Will Biden's handling of the Israel-Hamas war turn off young and Muslim voters in 2024?

"The real question ... is whether this is actually going to linger for a year."

November 28, 2023, 3:26 PM

President Joe Biden is struggling with younger voters and Muslim Americans who don't approve of the way he's handled the Israel-Hamas war, recent polling by NBC News and Quinnipiac University shows. And while some advocates suggest that could be a key factor in next year's election, some foreign policy and elections experts cautioned that it may not be so simple, still a year away from voting.

"The politics of this with younger Democrats are complicated right now," said Brian Goldsmith, with the consulting firm Kona Media. "This is clearly a dividing line, especially for Democrats under 35."

While the president's solidarity with Israel is shared in these polls by a majority of Americans, regardless of party affiliation, the polls also showed younger voters are more likely to sympathize with Palestinians.

Some younger voters who spoke with ABC News have warned they could defect to a third party or stay home next year.

Even with the news of a temporary humanitarian pause and prisoner exchange deal in which Hamas has released some hostages from Gaza, these voters are saying Biden is not doing enough in light of Israel's relentless bombardment of the territory in the wake of Hamas' Oct. 7 terror attack.

"That's a long, long ways from what Biden could do for Gaza if he wanted to and far from what I would personally need to see to regain confidence in Biden as a candidate," said 30-year-old Gabriela M., who voted for Biden in 2020.

Gabriela, who asked not to be quoted by her full name because she worried about potential professional repercussions discussing a divisive issue, said that if it comes down to a Biden-versus-Trump repeat in 2024, she won't be voting for either one.

"In my local elections, I'll get in my ballot," she told ABC News. "But I don't want [Biden] to take my vote for granted and just assume that because he's the lesser of two evils that I'll just vote for him."

According to a Quinnipiac University national poll released in mid-November, 54% of registered voters said their sympathies lie more with the Israelis, while 24% say their sympathies lie more with the Palestinians.

But among younger voters, ages 18-34, 52% said their sympathies lie more with the Palestinians while 29% said the Israelis.

A poll published last week by NBC News painted a more dire picture for Biden on the issue.

The survey found that just 34% of registered voters approved of how he is handling the Israel-Hamas war, while 56% disapproved -- and among Democrats, only half, 51%, approved. A staggering 70% of voters ages 18-34 disapproved of Biden's handling.

By contrast, voters ages 18-29 overwhelmingly picked Biden over Donald Trump in 2020, according to exit polls at the time: 60%-36%.

Broadly speaking, Democrats have become more sympathetic to the Palestinians compared with the Israelis in the last two decades, Gallup polling has found.

In January, months before the Hamas attack, Democrats for the first time said their sympathies were more with the Palestinians -- a change that Middle East experts previously suggested to ABC News is driven in part by partisanship, as Israeli politics have become increasingly conservative, and the influence of domestic social movements like Black Lives Matter.

Frustrations with the administration has sparked some public outcry this month, including a tense protest on Nov. 15 in front of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C., while lawmakers were in the building, that led to police clashing with demonstrators.

Another protest forced state party officials to cancel events at the California Democratic Convention in Sacramento on Nov. 18.

Gabriela said the Israel-Hamas war is only one reason she won't be voting for the president again. "It feels like he could have done more for student loan relief, immigration and to enshrine abortion rights in federal law or queer rights," she said. (Biden's push to cancel tens of millions of people's federal student loan debt was blocked by the Supreme Court, which said it was unconstitutional; his proposal to codify abortion access has not gained traction in Congress.)

In this Oct. 18, 2023, file photo, President Joe Biden pauses during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the war between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel.
Miriam Alster, Pool via AP, FILE

A warning from Gen Z

Earlier this month, several progressive groups, including March for Our Lives, Gen-Z for Change and the Sunrise Movement, wrote an open letter to Biden warning his handling of the war could depress turnout among millennial and Generation Z voters in 2024.

"It's still just hard for young people to justify to themselves, morally, voting for someone after seeing these images, after seeing what's been going on in the Middle East," 22-year-old Anish Mohanty, the communications director of Gen-Z for Change, told ABC News.

Mohanty said that Biden's stance on issues like climate change is "appreciated by our generation," but "are we supposed to tell other young people, especially if they are from marginalized communities, to vote for somebody who's contributed to what's going on in the Middle East?"

The Biden administration has repeatedly said it believes Israel has the right to defend itself and seek to destroy Hamas in the wake of Oct. 7 attack, and the White House has proposed billions more in military funding for the Israelis.

Hamas, designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization, is also deeply embedded in civilian life in Gaza -- and the White House has tried to stress that Israel has an obligation to try and limit civilian casualties amid the large death toll.

Biden has also pushed for aid to get into Gaza during Israel's retaliatory operations.

