SEATTLE – Sonny Vinuya hasn’t decided if he’ll vote again for Donald Trump in the battleground state of Nevada.
The Filipino American businessman in Las Vegas is personally offended by the president's use of a racist slur at recent re-election rallies, where he mocked China and the COVID-19 pandemic’s origins in Asia. But most important to Vinuya is the economy, which has also been sinking into a pandemic-triggered recession despite a robust stimulus package.
Though it’s tough for the registered Republican to swallow the racism against his own community, Vinuya said he doesn’t think Trump is trying to alienate Asian American voters when the president uses derogatory terms at campaign events or continues to call COVID-19 the “Chinese virus."
The Pew Research Center recently declared Asian Americans to be the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the U.S. electorate, but they are also arguably the least competitive voter block for Trump when considering where they live and how they relate to the Republican party.
In Nevada, where Vinuya lives, Asians make up more than 10% of voters in a state both Democrats and Republicans will fight for in the fall.
With his anti-Asian rhetoric, Trump is making the calculation that he has more to gain with his loyal base of older white voters thrilled by his inflammatory statements, than to lose among the Asian American community, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a public policy professor at the University of California, Riverside and founder of AAPI Data, which tracks Asian Americans.
That’s because Asian Americans largely vote in very blue districts and otherwise non-competitive states, Ramakrishnan said. A third of all such voters live in California alone.
“Part of the reason we don’t see very much outreach is because Asian Americans tend to live in non-competitive states in presidential elections," Ramakrishnan said.
Trump’s words have angered many Asian Americans and drawn condemnation from Trump’s Democratic rival Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama. Republicans have also denounced the racist slur, notably Kellyanne Conway, a White House counselor who is married to an Asian American, George Conway, whose mother was from the Philippines.
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany defended the president’s rhetoric, saying he’s not being racist but merely linking the virus to its place of origin. Trump in March also insisted that Asian Americans were “amazing people” and not at fault for spreading the virus.
The coronavirus, as of Thursday, has killed more than 132,000 people in the United States, and 550,000 people total worldwide.
Since the virus took hold of the U.S. in March, advocates have also reported a rise in anti-Asian aggression and violence from people blaming them for the pandemic. A group called Stop AAPI Hate on July 1 said that it has tracked 832 incidents of discrimination and harassment in California over the past 12 weeks.
Biden at a June 27 town hall for Asian American voters slammed Trump’s “dangerous theories” as xenophobic.
“Words matter and the president’s words matter even more,” Biden said.
The number of Asian Americans aligning themselves with the Democratic party has increased over the past 20 years while support for the GOP has trended down. A different Pew analysis in 2018 showed Democrats held a 2-to-1 advantage among Asian American registered voters. The 27% who identified as or leaned Republican represented a 6% drop since 1998.
For Trump, AAPI Data found nearly all major Asian American ethnic groups held an unfavorable view of the president. The only exception was the 62% of Vietnamese surveyed in 2018 who said they held a favorable impression of him. On the other end of the spectrum, just 14% of Japanese voters felt the same way.
In the top 10 states with the largest Asian American voting populations, Trump in 2016 won only Texas and Florida. But the ultimate swing state in this year’s election, Ramakrishnan said, is unlikely to be determined by the 3.6% of Florida voters who are Asian American given how large the state is.
That means in smaller states like Nevada, the deeper concentration of eligible Asian American voters -- the fourth highest behind Hawaii, California and Washington state -- could potentially move the needle. About 11% of Nevada’s voters are Asian.
Trump lost the Silver State in 2016 to rival Democrat Hillary Clinton by just 2.4 percentage points, though Nevada now leans more blue.
For Vinuya, who has been courted by the Trump campaign as the president of the Las Vegas Asian Chamber of Commerce, he knows he could be one of the few Asian American voters nationally who can make a difference for the president’s re-election prospects.
Vinuya said he’s expressed his concerns about the anti-Asian slur to Trump’s team, especially as he’s trying to help his 600-plus members overcome the virus-related stigma and discrimination evident against Asian American and Asian immigrant small business owners in Las Vegas.
“I gave them my two cents. That’s pretty much it,” Vinuya said. “I don’t want to waste my time on something I cannot control.”
Associated Press writer Lynn Berry contributed from Washington.
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