Indian American Republican Presidential candidate Nikki Haley was the lone woman on the stage during last week’s Republican debate. The New York Times dubbed her “the shining star of the evening.”
The former South Carolina governor — who also served as the US Ambassador to the United Nations for two years during the Trump Administration — offered a composed, well-informed, authoritative presence Aug. 24. Many news sites declared her the winner of the first Republican debate.
Her Indian American rival, Vivek Ramaswamy, was also a strong presence, garnering the most speaking time as he brashly squared off against his seven opponents. The 38-year-old biotech entrepreneur was the tacitly-chosen punching bag for his seven debate stage rivals. He appears third in most polling, closely behind Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and former President Donald Trump, who leads the race by a wide margin.
But despite the strong showings by Haley and Ramaswamy, Indian American Republicans will eschew identity politics and vote for Trump, predicted several political pundits.
Through much of the 1980s and early 1990s, Indian Americans — at that time, newer immigrants trying to get a foothold in their chosen land — mostly voted Republican, believing the party championed their values of strong family structure, good work ethic, and support for small businesses. But in recent years, voting patterns for the community have shifted. According to AAPI Data, 48% of Indian Americans are registered Democrats, 22% are Republicans, and 30% identify as neither. About 15% of Indian Americans voted for Trump in 2016; AAPI Data had no numbers for 2020.
Who Has the Donor Dollars?
According to an EMS analysis of 2023 FEC reports, Haley emerged as the winner among Indian American donors. 28 desis gave Haley the maximum individual donor amount of $6600, either directly to her campaign or to her PAC ‘Team Stand for America.’ As of Q2 FEC reports, which were due at the end of July, Haley has raised almost $10.5 million, putting her in 7th place for fundraising among all candidates.
Ramaswamy has raised $19 million overall, including a $15 million loan he made to his campaign. His ‘American Exceptionalism Super PAC’ has raised $505,130 to date. He has collected roughly $3.5 million from individual contributors, but did not collect the maximum amount of $6600 from any Indian American donor. Pavan Kumar Cheruvu, CEO of Bitterroot Bio in San Jose, California, donated $25,000 through Ramaswamy’s PAC.
As of Q2 FEC reports, Trump had not gained much financial footing from the Indian American community. However, money is being raised through three PACS with no FEC reporting requirements: the Republican Hindu Coalition, Americans4Hindus, and Indian Americans for Trump. The former president has raised almost $36 million, while President Joe Biden has raised more than $31 million.
Indian American Men
Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder and co-director of AAPI Data, told EMS that Ramaswamy and Haley both came out clearly ahead on the debate stage. “But it is unlikely to significantly impact voter preferences.”
“Ramaswamy is the disruptor with big radical ideas. Haley represents experience, competence, and calm in the face of chaos. But that’s not where Republicans are now,” he said.
“If inflation remains stubbornly high, and crime continues to rise, it’s going to be tough for President Biden.”
Ramakrishnan noted that Trump has gained some traction with Indian American men, but marginally. He does not see Indian American Democrats changing parties to vote for Haley or Ramaswamy. But Independents represent a large block of undecideds who can be won over by any of the candidates, he said.
The Modi Factor
Trump has made his mark with the Indian American community, Shalabh ‘Shalli’ Kumar,’ founder of the Republican Hindu Coalition, told Ethnic Media Services. In 2016, Kumar — the founder of AVG Electronics, who also serves as the national chair of the Hindu and Indian coalition in the Republican National Committee — and his wife donated just shy of $1 million to Trump’s first bid for office. His son Vikram donated $163,000, according to his Federal Election Commission report.
In 2020, the RHC raised over $4 million to support Trump’s re-election bid.
The politics of the home country definitely play a role in Indian American enthusiasm for Trump, said Kumar. In 2019, the sitting president appeared onstage in Houston, Texas with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at an event billed: “Howdy Modi.”
Modi extolled Trump’s virtues in an almost 6-minute speech onstage, and stressed the friendship between the two countries. He ended his speech with the phrase: “Abki Baar, Trump Sarkar,” which loosely translates to: This time, Trump’s government.”
Last October, Trump hosted a Diwali party at his Mar-a-Lago home, inviting several prominent Indian American supporters.
“Hindu power is everywhere. Our competency is generally very high,” proclaimed Kumar, noting the rise of UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
Political pundits have hazarded that Trump’s popularity among Indian Americans is because of anti-Muslim rants. Kumar dismissed such notions, noting that the US-India relationship grew exponentially during Trump’s time in office.
But in fact, the US in 2019 revoked India’s trade benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences program. India responded with heavy tariffs on several products from the US, setting off a trade war between the two countries.
Dr AD Amar, a professor of management at Seton Hall University and founder of Indian Americans for Trump, told EMS that Ramaswamy was a strong presence on the debate stage, but: “Trump is the top of the ticket for me.”
“Vivek stood his ground and said he would pardon Trump if necessary. He wants to impress Trump to serve as his running mate,” said Amar. He contended that Haley also did well, but floundered on the critical issue of abortion bans.
Both Amar and Kumar contended that Trump would prevail and beat Biden despite 91 indictments and four criminal cases against him. Kumar characterized President Joe Biden as a “corrupt politician,” with a corrupt son.
Biden Apathy Justified?
“I really hope Trump is the Republican nominee. There is absolutely no way he can win,” Rajiv Bhateja, co-founder of They See Blue — told EMS. “Biden apathy is justified, but he governs really well,” he said, noting that the President managed to pass the Inflation Reduction Act, holds a strong position on Ukraine, and has created thousands of good-paying jobs.
“He doesn’t have a lot of charisma, but all that the GOP has on him is Hunter Biden,” said Bhateja referring to the case against Biden’s son who failed to pay taxes, bought a handgun while in treatment for alcoholism, and allegedly used his father’s tenure as vice president to leverage clients for his business dealings.
“The Trump administration was a really bad dream. I don’t really want to relive that,” said Bhateja.