Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Israel-Hamas war sets progressive and young voters on collision course with White House • Source New Mexico

Joe Biden has a problem.

Seven months ahead of the presidential election, some progressives, young voters and Muslim American voters are showing serious reservations about the Democrat’s reelection campaign as his administration backs Israel’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

“For some of those people — maybe a critical number — what’s happening in Gaza is so salient and existential that they really see this election as a referendum on that issue,” Larry Jacobs, the director of the Center for the Study of Politics at the University of Minnesota, said in an interview.

The pushback has played out in otherwise uneventful primaries as Biden has clinched the presidential nomination. About 13% of Michigan’s Democratic primary voters cast ballots in February for uncommitted, rather than Biden.

In Minnesota a week later, the percentage grew to 19% of the Democratic electorate. Both states have sizable Muslim American populations and progressive activists who oppose Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza.

And in Wisconsin on April 2, more than 45,000 Democrats voted uninstructed instead of for Biden. That total more than doubled Biden’s margin of victory in the state in the 2020 general election.

The movement has also landed in New Jersey, where in most of the state, Democrats on June 4 will be able to essentially cast an “uncommitted” vote by choosing delegates under the slogan “Justice for Palestine, Permanent Ceasefire Now.”

Recent polling has shown dissatisfaction with Biden among young voters, who skew more progressive than the general electorate, and are demanding a ceasefire to a war that has so far claimed more than 30,000 lives in Gaza, according to health authorities there. Moves the administration has taken that critics claim are meant to appease those voters appear to have had little effect.

“He’s in trouble with young voters and voters of color,” Stevie O’Hanlon, the national communications director for the progressive, youth-led climate group Sunrise Movement, said in an interview.

Jacobs said not everyone who cast a protest vote in a primary election will sit out in November.

Organizers launch ‘Uncommitted’ primary campaign to criticize Biden’s support for Israel

But the number should be concerning for a Biden campaign that only eked out a victory against Donald Trump four years ago, Jacobs said.

Anger flared anew after the Israeli military bombing April 1 that killed seven aid workers, including an American, delivering supplies for World Central Kitchen, a humanitarian nonprofit led by Spanish American celebrity chef José Andrés. Andrés has said the workers were targeted; the Israeli military said April 5 two officers have been dismissed and three others reprimanded.

In a written statement to States Newsroom, a Biden campaign spokesperson said the votes for uncommitted were part of the democratic process and said the president was working to find a peaceful resolution to the war.

“The President believes making your voice heard and participating in our democracy is fundamental to who we are as Americans,” the spokesperson wrote. “He shares the goal for an end to the violence and a just, lasting peace in the Middle East. He’s working tirelessly to that end.”

Era of close elections

In the 2020 election, Biden flipped five states — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — that Trump had won in 2016.

Razor-thin margins provided his victories in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin, which he won by a combined margin of less than 50,000 votes.

If those states flipped again in 2024, their 37 electoral votes would be enough to swing the election to Trump.

Additionally, Michigan, which Biden won in 2020 with a margin of 150,000 votes out of about 5.5 million cast, is among the states whose Democratic electorate appears most displeased with the incumbent.

More than 100,000 Democrats voted uncommitted instead of Biden in the primary there last month, showing just how little room for error Biden has to win a second term.

Democratic primary voters casting protest ballots against an incumbent president is not unprecedented. More than 20% of North Carolina Democrats, 14% of Rhode Island Democrats and 11% of Michigan Democrats selected uncommitted over then-President Barack Obama in 2012 on his path to reelection.

But in a 2024 race that could again be decided by slim margins in a handful of states, every lost Democratic vote is a problem for Biden, Jacobs said.

“Slivers really matter,” Jacobs said. “These close elections are happening in a period where Arab Americans and voters from Africa are kind of coming into their own. They have a consciousness of themselves. They have a consciousness of their interests. They’re organized politically.”

End to military support urged

Eighty Muslim American groups wrote to Biden April 3 urging an end to military support of Israel and its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

The groups said Israel’s military action in Gaza was responsible for significant civilian casualties and widespread food insecurity in the territory.

“Risking your presidential legacy and the reputation of our nation around the world to enable the Netanyahu government’s genocide has been a disastrous decision,” they wrote to Biden. “We implore you to reverse course before thousands more die.”

The advocacy for Palestinians comes at a time when Muslim American communities in the U.S., especially Arab Americans outside Detroit and Somali Americans in the Twin Cities, are wielding greater political power, Jacobs said.

A leader among Minnesota’s Muslim American voters, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democrat who represents Minneapolis and the first Somali American member of Congress, said in a CNN interview last month that she would vote for Biden despite her differences with him over Israel.

However, she said, “I think it is the responsibility of every citizen of this country that cares for the humanity of all to continue to push this administration to do what it can do to end the onslaught that Palestinians are living through every single day.”

But communicating with those groups generally has proven a challenge for Biden, Jacobs said, despite efforts by the administration and campaign to make inroads.

“You’ve got a kind of mid-20th-century politician who really doesn’t understand the enormous shift in American politics, as you’re getting large groups of voters of color, with a whole variety of kinds of backgrounds and interests, moving into the electorate,” he said.

“What would have worked with blue-collar workers in Detroit in 1970 is just not going to work with Arab Americans. And understanding that, appreciating it, I think is a real barrier for the White House.”

