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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

May 2: Gaza and the 2024 Presidential Election

Having seen a lot of material of questionable utility on a key 2024 issue, I decided to explore it at New York:

The Israel-Hamas war has become an abiding presence in U.S. political discourse in the past six months. President Joe Biden has been lambasted by both a small but visible minority of Democrats who oppose his support for Israel as it wages war in Gaza, and Republicans who say he hasn’t done enough to back Israel and curb pro-Palestinian campus protests. But for all the noise and heat in the air on this subject, it’s still unclear whether the conflict in the Middle East will be a significant factor in the November presidential election.

Polling on Americans’ attitudes toward the conflict and its domestic fallout has been erratic and difficult to compare, as various pollsters have taken very different angles on the subject. But the “salience” of the issue as something that might push a significant number of voters this way or that is dubious at best.

There’s no question that U.S. public opinion has slowly evolved from strongly pro-Israel immediately after the October 7 attacks on Israel by Hamas to a mixed assessment leaning toward hostility to Israel’s conduct of the war ever since. Already by November, Gallup found significant deterioration in Americans’ support for Israel’s war in Gaza, with 50 percent approving and 45 percent disapproving of Israeli military operations. By March of this year, the approval-disapproval ratio had dropped to 36 percent approval to 55 percent disapproval. Meanwhile, the reflexive sympathy Americans have traditionally felt for Israel when it’s embattled has eroded as well; as of February, Pew had found that a solid 57 percent of Americans sympathize “at least somewhat with both the Israeli people and the Palestinian people or equally with both of them.”

Nearly every survey on the subject has identified a significant generational divide on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, with those under the age of 30 sympathizing more with Palestinians and less with Israelis; opposing Israel’s military operations in Gaza by strong margins; and also opposing unconditional U.S. military aid to Israel. A Pew survey earlier this month showed that “six-in-ten adults under age 30 have a positive view of the Palestinian people, compared with 46% who see the Israeli people positively.” Meanwhile, “only 16% of adults under 30 favor the U.S. providing military aid to Israel to help in its war against Hamas, compared with 56% of those 65 and older.”

Young voters’ unhappiness with Israel and Biden’s policies on the Gaza conflict, compounded by less-well-documented but apparent pro-Palestinian tendencies among nonwhite voters, have created more and more of a partisan gap on Middle Eastern policy. The aforementioned March Gallup survey found that 64 percent of Republicans still approved of Israel’s military operations in Gaza, while 75 percent of Democrats disapproved. So long as Biden was identified as America’s most prominent supporter of Israel in the conflict, this disconnect with his own party’s base was potentially a source of intra-Democratic friction and a negative influence on Democratic enthusiasm for Biden’s reelection. The problem looked likely to go well beyond the relatively small number of “uncommitted” voters in Democratic presidential primaries this year who were explicitly seeking to condemn or reverse the president’s position on what was happening in Gaza.

Most recently, however, Republican politicians may have given Biden a hand — or at least reduced the possibility that pro-Palestinian voters would give them a second look out of anger at the president — with increasingly more vocal support for Israel, particularly after recent exchanges of fire between Israel and Iran. Republicans have been even more vocal about adopting what might be called an “anti-anti-Israel” stance: calling for repressive and punitive actions toward pro-Palestinian protesters. It’s also relevant that the most visible “third option” for voters unhappy with the two major parties, independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., has been staunchly pro-Israel throughout the course of the Gaza war.

But is the Israel-Hamas war a voting issue — or a reason not to vote at all — for enough people to greatly affect the outcome of the November election? The available data on issue saliency doesn’t provide much evidence that it’s top of mind for that many voters.

March 29 Gallup survey asked respondents to identify “the most important issue facing the country today.” “War in the Middle East” tied for 13th with just 2 percent. More often, pollsters don’t bother to break out the Israel-Palestine conflict as a singular concern, instead lumping it together with other foreign-policy concerns or national-security threats. But foreign policy in general isn’t looking terribly salient. A mid-April Economist-YouGov poll showed just one percent of Americans considered any or all foreign-policy issues as “the most important for you.” A late April University of North Florida national survey that added all of foreign policy to national-security challenges as an issue cluster found 6 percent of voters willing to identify it as most important in determining presidential preferences. But with Republicans fanning all sorts of national-security fears, who knows what that means?

Perhaps the most startling data comes from the very credible large-sample Harvard Youth Poll released on April 19:

“Poll results showed that two issues closely associated with under-30 voters — the Israel-Hamas war and student debt relief — may not be especially consequential ones when it comes to casting votes.

“Biden gets good marks (39 percent) for his efforts to reduce student debt, and poor marks for his handling of the war in Gaza (18 percent). But young people ranked these as least important among the issues facing the country. The majority said inflation, healthcare, and housing were the top three matters, followed by gun violence, according to the poll.”

To be more specific, under-30 voters listed “Israel/Palestine” 15th among the 16 “major issues” they were asked to rank in importance. Pew’s March survey on the subject noted low interest and information levels on the Middle East in the same age cohort:

“Just 14% of those under 50 say they are following the war extremely or very closely, roughly half the share among those over 50 (30%). Consistent with their lower levels of attention, younger Americans are also less likely to know key facts about the ongoing war, based on their responses to three knowledge questions included on the survey.”

Without question, perceptions of the presidential candidates and their political parties may be influenced on the margins by their positions and conduct on this and related issues. Biden’s efforts to broker a broader regional peace agreement could reinforce his reputation as an internationalist and a competent diplomat. Republican demagoguing about campus protesters could strengthen their issue advantage on crime. But even if news coverage continues to draw attention to the carnage in Gaza and its underlying causes, it may not be an election game-changer, unless the election is extremely close. If that’s the case, of course, almost anything could be decisive.

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