Who do Sikh Americans vote for, and why?

SikhVOTE is a voter turnout initiative of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (source: SALDEF)

SikhVOTE is a voter turnout initiative of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (source: SALDEF)

The recent higher profile civic engagement of the Sikh American community has been notable in this election cycle. Ishwar Singh, of Orlando, Florida, was invited by the Republican Party to provide an invocation during the Republican National Convention and we also saw a sizable and very visible contingent of Sikhs attending as delegates at the Democratic National Convention.

By apparent attendance at the national conventions, it appeared that Sikhs were more supportive of the Democratic Party rather than the Republicans.  On a personal level, Democratic National Convention attendee Jusleen Kaur (who recently contributed to this blog) connected her support of the Democratic Party with her religious values:

This election, as a Sikh who believes in “sarbat da palla” — the well being of others and the progression of society — I too am a Democrat.  I believe that the Democratic Party, like myself, will fight tooth and nail for our neighbors just as much if not harder than we will for ourselves.

Sikh delegate to the Democratic National Convention Harpreet Singh Sandhu also discussed his support of the Democratic Party based on the party’s focus on health care access, relating the impact of healthcare coverage upon his family members.

In light of this anecdotal evidence, one wonders whether Sikh Americans, as a voting bloc, actually tend to support the Democratic Party We find that several surveys completed recently in the United States affirm this preference by Sikh Americans as the case.

There are very few surveys specifically about the political leanings and voting preferences of Sikh Americans. One recent survey that mentioned Sikhs explicitly was the study by the Arab American Institute, previously discussed here, which demonstrated that voters who identify as Democratic-leaning have a more favorable view of Sikhs (and other religious minorities), while Republican-leaning respondents had a more unfavorable view of Sikhs. The nature of the relationship is uncertain and the association might be multi-directional: the more favorable view of Sikhs by Democratic voters may have resulted from more exposure to Sikhs already within the Democratic Party, and/or perhaps the favorable view of Sikhs by Democrats resulted in more Sikhs joining the Democratic Party.

While additional Sikh American voting preference data is rare, other recent surveys have reported on the voting preferences of Indian Americans and, by proxy, these studies can reveal what is important to the Sikh American voter who is more commonly of Indian origin. The data from these separate surveys yield the same conclusion: Indian Americans — and by extension, Sikh Americans — largely support the Democratic Party.

Indian Americans identify significantly with the Democratic Party. (source: Pew Forum)

Indian Americans identify significantly with the Democratic Party. (source: Pew Forum)

In their recent report, The Rise of Asian Americans, the Pew Forum reported that Indian Americans expressed leanings towards the Democratic Party by a significant (65%) margin, and particularly more so than any other Asian American subgroup.

In looking at the constituency of America’s political parties, another study by the Pew Forum, Religious Groups and Political Party Identification, also shows this leaning to be the case, and more typical of the appeal of the Democratic Party to non-Christian minorities. Of registered voters surveyed that expressed a leaning for each political party, the Democratic Party has a larger constituency of those not White, Black or Hispanic and affiliated with non-Christian religious groups (18%) compared to the Republican Party (13%).

Moreover, the The National Asian American Survey (NAAS) reaffirms the above, and also reports that Indian Americans show a high rate of approval of the current President’s performance:

Asian Americans have a significantly higher approval of the job performance of President Barack Obama than the national average… 59% of Asian
American adults approve of the way the President is handling his job as President, nearly 10 points higher than the current national average. Approval of the President’s job is particularly high among Indian Americans (82%), and is conspicuously low among Filipinos (45%) and Samoans (41%).

Further, Indian American respondents in the NAAS survey also expressed continued support of President Obama despite the prominence of several other Indian American Republicans:

Indian Americans are by far the strongest supporters of Barack Obama, giving him an edge of 68% to 5%, with 25% undecided and the rest voting for another candidate. Thus, while Governors Bobby Jindal (R-LA) and Nikki Haley (R-SC) are among the strongest critics of Barack Obama, they seem to be in a relatively small minority of Indian Americans who support Mitt Romney.

What draws Sikh Americans to the Democratic Party?

While the Sikh Canadian voter may look to issues very specific to the community (immigration, and issues related to the Sikh community in India), the Sikh American voter may largely consider issues that are more general when making their voting choices.

The anecdotal evidence  by Jusleen Kaur and Harpreet Singh Sandhu discussed above suggests that there is a greater alignment of values between Sikh Americans and the Democratic Party rather than the Republicans. A recent article by the BBC suggests that on one hand, the value proposition offered by the Republicans may be too heavily weighted towards the white Christian demographic, even as the Republicans are home to very high profile Indian American politicians:

The Republican Party fielded two Indian-American governors – Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Nikki Haley of South Carolina – at the convention.

…They converted to Christianity from Hinduism and Sikhism, a move that many in the older generation frowned upon. Whether they did it for personal or political reasons is unclear.

The decision on conversion did not endear them to the community, which is largely Hindu, but only reinforced the feeling that the “family values” of the Republican Party are essentially Christian values.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party espouses the “kitchen-table” issues important to Indian Americans:

Most Indian-Americans are middle class and they see President Obama addressing some of the issues close to their hearts – reducing the burden of spiralling costs of college education, passing a health care act that moves the country towards making health care a right rather than a privilege, and trying to save social security.

They like the social safety nets here for their ageing parents who may have joined them for their retirement years.

“The Democrats have been addressing the kitchen table issues important to the community,” says Toby Chaudhuri.

This was certainly verified by Harpreet Sandhu’s discussion about the health care issue as being a reason for him to support the Democratic Party.

There is no doubt that education and family support are important issues to Indian Americans. According to the Pew Forum’s Rise of Asian Americans survey, Indian Americans are more highly educated compared to the Asian American and general American average:

Indian American educational attainment (source: Pew Forum)

Indian American educational attainment (source: Pew Forum)

And, Indian Americans are also more oriented to the traditional family structure:

Having a successful marriage and being a good parent are important to Indian Americans (source: Pew Forum)

Having a successful marriage and being a good parent are important to Indian Americans (source: Pew Forum)

On these values, there is also data that suggests there is an alignment between Indian Americans and the Democratic Party. The NAAS survey discussed above also looked at issues that Asian American voters stated were most important to them, and which candidate is closer to that view:

AAPI preference of candidate by issue (source: NAAS Survey)

AAPI preference of candidate by issue (source: NAAS Survey)

The survey found that a “very high proportion of likely voters who identify education and health care as key electoral issues also see Obama as falling much closer to their views than see an affinity with Romney.” Thus, on the kitchen-table issues of health care, education, immigration and jobs, Asian Americans have connected more with the Democratic President than the Republican challenger in this election. By extrapolation, we can see why it is that Sikh Americans are consistent with that trend.


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