Biden condemned the killing of the aid workers and told Netanyahu on an April 4 call that further U.S. aid would be conditional on Israel putting in place “a series of specific, concrete, and measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers.”

But while “jawboning from the president” may attract some headlines, it has been insufficient for voters who want to see policy changes, Jacobs said.

“These voters are smart,” he said. “They see the 2,000-pound bombs are still being sent to Israel.”

Eyes on Gaza

Even progressive groups that traditionally are not active on foreign policy will evaluate Biden’s handling of the war when deciding how much support to lend the president’s reelection effort.

O’Hanlon said whether and to what degree Sunrise campaigns for Biden in the fall will depend in part on the administration’s actions between now and Election Day on climate — and Gaza.

“As a climate group, we’re fighting to make sure that people have clean air, access to clean water, to healthy food, that everyone has safe homes and doesn’t have to fear for losing their loved ones to something that they didn’t cause,” O’Hanlon said. “Whether that’s climate change or bombs from the (Israeli military).”

But surveys of young voters also show that, while they are more likely to oppose Israeli military action against Palestinians, there are a host of other issues affecting their votes.

Inflation, economy weigh on voters

Data show that the Israel-Hamas war, and the U.S. role in it, may not be the most important issue influencing younger voters, who tend to be more progressive.

An Economist/YouGov poll conducted March 30 to April 2 found that foreign policy was tied for 13th among voters younger than 30 in a list of 15 issues respondents were asked to select as the “most important issue for you.”

Just 1% of respondents said foreign policy was most important. By comparison, 24% said inflation/prices, 14% said health care, 12% said jobs and the economy, and 11% said abortion.

That’s consistent with survey data by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, at Tufts University from last fall that showed 10 issues that voters ages 18 to 34 ranked as their top three.

Cost of living and inflation topped the list, with 53% surveyed including the issue in their top three. Jobs that pay a living wage, gun violence prevention and climate change were between 26% and 28% of responses. Expanding access to abortion was the fifth-most popular response at 19%.

The CIRCLE poll, with questions designed before the Israel-Hamas war and surveys conducted in the early weeks of the war, found that among youth voters who called themselves extremely likely to vote, Biden held a 21-percentage-point advantage, roughly the same margin as he won in the 2020 election.

Other foreign policy crises, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have not significantly boosted the importance of foreign policy to young voters, according to a follow-up report CIRCLE published in February, though there are signs that the war in Gaza is breaking through more.

Perceptions of the war

Younger voters are more likely to describe Israel’s action in Gaza as “genocide,” according to an Economist/YouGov poll that found 49% of young voters agreed with that description.

They are less likely to describe Israel’s reasons for fighting as valid, and more likely to consider Hamas’ reason for fighting valid, according to a separate Pew Research survey in March.

“Beyond any specific data points, our sense is that this issue is certainly important to many young people, and that youth overall do seem to have different views than older Americans,” Alberto Medina, an author of the CIRCLE poll, wrote in an email to States Newsroom.

“That said, as our own poll reveals and as we’ve been tracking in recent election cycles, young people do not tend to be single-issue voters and they have a wide range of economic, environmental, and social issues they’re concerned about that may drive their electoral participation this November.”

But as the war has dragged on, Biden has seen a drastic change in support among young voters.

A February Economist/YouGov poll showed his job approval rating with voters ages 18 to 29 was 20 points higher than his disapproval rating. That was much better than the net +4 rating voters the same age gave Obama, the last president to win reelection, at the same point in his reelection race.

But the more recent data from the same pollster showed Biden’s approval rating had nearly flipped among young voters in less than two months. In the most recent poll, the percentage of young voters who disapproved of his performance was 18 points higher than those who approved.

‘Mixed record’

The Biden White House has taken steps in recent months to highlight action on other issues that are important to younger voters, even as that strategy has attracted criticism that the White House is “playing politics” in an election year.

Jacobs, the political scientist, said Biden can rightly tout to progressive voters a highly effective first term of historic accomplishments.

“Biden has probably been the most progressive president since (Lyndon) Johnson,” Jacobs said. “The administration has done a whole lot and it’s tended to be progressive leaning.”

In February, the Biden administration paused exports of liquid natural gas to certain countries, giving environmental groups a policy win.

The White House deployed Vice President Kamala Harris to North Carolina, a competitive presidential election state, on April 3 to announce $20 billion in grant funding from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, a program created in Democrats’ 2022 climate, taxes and policy bill that Biden championed.

The administration and campaign have continually highlighted Biden’s moves to forgive student debt.

Those moves have opened the administration to accusations of valuing electoral politics over policy.

“The White House has gone out of its way to signal that the pause is a political ploy intended to get votes in an election year—it’s all about politics, not economics,” U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin III, a centrist West Virginia Democrat and frequent Biden critic, said of the LNG export pause.

Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos tweeted about loan forgiveness that Biden would “stop at nothing to buy votes.”

And even as Biden promotes policies meant to appeal to progressives, that has not been enough to win full-throated endorsements from some on the far left.

“His record on climate is mixed,” O’Hanlon, with Sunrise, said. “It’s both true that he’s delivered more on climate than any president in history, and it’s also true that the bar is incredibly low.”

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