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Why Gaza Won’t Cost Biden the Presidency

Foreign policy rarely swings presidential elections.

Joe Biden puts his hand to his mouth during an appearance in Israel shortly after Hamas's October 7 attack.
Joe Biden in Israel on October 18, 2023

Slowly, but inexorably, Israel is losing the leaders of the Democratic Party over its brutal war in Gaza. Kamala Harris, getting ahead of her boss much like Vice President Joe Biden did with gay rights in 2011, called for a temporary cease-fire early this month. In his State of the Union Address, Biden described the civilian carnage in Gaza as “heartbreaking.” The president then followed up in an MSNBC interview by suggesting that Israel would cross a “red line” if it continued with its plans to invade the refugee-filled city of Rafah. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in the nation, went much further in a dramatic Senate speech on Thursday in which he called for new elections to replace Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

For some Democrats, enraged by the estimated 30,000 civilian deaths in Gaza, all this is too little too late. A new USA Today/Suffolk University poll found that 69 percent of Democrats believe that Biden “should do more to pressure Israel to ease the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.” This fits with a February survey by Gallup that found that more Democrats (43 percent) are sympathetic to the Palestinians than to the Israelis (35 percent). 

Despite these polls and the passions raised by the war with Hamas, it is easy to exaggerate the power of Gaza as a motivating issue for voters eight months from now in November. History suggests that foreign policy issues end up as a minor motif in presidential politics unless American soldiers are dying in combat as they were in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2004. 

Many in the press overhyped the significance of Democrats voting “uncommitted” in primaries to protest Biden’s slow reaction to the carnage in Gaza. Voting “uncommitted” is a risk-free way to send a message since Biden’s renomination is assured. Even then, “uncommitted” only exceeded the 20 percent mark in last Tuesday’s Hawaii caucuses, which were attended by just 1,600 Democrats. More tellingly, in the Washington State Democratic primary that same day, in which turnout was about 950,000, “uncommitted” is running at just 9.9 percent. The Michigan primary in late February—in which “uncommitted” won 13 percent of the vote—was regarded as the epicenter of the protest. But a new Quinnipiac poll surprisingly found that Michigan Democrats, by a margin of 48 percent to 38 percent, approve of Biden’s handling of the Israeli-Hamas war. 

What is rare amid this pileup of polls is a survey that zeroes in on voters who say they would abandon their party because of their passions over a particular issue. That is why a Wall Street Journal survey, conducted before the State of the Union, is so fascinating. The poll found that only 2 percent of voters said they were single-issue voters on “Israel/Gaza/Palestine.” Even then, it is impossible to tell from the poll whether this small group of voters were all Democrats fuming over Gaza or whether that 2 percent also included Israel-right-or-wrong hawks who fervently support Netanyahu. This 2 percent figure fits with the conclusion of Dartmouth College professor of government Jeffrey A. Friedman in his 2023 book, The Commander-in-Chief Test: Public Opinion and the Politics of Image-Making in US Foreign Policy. As Friedman writes, “The quantitative evidence … suggests that presidential candidates’ foreign policy positions might explain just one or two percentage points of presidential voting, at the margin.” 

In 2020, Biden carried four swing states by less than 2 percent: Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. If the 2024 election were again agonizingly close, would-be Biden voters infuriated by Israel’s conduct in Gaza could make a difference by staying home or opting for a third-party candidate. But the same is true for other issues that arouse passions like guns, immigration, and abortion. In Florida in 2000, where the presidency hinged on hanging chads, a case can be made that devotees of any number of issues say with some justice that their votes made the difference between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

The closest recent historical analog to the ongoing crisis in Gaza was probably the Bosnian war that raged during much of Bill Clinton’s first term, leaving 250,000 people dead and about two million homeless. In the face of ethnic cleansing, Clinton dithered until more than 7,000 Bosnians were executed in Srebrenica in a 1995 massacre reminiscent of World War II. Only then did Clinton lend his support to the aggressive NATO bombing campaign that led to the Dayton Accords, which ended the war. 

Bosnia had faded from the headlines by the time that Clinton handily won reelection over Bob Dole in 1996. A preelection NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in mid-October 1996 found that more Americans judged Clinton’s policies in Bosnia to be unsuccessful (44 percent) than successful (38 percent). But Bosnia was never a voting issue: When an October Harris poll asked likely voters to name their two leading issues, Bosnia came in at asterisk levels. And the 1996 exit polls found that only 4 percent of the electorate named “foreign policy” as their top concern. (A continuing problem with polling is that popular, but vague, questions about “foreign policy” can refer to virtually any spot on the globe.) 

The parallels between Bosnia and Gaza do have their limitations. America had never armed the Bosnian Serbs, who were aggressors, so the United States had no moral or practical responsibility for the grisly events in the heart of Europe. It was also a different media environment: Only 26 percent of the voters, according to the 1996 exit polls, were using the newfangled internet. But the deaths and suffering from the siege of Sarajavo, in particular, were highlighted on the network newscasts and in the newspaper coverage, much as Gaza is today. 

Perhaps younger voters, absorbing much of their news on social media, will defy historical patterns and elevate the importance of Gaza as a voting issue. But much depends on whether there will be an uneasy cease-fire in place on November 5. In belatedly changing his tone on Gaza, Biden is probably reflecting both intense personal frustration with Netanyahu and an awareness of the deep cleavages in the Democratic Party. The president also appears to be taking triangulation lessons from Clinton, struggling to find a middle ground between the Democratic left and Republican cheerleaders uncritically backing Netanyahu. 

In the months ahead, Trump is virtually certain to find new ways to demonize Muslims. The oft-indicted would-be autocrat probably does not even understand the concept of humanitarian aid—and the only way he would ever acknowledge the suffering in Gaza would be to mock it. Indeed, Trump implored Netanyahu to “finish the problem” in Gaza on March 5, after months of near silence on the war—as the election gets closer, he will be unable to duck questions about Israel’s aggressive bombing of civilians as he has for most of the last five months. 

In The Commander-in-Chief Test, Friedman stresses the counterintuitive point that voters do use foreign policy to assess a candidate’s ability to display strong leadership and good judgment. The problem for Democratic presidents, as Friedman theorizes, is “that voters will find it easier to associate hawkishness with leadership strength than to associate dovishness with good judgment.” 

The real political problem for Biden is that Netanyahu’s refusal to acknowledge the civilian tragedy in Gaza makes the president look weak. If Biden cannot use the billions in American aid as a lever to change Israel’s behavior, then both Biden’s leadership and judgment can be questioned. The true test may come soon if Netanyahu crosses Biden’s “red line” in Rafah. The hope in both political and humanitarian terms is that the president has put together detailed plans to handle the “day after” in Rafah. A feckless response may have fatal consequences in both Gaza and at the ballot box for Biden.