There’s a string of Republicans with huge followings who look like they’re gunning for their party’s presidential bid in 2024 — from former President Donald Trump to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — but that doesn’t faze Nikki Haley, who said during a recent interview most of them are her friends. 

Still, she said, “let the best woman win.”

Haley announced her run for the presidency on Tuesday, something she’s been hinting about for months. “The Washington establishment has failed us over and over and over again. It’s time for a new generation of leadership to rediscover fiscal responsibility, secure our border and strengthen our country, our pride and our purpose,” she said in a video released on Twitter.

It’s easy to underestimate the former South Carolina governor. With her wide smile and charming demeanor, Haley may come across as a nice mother of two, but for a first-generation Punjabi girl from the deep South, she’s had to be “strong, bold, and not scared to speak her mind,” said Debjyoti Dwivedy, an Indian immigrant and chair of the Minnesota Young Republicans who’s been following Haley’s journey for nearly a decade and has now become an enthusiastic supporter.

Haley isn’t the only candidate of South Asian descent to step into the spotlight for the upcoming presidential election, the names of several South Asians have surfaced — including Vice President Kamala Harris and California Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna. And the growth of South Asian political power isn’t just on the candidate side — South Asian Americans are the fastest-growing voter bloc.

As this demographic grows in political power, candidates from both sides of the political aisle have taken notice as they try to figure out how to win over South Asian voters.

Although Americans born in India or with Indian heritage typically support the Democratic Party, it’s hard to shoehorn this voter group, which is getting increasingly sophisticated in assessing what it wants from Capitol Hill, especially when there are only a few South Asian candidates to choose from.

Through his involvement with the GOP, Dwivedy said he’s met Haley many times since they run in the same circles. He said he believes she “really cares about people.”

So, when news broke of a “special announcement,” connected to her 2024 campaign, planned for mid-February, Dwivedy was sure to be in attendance, as he later confirmed to me. “Feb 15, 2023 — Charleston, S.C. can’t come soon enough,” he wrote on Facebook. “Let’s Go and do it for American People.”

Data from Pew Research Center shows that Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group and are predicted to be the largest immigrant population by 2055. The population of Indian Americans, specifically, has grown by 150% in the last two decades, said Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Select swing states — Michigan, North Carolina and Georgia — are home to tight-knit South Asian Americans with populations “larger than the margin of victory that separated Clinton and Trump in 2016, and Biden and Trump in 2020,” said Vaishnav. 

This diaspora also follows its own path to the American dream. 

“The first generation, largely born outside of the U.S., is focused on building a career, gaining citizenship and settling down the family, and the second generation then has the freedom to get more politically involved,” explained Vaishnav. “This transition is playing out as we speak.” 

Parveen Chopra, a veteran journalist, immigrated from India in 2008 when he was in his late 50s and began working for the South Asia Times, a New York-based publication geared towards the diaspora, as an editor. Every week, the accomplishments of Indian Americans in Silicon Valley and elsewhere took up four to five pages, he said. 

Studies show that Asian Americans are more inclined to vote for other Asian Americans, particularly when somebody from their own ethnic group is on the ballot, he pointed out. The 2024 race sets up an interesting dynamic with Vice President Harris possibly in the mix.

Vice President Kamala Harris arrives at the Senate to break any tie votes as the Senate prepares to hold a procedural vote on infrastructure, at the Capitol in Washington, July 21, 2021.
Vice President Kamala Harris arrives at the Senate to break any tie votes as the Senate prepares to hold a procedural vote on infrastructure, at the Capitol in Washington, July 21, 2021. | J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

Harris made history in a few ways when she was sworn into office in January 2021 — not only is she the first woman to hold the vice presidential office, but the first Indian Jamaican as well. 

“She had a very good image — till she became vice president,” said Chopra, who is based in Hicksville, the “Little India” of Long Island, New York. “Getting bad press, not accomplishing anything, whether she’s a Democrat or not, her popularity is down.” 

The South Asian community’s hurrahs for Harris quickly turned to scorn.  

As the president of an evenly divided U.S. Senate, she often had to cast tie-breaking votes, tying her to politics at the Capitol. Harris broke the record for the number of deciding votes cast by a vice president in the first year, with 26 votes to put the Democrats ahead.

