looking at these patterns by age groups, we actually see that age does not seem to be that strong of a predicator."

"And, ultimately, you are talking about a community that is relatively prosperous. So, it's hard to do the math to come up with, are people voting Republican because most of the community is well off and yet they are overwhelmingly Democrat. So, what's going on here?" he said.

The Coimbatore-born, Bengaluru-raised Ramakrishnan, who immigrated to the United States at age 10 and is now also an associate professor at University of California, Riverside, said, "To me, it points out the need to do a survey like this, (because) the kind of people that get media attention usually are donors. So, donors might look very different from the population and donors get involved in politics and give money to people no matter what their affiliation might be."

Thus, he argued that "People who self-identify with one party might still make contributions to another party. There are many reasons why they make political contributions and try to get themselves in the news."

Ramakrishnan defending his reports findings, declared, "This evidence is pretty solid. First of all, I stand by our research in a very strong way and it is not partisan at all -- it is scientific."

"But you had many different data points that are showing in the survey. So, there is something there, and it's interesting why it is happening."

He attributed this to a couple of factors and explained, "One is, it is part of the general trend that you see in the last 20 years. Indian Americans have been like other Asian Americans, in which, even the doctor community might have been skeptical of the Democratic Party and were Republican supporters, but started changing their minds during the Clinton years and it has continued along that trajectory."

"But 9/11, did play a significant role -- you had people who themselves were affected in terms of racial profiling."

However, Ramakrishnan said, "Generally speaking, you had these party images that came into being -- and this is some of the research that I do, which is not just on Asian Americans but also immigration -- where over time, the Republican Party has gotten captured by a pretty conservative wing on immigration and so the image that gets out to the immigrant communities is a fairly conservative image on immigration."

"And, so, that hurts the party in trying to make outreach, especially for a group that is starting to feel its way into the political system," he said.

"If you are trying to decide if you are going to join a party, literally speaking, you want to see the best image possible of a party. And, when you see images of a party that seems exclusionary, that makes people reluctant to join."

Ramakrishnan observed that "what's interesting is that you have some very prominent elected officials -- Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley -- who are Republican, but in many ways, they are major exceptions to the norm. When you see the electorate, it's very different."

He reiterated that according to his survey, "The highest support for Democratic Party is among people 50-59 and 60-69. So, it's actually strongest among older Indian Americans."

Ramakrishnan acknowledged that his study in some ways may have been stereotype-busting, because even the current Republican Party with conservatives calling the shots probably were more in sync with Asian Americans with values such as fiscal conservatism, small business ownership, social and religious conservatism, etc. that have long been the pillars of even the establishment GOP.

But he reiterated his contention about party image as the driving force, particularly for Indian Americans and South Asian Americans toward the Democratic Party from the GOP.

"Especially for South Asians, you have populations that have high Hindu populations and Muslim populations, and when you have a party that explicitly casts itself as a Christian Party -- during the political primaries you had candidates that wore their religion on their sleeve in a very significant way -- it seems less hospitable."

Ramakrishnan said, "This is something that the Republican Party will have to come to terms with because they are also a diverse party and the US is becoming more diverse, not just racially but also in terms of religion. So, that will continue to be a challenge."

He also harked back to what he described as 'fascinating' that the "two prominent Republican Indian Americans (Jindal and Haley) converted to Christianity. So, it gives a little bit of a statement of what it might take to feel fully at home to win within the Republican Party. And, so, that is the challenge -- religious diversity is an important issues."

Also, responding to recent criticism of polls, particularly by the Romney campaign and the GOP in the wake of President Obama pulling ahead in battleground states that only land-lines may have been called and not cell-phones, which a significant number of the population now use instead of land-lines, Ramakrishnan said, "We did these interviews both in cell phones and land-lines. So, we don't have that issue now with this poll."

Taeku Lee, professor and chair of the political science department at the University of California, Berkeley, who was Ramakrishnan's co-author, acknowledged that while there may have been  some similar projects earlier, both in academic circles and think tanks like the Pew Research Center, "what sets this project apart and also in its initial conception in the 2008 National Asian American Survey, is an effort to really do a deep, deep dive into policy issues that are affecting the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities and link those issues to politics -- to the political engagements of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities."

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC