2024 may be the first election in which the issues involving Palestinian rights may impact the outcome.
Over the past several decades, elections have been fought over a range of domestic and foreign policy concerns - from civil rights and abortion to the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. In most instances these were partisan “wedge” issues - that is, issues that were used by one party against the other. What is important to note about the growing concern for Palestinian rights is that it has become a “wedge issue“ that is dividing the Democratic Party.
Whether deliberate or not, Democrats made a fateful choice over the past several decades. They abandoned the white working class in favor of courting what has come to be known as “Obama voters.” They were young voters, voters of color (Black, Latino, and Asian), and educated women voters. The problem is that having lost a sizable percentage of white working-class voters, Democrats can’t afford to lose the substantial majorities of voters from the Obama coalition they need to win national elections.
Recent polls, like one conducted in December by the New York Times, show that young voters are deeply disappointed with Biden’s handling of the war on Gaza. They demonstrate greater solidarity with Palestinians than with Israelis and, in part, motivated by their dissatisfaction, they appear less inclined to support him in 2024 elections.
Given the ongoing deadly violence in Gaza and the start of the 2024 election year, this past week my Arab American Institute cosponsored a Summit on Gaza together with the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, founded by my friend, Rev. Jesse Jackson and other partners. In order to have a detailed look at how voters were thinking about the war, we commissioned a special nationwide poll of likely voters.
We learned four central lessons: because of growing sympathy for Palestinians, voters want American policy to be more balanced and less supportive of Israel; because of the toll the bombings have taken on Palestinian lives, voters want US military aid to Israel to be restricted and conditional; voters want members of Congress to support a ceasefire and are less inclined to support candidates who oppose a ceasefire; and finally, in almost every instance, the percentages of young voters and non-white voters who support a more balanced Middle East policy, conditioning aid to Israel, and a ceasefire far exceeds those of other groups of voters.
And because these two groups are so important to their party’s chances in 2024, Democrats had better find ways to change direction and wind them back.
What follows are the key summary points:
American public opinion has shifted away from Israel as the invasion of Gaza continues. A plurality of voters (42%) now say they sympathize with both Israelis and Palestinians equally. While more Americans indicated sympathy towards Israelis alone than Palestinians alone, Palestinians have more support among voters who are young (34% to 16%) and people of color (21% to 17%).
Since the start of the current violence in Gaza, sympathy for Palestinians has increased especially among Democrats (23% increased sympathy towards Palestinians versus 17% toward Israelis), younger Americans (37% increased sympathy towards Palestinians verses 27% for Israelis), and people of color (29% increased sympathy towards Palestinians verses 13% for Israelis).
At the same time, Americans are calling into question the Biden Administration’s handling of the conflict. When asked to evaluate President Biden’s policy, 50% of Americans believe it favors Israel. But when asked how the Biden Administration should conduct U.S. policy, a plurality of respondents (42%) say U.S. policy should be balanced between Israeli and Palestinian needs. By a decisive two-to-one margin, voters say that instead of siding with Israel (a position held by only 26%), the U.S. should strive to be an honest broker between Israelis and Palestinians (a position held by 57%).
This questioning of the Biden Administration’s one-sided support for Israel also has an impact on voters’ attitudes toward U.S. military assistance to that state. By a two-to-one margin (51% to 26%), voters reject the notion that the U.S. should give unrestricted military assistance to Israel as long as Israel is putting Palestinian civilian lives at risk.
By the same two-to-one margin, respondents said that they sided with those Democratic Senators who objected to the President’s recent decision to bypass congressional oversight in sending weapons to Israel. A plurality of voters (41%) now indicate that it is time to consider cutting or conditioning Israel’s annual $3.8 billion appropriation for military assistance.
American voters are more likely to vote for candidates that support a ceasefire. Respondents want a ceasefire and an end to the conflict. In responses to two separate questions, by a two-to-one margin, respondents indicated they are more inclined to support a member of Congress who supports a ceasefire and that they are less willing to support members of Congress who oppose calls for a ceasefire.
The bottom line is that Democrats should be hearing alarms going off as a result of the White House’s refusal to stop the way Israel is conducting this war or even consider supporting a ceasefire to end the killing. The result is that they are losing votes from groups that have formed their most loyal supporters.
The caviler attitude of those who are guiding President Biden’s campaign is simplistic and deeply flawed. Betting on young and non-white voters will all drifting back to Biden in November - since they won’t want to see Donald Trump return to the White House - is demeaning to the feelings of these voters. It’s also dangerous. As the New York Times poll demonstrates, almost one in five say they would prefer to vote for third party candidates. The “political pros” in the White House need to consider this threat and not discount it as Democrats did in 2000 and 2016.