Joe Biden’s Israel-Gaza Policy Complicates His 2024 Chances

Election Day is one year away, and Joe Biden’s 2024 campaign operation down in Wilmington, Delaware, continues to gear up for what was already going to be a difficult slog. Now a brutal war, between Israel and Hamas, has added an especially volatile dimension to the task—and threatens to fracture the coalition that delivered Biden to the White House, with support from Arab American and younger voters suddenly in question.

Biden expressed support of Israel in the immediate aftermath of Hamas’s October 7 attack, which left 1,400 dead, and the president later visited the country, where he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The war has intensified with Israel’s strikes on Gaza, with thousands of Palestinians dead and more than a million displaced. Biden called for a humanitarian “pause” this week, though not a cease-fire, as some Democrats demand.

The president’s team has wisely sought to avoid discussing the possible domestic political fallout, out of both a sense of respect for the life-and-death events unfolding in the Middle East and an understanding that the course of the crisis is impossible to predict. When they do talk about its political ramifications, they are firmly of the belief that the war will not be a high priority for American voters next November. “Typically, with maybe the exception of 2004, after 9/11, foreign policy doesn’t end up being the sort of thing that most people vote on,” one Biden ally says.

Cornell Belcher, a Democratic strategist who worked on both of Barack Obama’s successful White House runs, is more emphatic, pointing to the 2012 campaign, when the presence of 77,000 US troops in Afghanistan was a minor issue in the contest between Obama and Mitt Romney. “Americans don’t remember foreign policy and they don’t remember what’s happening on the other side of the world,” Belcher says. “If Americans voted on foreign policy issues, there would have been a President [Richard] Lugar,” the late senator who twice chaired the Foreign Relations committee. “Our hearts go out to all the people who are suffering,” Belcher says. “But unless American troops are fighting on the ground three or four months from now, this won’t be a thing for Americans.” 

Yet the margins this time around look as if they’ll be nearly as tight as they were in 2020. And for two important segments of voters, the war is likely to still be painfully fresh next fall. Muslim Americans voted two-to-one for Biden in 2020 and helped provide the Democratic candidate a crucial, narrow edge in Michigan. And while no demographic is ever monolithic in elections, Arab Americans have for the most part turned decisively against the president since October 7, stunned by what they see as Biden’s one-sided reaction to the war. According to one poll this week, conducted by the Arab American Institute, Biden’s support dropped from 59% in 2020 to 17% now.

“Last time I checked, we have about 8,000 people who were massacred in Gaza, 3,300 of whom were children,” says Nada Al-Hanooti, the executive director of the Michigan chapter of Emgage, a national organization that seeks to increase Muslim American political participation. “In Illinois just a few weeks ago, a six-year-old Palestinian boy named Wadea Al-Fayoume was murdered in a hate crime. And the administration is not listening to our calls for a cease-fire. Our community will not forget. I don’t see a way forward for the Biden campaign to win over our community at this point.”

There’s also another group of voters—larger but harder to define—for whom the war may make a difference in the coming year. Younger, progressive voters showed up in substantial numbers for Biden in 2020. The president’s current support of Israel has left many disenchanted, as protests in major cities and on college campuses clearly illustrate. Some of that reaction is ugly and antisemitic, but there’s also a generational element that seems rooted more in empathy than ideology. John Della Volpe, the director of polling at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, specializes in the study of younger voters. Della Volpe says a defining characteristic of Gen Z and millennial voters is that they care deeply about political vulnerability, whether it’s based on race, gender, or income. The pro-Palestinian element of that reaction has gotten the bulk of media attention, but Della Volpe says the true breakdown of sympathies is harder to measure, and how it will be expressed as votes next year is the big, open question. “The polling I have seen of younger voters is fairly equal,” Della Volpe says. “They connect on a visceral level to the vulnerable teenager at an Israeli music festival and to the vulnerable teenager in a refugee camp on the other side of the border.”

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