More than 14,000 people have been killed in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry, and tens of thousands more have been injured. More than 1,200 people have been killed in Israel, according to the Israeli prime minister's office.

"Much more needs to be done to protect civilians and to make sure that humanitarian assistance reaches them," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in early November. "Far too many Palestinians have been killed, far too many have suffered these past weeks, and we want to do everything possible to prevent harm to them and to maximize the assistance that gets to them."

Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that "we don't live in an era where an administration can control the messaging."

"The pictures control the messaging, and they're not photoshopped," he said. "I think the administration knows that."

Miller said he sees signs of increasing concern within the Democratic Party and the Biden administration that the Israelis are pursuing "far too aggressive a strategy and the administration is far too acquiescent," he said.

"You've got a very strong pro-Israeli frame, which in various constituencies in Washington has resulted in a lot of unhappiness," Miller said. "In 25 years, working under half a dozen secretaries of state, I've never seen the degree of dissent or opposition to a policy vocalized so prominently in Congress, among White House staff ... [the] Department of State" and beyond.

Israeli officials have insisted that its military is taking steps to curb civilian casualties, which is complicated because Hamas fighters don't abide by international law in separating themselves from non-combatants.

However, Biden's allies and outside analysts said that drawing 2024 predictions from the current problems isn't so obvious. A rematch against Trump could have its own galvanizing effect on Democratic voters, given how deeply unpopular Trump is among them, some experts said.

"I don't think young voters were super excited about Joe Biden four years ago," said Goldsmith, the political consultant, who supports Biden. "But ultimately they came out in record numbers because" of Trump.

A demonstrator leaves a painted handprint on the wall of Union Station during a rally demanding a ceasefire for Palestine, on Nov. 17, 2023, in Washington, D.C.
Allison Bailey/NurPhoto via Shutterstock

Younger voters also don't vote as often as older demographics, who have been more approving of Biden's handling of Israel and Hamas, a trend which risks undercutting the argument that younger voters' views could be decisive next year.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 54% of eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 29 voted in the 2020 election. That's compared to 67% of the population overall.

Census data shows that because America is an aging country, there are also simply more older voters than younger ones. Combined with lower turnout, that weakens their influence.

"Young voters might be dissatisfied with Biden and so they won't turn out to vote for him -- well, like half of them probably weren't going to do that anyway," said Nathaniel Rakich, a senior elections analyst at 538.

"I think at the end of the day, most of them will realize that if they want to stop Trump, Biden is their best choice," Rakich added.

Biden campaign spokesperson Kevin Munoz maintained that the president is not taking younger voters for granted.

"Next year's election is deeply consequential for young people, and we are working hard to highlight how an extreme MAGA agenda would devastate the financial security, safety, and freedom of young people, and how President Biden and Vice President Harris are fighting for the future that America's young people deserve," Munoz said in a statement to ABC News.

Abandon Biden?

Some Muslim and Arab Americans who supported Biden in 2020 and who live in swing states like Michigan are also warning in interviews with ABC News they could sit out next year. There's less reliable polling on the extent of their feelings, but activists are speaking out.

Hassan Abdel Salam is an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota who says he has grown frustrated with how the Biden administration is handling the Israel-Hamas war. He's part of group calling themselves "Abandon Biden." Not only do they say they won't vote for the president -- they've also promised to actively campaign against him.

Salam told ABC News the group is "committed" to voting in the 2024 presidential election but who they will vote for in Biden's stead remains up in the air.

"It may have to be an independent candidate. We don't know who that is ... right now we're really focused on just making sure that our signal to the White House is clear," he said.

Pro-Palestinian activists call for an Israeli ceasefire in Gaza during a protest outside Union Station in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 17, 2023.
Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA via Shutterstock

Michigan, which has one of the largest Muslim populations in the United States, has some 206,000 registered Muslim voters, a 22% jump from 2016, according to Emgage, a Muslim American political advocacy group. Biden won the state in 2020 by only about 155,000 votes.

"Biden would be persona non grata if he entered Dearborn right now," Amer Zahr, a Palestinian American comedian and progressive Democratic activist, previously told ABC News, referring to a city in Michigan where half of the 110,000 residents are of Middle Eastern or North African Descent.

'An eternity in American politics'

Still, the election is many months away, polling experts and strategists said. Biden's dire approval ratings are an issue for him, but not necessarily predictive, they said.

"Probably, dissatisfaction with him among certain core Democratic groups like young voters is contributing to a bit of a polling slump these days for Biden. The real question, though, is whether this is actually going to linger for a year -- and that's the totally unknowable thing," said Rakich with 538.

"I don't think anybody can say with any kind of authority or precision that that's what's happening now," said Miller, a former deputy special Middle East coordinator at the State Department. "If this were happening next November, that might make for a plausible case."

"We're a year away," Miller said, "an eternity in American politics."

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