Following the 2016 election, Montgomery Township’s suburbs rustled with a newfound political fervor. Its slew of affluent families anticipated a change from the central Jersey town’s historically moderate-right leaning.
The election results posted on the Township website highlighted a bubbling partisan divide in Montgomery’s political fabric. Although Clinton won, Politico’s assessment of the county found that Clinton received 54.4% of the votes, too close to Trump’s 41.9%.
“We’re an affluent town where people are more concerned with paying low taxes than many other social issues,” says Sankar Subramaniam, a 53-year-old software salesman and registered independent.
The grapple between prioritizing taxes or more liberal ideals has specifically polarized the Indian American vote. 32% of Montgomery’s population is composed of Asian Americans, with roughly 15% Indian American, according to a 2017 U.S. Census Bureau survey. A significant portion of the population is Asian foreign-born and hold culturally conservative values.
“There’s a big split within the Indian community. Businessmen and older immigrants tend to be more Republican, while recent college-educated immigrants tend to have more liberal ideology,” says Subramaniam, who immigrated from India to the US in 2001.
Tax policies remain central to the local Indian community’s political perspective, as Montgomery residents make more than double New Jersey’s median income and 98.7% have a high school degree or higher. This perpetuates a highly affluent and educated community concerned with protecting their best interests.
Ananya Sampath, a former volunteer for representative Tom Malinowski’s campaign and a liberal Democrat, found that Township residents were highly money-conscious.
“Usually the first or second question was about [Malinowski’s] tax policy,” says Sampath of her time canvassing. “Most of the Indian Republicans were focused on fiscal policy and wanted to stick with a Republican candidate.”
The power of the South Asian vote is often overlooked, despite a growing presence in the political sphere. In 2019, Montgomery appointed Sadaf Jaffer as mayor, one of the nation’s first South Asian female mayors and the first elected Democrat on the Township Committee since 2010. The HuffPost deemed her part of a “new wave of politically active South Asian Americans in New Jersey.”
Additionally, the Montgomery GOP frequently visits the Montgomery Knights Cricket Club during campaign seasons as a means of identifying with Indian voters.
“I think there has been an awakening and a lot of it has to do with this transition from the immigrant mentality to the first- and second-generation mentality,” said Rajiv Parikh, general counsel for the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, to The New York Times.
The Pew Research Center found in 2014 that roughly 65% of Indian Americans were leaning Democratic.
But for the upcoming 2020 election, the Indian community faces a question of political allegiance based on nationality as opposed to ideology. The Trump campaign is appealing to newer Indian immigrants, many of whom still consider India their home, by creating a ‘bandwagon’ effect of ethnic solidarity rather than independent political thought.
On September 22, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump held a rally in Houston, receiving one of the largest receptions of a foreign leader in American history, according to BBC News. Approximately 50,000 attendees at the Howdy, Modi! event witnessed Trump praising the Indian leader, whose “Hinduism First” mentality parallels Trump’s own “America First” policies.
However, 47-year-old liberal Democrat Archana Sankar is quick to clarify that the event’s popularity was not representative of Montgomery’s Indian voter base.
“Being a Trump supporter and being a Republican are two different things,” she says. “You’ll find zero Trump supporters in Montgomery’s Indian American community, whether they’re Republican or Democratic.”
At the local level, polarization seeps beyond the Indian community. Local elections were plagued by ideological ignorance when in mid-October, Republican signs for township committee candidates were slashed and thrown on private property.
Somerset County Freeholder Mark Caliguire quickly pointed fingers in a statement to the Patch.
“I would ask the members of the Democratic Party who are doing this to ask themselves if this is what they want Montgomery to become,” he said.
Former mayor Christine Madrid furthered, “I have never seen our opponents interfere in the democratic process like this. We are your neighbors and we work hard to serve our community. We are better than this.”
Polarization has sunk its teeth into the nooks of every community, and it’s taken a bite out of Indian American voters. As their vote grows in importance, candidates would be smart in paying more attention to the Indian community, before Trump can swallow them whole.
Originally written for a Campaign 2020 class in September 2019.