With that and other baggage — including a tough assignment at the border, and rumors about unhappy staff — the latest polls back up Chopra: Nearly 53% of registered voters consider Harris unfavorable. But still, Democrats seem to be coalescing around the Biden-Harris ticket for 2024. 

“That’s why 2024 sets up an interesting potential contest if you see someone like Nikki Haley contest the Republican nomination for the presidency, right?” said Vaishnav. “Because I think that adds a new wrinkle to what seems like a very predictable voting pattern.”

And Dwivedy is an example of that unpredictability.

I found the Minnesota resident on the “Nikki Haley for President 2024” Facebook group that has over 3,900 members. Even before immigrating from India 13 years ago, Dwivedy had heard of Haley from her time serving as a state representative for South Carolina and gearing up for a gubernatorial run. 

Nimrata “Nikki” Randhawa Haley has at times leaned into her upbringing in a Sikh household, positioning herself as the “brown girl growing up in a small rural southern town,” as she said during an appearance at the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas, Nevada, back in 2020. 

“We faced discrimination and hardship. But my parents never gave in to grievance and hate,” Haley said. “My mom built a successful business. My dad taught for 30 years at a historically black college. And the people of South Carolina chose me as their first minority and first female governor.”

Haley rose in popularity during her governorship, serving two terms, but she took the global stage after Trump asked her to serve as the United States ambassador to the United Nations. She garnered a 63% approval rating for her performance at the time. 

In this Sept. 24, 2018, photo, President Donald Trump talks to Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, at the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters. | Evan Vucci, Associated Press

Although Trump and Haley’s “friendship” has had its ups and downs, when the “Howdy Modi” summit took place in 2019, she offered plenty of praise. The summit featured a rally with Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Houston, Texas, attracting a crowd of over 50,000. “The US and India have a great partnership and it has only strengthened with the friendship of @realDonaldTrump and @narendramodi,” she said in a tweet.

Chopra said that when Trump joined hands with Modi, who is seen as a right-wing Hindu leader, it made Trump appear “pro-Hindu,” which appealed to some Indian American voters. Chopra stated these same voters might struggle with Haley’s conversion to Christianity after her marriage in 2015. But when I asked Dwivedy about it, he instantly came to Haley’s defense: “At the end of the day, it’s between her and God.”

“Her father still wears a turban and her mom still wears a sari. I don’t know how closely you follow her, she still wears that Punjabi kirpan (a single-edged dagger),” he said. “She’s a gem of a human, a fabulous person.”  

As Haley appears set to announce her run, she’s the fourth most popular candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, but only claimed the support of 3% of respondents, a recent Morning Consult poll found. The poll showed Trump in the lead with the support of 49% of respondents, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis right behind him with 31%, and former Vice President Mike Pence with 7%.

Haley’s resume is similar to that of fellow Republican Bobby Jindal, who was the first U.S. governor of Indian descent and unsuccessfully ran for president in 2016. 

Jindal tried leading with a message of “sensibility.” “We must stop being the stupid party,” he said to the Republican National Committee while still in office in 2013.

“We must stop insulting the intelligence of voters. We need to trust the smarts of the American people. We have to stop dumbing down our ideas and stop reducing everything to mindless slogans and taglines for 30-second ads,” he said.

The message seemed natural coming from the Ivy League grad who managed to become the youngest president of the University of Louisiana system before winning the governorship.

Republican presidential candidate, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal speaks at the Iowa State Fair Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Republican presidential candidate, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal speaks at the Iowa State Fair Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. | Paul Sancya, Associated Press

His tune changed a few years later. Trump, who he previously called a “non-serious carnival act,” was now a man of “substance,” as he wrote in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece. “His most loyal supporters back him because of, not despite, his brash behavior,” he wrote.

Jindal was called upon to head the health care wing of the America First Policy Institute, a think tank founded by the Trump administration in 2021, and he has not indicated an interest in running for president again.

With that said, Republican South Asian candidates and voters can seem scarce, especially among new immigrants. A survey after the 2022 elections showed Asian Americans, and Indian Americans specifically, were most likely to vote for a Democratic candidate. 

Consider Chopra, who said he “never bothered to vote” in his home country. He landed in the U.S. when the Obama campaign was in full swing. His family quickly became fans. 

Dwivedy, now a staunch conservative, was swayed by Obama, too. He thinks it’s because the Democratic Party is touted as the party of immigrants, but said he believes that may be an error of miscommunication. 

