Gaza Isn’t Root of Biden’s Struggles With Young Voters, Polls Show

Young Americans’ outrage over the Israel-Hamas war has dominated the political conversation for weeks. Democratic and Republican lawmakers have made pilgrimages to Columbia University and other campuses to offer support to demonstrations in solidarity with the Gaza Strip or to denounce them, and President Joe Biden addressed the upheavals in remarks Thursday.

But these headlines are not reflective of young voters’ top concerns this election year, according to recent polls. Surveys taken in recent months show young voters are more likely to sympathize with Palestinians in the conflict, but few of them rank the Israel-Hamas war among their top issues in the 2024 election. Like other voters, young people often put economic concerns at the top of the list.

And while young voters are cooler to Biden than they were at the same point in 2020, there is little evidence that American support for the Israeli invasion of Gaza is a critical factor in their relative discontent.

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“When you have two presidents that have the same stance on one issue, that automatically puts that issue — I hate to say lower down the list, because it’s obviously an important issue, but it doesn’t make it an issue where I’m going to choose Donald Trump over Joe Biden,” said Devon Schwartz, a student at the University of Texas at Austin.

A student of both Muslim and Jewish descent who is active in a campus group promoting interfaith dialogue, Schwartz, 19, thought the protests at his college, which have drawn police crackdowns, were “a historic moment.” And he said he would have liked the opportunity to vote for a candidate who is “more progressive on Israel” than Biden in November. But he plans to vote for him anyway.

“I want to see policy changes from Joe Biden,” he said. “I don’t want to vote for Donald Trump and then just see the same exact policies.”

American sympathies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have shifted modestly toward Palestinians over the past decade. Although 51% of Americans remain more sympathetic toward Israelis, 27% now sympathize more with the Palestinian people, up from 12% in 2013, according to Gallup.

The shift is substantially generational, most likely reflecting not only changes in the conflict itself, and a rightward turn in Israeli politics, but also a decade in which pro-Palestinian activists have worked to connect the cause to domestic movements in the United States such as Black Lives Matter and campaigns to divest from Israel have gained ground on college campuses.

The latest polling from the Pew Research Center finds 18- to 29-year-olds three times more likely to sympathize with Palestinians in the conflict than those older than 65, and twice as likely as adults as a whole.

“Not necessarily everyone is as fired up about it as we see from those out protesting,” said Laura Silver, the associate director of global research for Pew. “But 18- to 29-year-olds are far and away different from older Americans.”

Recent polls suggest these sympathies have yet to translate into prioritizing the war as a voting issue in 2024.

In the Harvard Institute of Politics’ Youth Poll conducted shortly before the past month’s wave of campus demonstrations and crackdowns, 18- to 29-year-old Americans overwhelmingly faulted Biden for his handling of the conflict in Gaza, with 76% disapproving and 18% approving. But only 2% of them rated it their top concern in the election, compared with 27% who said they were most concerned about economic issues.

In an Economist/YouGov poll taken more recently, in late April, 22% of voters ages 18 to 29 listed inflation as their most important issue. Two percent named foreign policy as their top concern. (The poll did not specifically ask about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.)

“My friends and I, we all are very concerned about the war in the Middle East, and we disagree with the Biden administration’s agenda there,” said Coral Lin, 20, a student at Duke University. She said she had one friend who had voted “uncommitted” in a Democratic primary in protest over the issue.

“But I still know a lot of people who hold that view and still are voting for Biden,” she said, noting that her own concerns about the climate and her belief that Trump poses a threat to democracy have led her to continue to support Biden.

Clara Getty, 21, a student at the University of Virginia and a Biden supporter, said she saw parallels with Lyndon Johnson’s woes in the 1968 Democratic primary while facing outrage over the Vietnam War — and a cautionary tale. “He made so much progress on domestic issues that I think could’ve greatly benefited from a second term,” she said. “And I think so much is similar for Biden.”

Others argued, however, that even if the Gaza conflict didn’t lead to a mass exodus of young voters to Trump, it could pose problems for Biden if young people don’t vote.

“You hear from a lot of people who are just increasingly apathetic about voting for Joe Biden,” said Cameron Driggers, a 19-year-old University of Florida student and member of the youth council of the state Democratic Party.

An Israel divestment campaign organizer on his campus, Driggers noted that Biden would need not just votes but youth organizers to win in 2024, including many who had become active in the protest politics around Gaza.

“He continues to basically spit in the face of youth organizers around the country,” he said. “He’s especially enraging the people who turn out votes.”

In a statement, Mia Ehrenberg, a Biden campaign spokesperson, pointed to the campaign’s investments in its own campus organizers and youth groups, and its intention to “continue to show up and communicate with young voters on the issues they care about,” including climate change, gun laws and student loans.

The Biden administration has recently announced more changes to student loan repayments and Biden directed his administration to consider reclassifying marijuana as a less serious drug. His campaign promoted his stance on the social media platform X at exactly 4:20 p.m. on April 20.

Driggers said he had broadly supported Biden before the Gaza invasion, citing his steps liberalizing marijuana policies, support for labor rights, and withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. But his support had been tested by Gaza.

“I do recognize that Trump is almost certainly going to be worse than Biden on all of these issues,” he said. “But at a certain point, you know, there has to be a line” for Biden. “And I believe he’s close to crossing that.”

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