The economy, not Gaza, will determine how young voters break

The data show that young voters do not like Biden’s actions in Israel, but they are far from a dealbreaker

Eric Garcia
Washington DC
Monday 29 April 2024 20:30 BST
Israel Palestinians Campus Protests
Israel Palestinians Campus Protests (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Ever since the October 7 attack by Hamas led to Israel launching its brutal assault, progressive activists have argued that President Joe Biden risked losing the support of young voters. Indeed, in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and North Carolina that gave Democratic primary voters to choose an “uncommitted” option, the largest numbers came from counties that host liberal college towns.

The past month has also seen students at elite Ivy League universities such as Columbia University to public colleges like the University of Texas at Austin put up encampments to protest the war in Gaza. The fact that an ongoing unpopular war also coincides with the Democratic National Convention taking place in Chicago has drawn comparisons — despite numerous differences — to the 1968 convention that saw protesters clash with police during the Vietnam War. Those widespread protests ultimately led to Richard Nixon winning the presidency on a platform of “law and order.”

But while anger at the war in Gaza is real, a recent swath of polls shows that the truth is far more complicated.

Last week, the Harvard Institute of Politics released its Spring 2024 youth poll. The survey shows that voters between the ages of 18 to 29 support a ceasefire in Gaza by a margin of five to one. At the same time, 45 per cent of young voters said that they did not know whether Israel’s response to the October 7 attack was justified, while 32 per cent said it was not justified and 21 per cent said Israel’s response was justified.

In the same respect, 76 per cent of young voters disapprove of Biden’s policies related to the war. But that does not mean that will be the determining factor for most voters. Rather, the survey showed that 64 per cent of young voters cited inflation as one of the most important issues for them; 59 per cent said health care was; and 56 per cent said housing. By contrast, only 34 per cent ranked “Israel/Palestine” as “very important.”

The same can be true about two polls that circulated on Sunday. Many pundits noted how CNN and CBS News’s polls gave almost contradictory results, with CNN’s showing Donald Trump in the lead and CBS’s survey of swing states showing Biden tied with Trump.

There are plenty of reasons to not place too much stock in polls until summer or fall. But both surveys did show similar trends on Israel and Gaza. CBS’s survey of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan found that young voters who want Biden to tell Israel stop military action in Gaza are still planning to vote for him at about the same rate as young voters overall.

Kabir Khanna at CBS noted on Twitter/X that if Biden did better with voters of color (a trend my colleague Andrew Feinberg and I have reported on extensively), he likely would win in the Midwestern states, given that the president is already either matching or exceeding his numbers with white voters in the region.

Still, the CNN poll showed plenty of reasons why the Israel-Hamas war might still hurt Biden. To be clear, the president does not get high marks among any demographic, as just 28 per cent of respondents approve of his actions toward Israel — though the survey does not indicate whether the widespread disapproval is because he is doing too much or too little to support the Middle Eastern country. But only a record low of 19 per cent of people between the ages of 18 and 34 approved of Mr Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza.

Similarly, a slight majority at 53 per cent of respondents disapprove of Mr Biden’s handling of the war, and 52 per cent of Democratic-leaning voters disapprove. In addition, while a majority of people who plan to vote for Mr Biden in 2024 approve of his handling of the war, 45 per cent disapprove of his handling of it.

In this sense, it appears that many younger voters are behaving in a way that many of the most progressive elected officials like Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez are acting: they are finding ways to express dissatisfaction. For voters, that looks like either by declaring themselves as uncommitted in polls; for elected officials, it looks like voting against aid to Israel. But it seems both are still planning to turn out for Biden when push comes to shove.

It appears that Biden’s bigger trouble may be whether voters feel their lives at home are materially better than before he took office. Which is to say, 2024 will be like every other election: a referendum on the current president — and in particular, the economy, stupid.

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