“Most Republicans believe in a legal immigration system that helps America to grow and succeed in the 21st century,” he said, adding, “But I think our immigration policies are very outdated. Other countries like Australia and Canada are outpacing us and getting all the trained American graduates.”

“That is not keeping America competitive.” 

Indian American voter Amit Misra also told me that better policies related to visa rules and green card wait times make a difference for voters like him.

“A lot of friends and colleagues struggle with this. So, there’s a visa status and then applying for green cards. Apparently, if you’re from India, the wait time is 100 years, or something just as insane,” said Misra, who is a Seattle-based Democrat. 

Misra said he also supports policies that he believes will reduce social inequality, like funding for public education and health care. “Things that are trying to give more to the people who are typically more disadvantaged in the country,” he said.

A rising candidate who has caught the attention of both parties is California Rep. Ro Khanna , who identifies as a progressive capitalist, and recently stepped in to co-chair the caucus on India and Indian Americans with Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla.

Ready to champion the unique needs of the Indian diaspora, Khanna is also a part of the so-called “Samosa Caucus” alongside other Indian American Reps. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., Ami Bera, D-Calif., Raja Krisnamoorthi, D-Ill., and Shri Thanedar, D-Wash., the group’s newest addition.

Khanna has made a name for himself beyond his Indian identity: A Democrat who seems as comfortable in liberal circles as he is on Fox News, standing up to Biden or Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

When Twitter disclosed that they did suppress the New York Post story on Hunter Biden’s laptop, the Yale grad spoke out. “It is wrong to censor newspapers, it is wrong to censor journalists,” Khanna said in an appearance on Fox New’s “Sunday Morning Futures,” becoming one of the few on the left to raise the issue.

The social media company, under new CEO Elon Musk, provided an email the 45-year-old congressman sent to Twitter in 2020 over concerns about the controversial article, where he questioned its suppression.

Khanna isn’t willing to talk about a 2024 run just yet, even though reports indicate he’s retained consultants in New Hampshire, Nevada and Iowa while working to differentiate himself from fellow Democrats.

“I’m going to be supporting Joe Biden. If he didn’t run, I’d support Bernie Sanders,” he said in an interview with DemocracyNow. He was more open to discussing a 2024 U.S. Senate run in California and promised to make a decision by mid-April.

Democratic strategist Mark Longabaugh, whose firm did media consulting for Khanna last year, told Politico that the representative would make “a great United States senator.”

“But I also think, should Biden decide not to run, I think he’s a very plausible candidate for president of the United States. So, I think that those decisions are yet to be made,” he said.

When Khanna tells his story, his roots in India feature prominently. His grandfather, Amarnath Vidyalankar, was a freedom fighter who protested nonviolently alongside Mahatma Gandhi and Lala Lajpat Rai — methods that Dr. Martian Luther King later adopted during the civil rights movement.

“My grandfather’s story inspires me to go into public service,” he wrote in a post alongside a photo of them together.

Khanna received criticism over joining the Pakistan caucus in 2019, to which he responded: “Being part of both caucuses allows me to be more effective in promoting U.S. interests in the region and strengthening the U.S.-India relationship.”

Shortly after, he caught flak for rejecting “Hindutva,” or “Hindu-ness,” a nationalist vision for India that excludes Christians and Muslims, on Twitter. Over 230 Hindu and Indian American organizations, professional associations, and leaders signed a letter expressing their concerns, citing tensions between India and Pakistan.

Although Khanna is a Hindu, his transnational identity played a role in ostracizing some members of his own community. But, as the Californian congressman told Politico, he believes there is a silent majority of South Asians that accept pluralism.

With that said, neither Democrats nor Republicans have managed to reach over half of Asian American voters in the past few election cycles, a survey shows, giving candidates like Haley, Harris and Khanna an undeniable advantage.

Fixing this gap isn’t hard, said Dwivedy, listing out tips. Changing the rhetoric about immigrants and the border crisis by distinguishing between legal and undocumented immigrants is a start, he said, adding that getting involved in the diaspora’s day-to-day also goes a long way. Attending celebrations thrown by this immigrant group offers reciprocity for all the times they’ve celebrated American holidays like Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“I would love to see people at my Diwali event or at my Durga puja,” he said. “I think it’s helpful. It builds a connection. And in politics, a relationship is everything.”