Biden’s Weakness With Young Voters Isn’t About Gaza


America’s young voters are fired up about the war in Gaza—aren’t they? Campus protests and the controversies around them have dominated media attention for weeks. So has the possibility that youth anger about the war will cost President Joe Biden the election. “Joe Biden Is Losing Young Voters Over Israel,” a USA Today headline declared last month. The New York Times columnist Thomas B. Edsall recently argued that nothing would help Biden more with young voters than negotiating a cease-fire in Gaza.

The available evidence, however, overwhelmingly suggests otherwise. For all the attention they’ve drawn, the campus protesters are outliers. Biden has a problem with young voters, but it does not appear to be because of Gaza.

This may feel counterintuitive. More than 80 percent of young people disapprove of the way Biden is handling the war, according to a recent CNN survey—the most of any cohort. And poll after poll shows Biden losing support among 20-somethings, the group that helped propel him to victory four years ago. In 2020, Biden won the 18-to-29-year-old vote by 24 percentage points. This time around, some polls suggest that the demographic is a toss-up between him and Donald Trump. If Biden is losing support from young people, and young people overwhelmingly object to his handling of the war in Gaza, a natural conclusion would be that the war is the reason for the lack of support.

But that’s a mistake, because there’s a big difference between opinions and priorities. People have all kinds of views, sometimes strong ones, on various topics, but only a few issues will determine how they vote. And very few Americans—even young ones—rank the Israel-Hamas war as one of their top political priorities.

“Obviously for some people it is the most important issue, and we need to respect that,” John Della Volpe, who directs polling at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, told me. “But what we’re seeing on college campuses, based upon this data, is not reflective of what the youth voter in general is thinking about.”

In the April 2024 edition of the Harvard Youth Poll, which Della Volpe runs, 18-to-29-year-olds rated the Israel-Palestine conflict 15th out of 16 possible priorities. (Student debt came last.) Among self-identified Democrats, it was tied for third from the bottom. In another survey of registered voters in swing states, just 4 percent of 18-to-27-year-olds said the war was the most important issue affecting their vote. Even on college campuses, the epicenter of the protest movement, an Axios/Generation Lab poll found that only 13 percent of students considered “the conflict in the Middle East” to be one of their top-three issues. An April CBS poll found that the young voters who wanted Biden to pressure Israel to stop attacking Gaza would vote for him at about the same rate as those who didn’t.

In fact, most young people don’t seem to be paying much attention to what’s going on beyond America’s borders. The 18-to-29-year-old age group is the least likely to say they’re following the war, according to a March survey from the Pew Research Center: 14 percent said they were closely tracking updates, while 58 percent said they weren’t following news of the conflict at all. “If you take a broader view, people who are in their teens and 20s are the least likely group of Americans to pay attention to politics, period,” David Barker, a professor of government at American University, told me. Many seem to be unsure how to feel about the war. “I think that the natural response for anybody, let alone young people, is just to be like, ‘Okay, what’s the price of milk?’” Barker said.

Granted, if 2016 and 2020 are any guide, the election will likely be so close that any Democratic defections could be said to have determined the results, particularly in the swing states that Biden needs to win. In 2020, young people voted for Biden by a bigger margin than any other age group. “This is going to come down to small numbers of votes in six or seven key states,” Robert Lieberman, a political-science professor at Johns Hopkins University, told me. Any change, no matter the size, “could tip the election one way or the other.” A New York Times/Siena College swing-state poll out this week found that 13 percent of people who said they voted for Biden in 2020, but don’t plan to in 2024, are basing their decision on the war in the Middle East or on foreign policy. That’s a sliver of a sliver of the population, far fewer than those who cited the economy or inflation—but any sliver could be the decisive one.

Even if people don’t vote based on the conflict itself, they might vote based on what it represents. The chaos of an international conflict, and the domestic protests it inspires, could contribute to the impression that Biden is not in control.

Still, with the election six months away, some experts predict that young voters will shift back toward Biden as they start paying closer attention to politics. If that doesn’t happen, it will likely be for the same reasons that are depressing his standing with other age groups—above all, the economy. “I ultimately expect that Biden’s fate will be determined less by something like this conflict in Gaza and more, frankly, by which direction inflation and unemployment go over the course of the next few months,” Barker said.

There’s no denying that the Israel-Palestine conflict, along with the related controversies emanating from it, has affected and will continue to affect domestic U.S. politics—and the moral questions posed by the war extend far beyond electoral calculations. But the issue is unlikely to trigger any demographic realignment. When it comes to the issues they care about most, young Americans appear closer to the overall electorate than to the activist groups that claim to represent them.



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