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Israel Policy Could Cost Biden the White House—and Us Democracy

In an election as close as this one, every vote counts—and Biden is bleeding youth support over Israel. It’s not too late. But it’s getting there.

Joe Biden looks up at the sky
Samuel Corum/Sipa/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Democrats should be very worried about November because the White House’s pro-Israel policy may well cost them dearly in an election that could be decided by under 100,000 total votes in a few key states. It is not too late for President Biden to switch gears on Israeli policy, but every day that passes without a shift brings us closer to a 2016-like outcome. This time, however, the consequence may not just be a Trump presidency but, as Democrats have warned, the potential end of the American democratic experiment.

Nearly 40,000 Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli military in Gaza over the last several months in a horrific war that has had full American backing. Countless more are buried under the rubble. Unprecedented protests have broken out across this nation’s campuses but also across the world. Even American allies stopped voting the same way as the United States on Security Council resolutions calling to end the war. Still, President Biden has failed to demonstrably break from Benjamin Netanyahu and use American leverage to bring an end to the war.

Doing so would not only be both the morally right thing to do and the path that best serves American interests. It may be one of the absolutely necessary shifts needed to hold together a coalition of voters that would reelect Joseph R. Biden to the presidency.

No one who has stayed up into the late hours of election nights, watching returns and biting their fingernails, needs to be told how close a presidential election can be. Whatever the popular vote counts, it will likely come down to a few hundred thousand or perhaps even tens of thousands of votes across five or six states that will decide the presidency. Truly reassuring polls for Biden are hard to come by. For every poll that shows him ahead, another shows him behind. Most concerning for Biden world are polls that show him losing to Trump in swing states where Democratic Senate candidates are winning among the same respondents.

The biggest peril for the Biden campaign, however, is with the youth vote, and particularly with youth voter turnout. In 2020, youth voter turnout powered Biden to an election victory. In fact, youth voter turnout was higher in 2020 than in any presidential election since 1972, the first after the voting age was lowered to 18. Some 55 percent of eligible voters aged 18–29 turned out in 2020. Biden won voters in this age group by a bigger margin than any other age demographic. In swing states like Georgia, Arizona, and Pennsylvania, which, combined, were determined by some 100,000 votes, youth turnout was over 50 percent.

When the youth turnout spikes, it tends to be in moments that usher in big change with dynamic candidates. In 1992, for example, youth voter turnout at 52 percent helped elect Bill Clinton, a 49-year-old Democrat seeking the White House after three successive Republican presidential wins. In 2008, 51 percent of youth turned out to help elect Barack Obama, the first African American president, after two terms of George W. Bush, and after the nation had turned against his Iraq War quagmire. After each election where youth turnout was above 50 percent (1972, 1992, 2008), the following two elections, and in some cases more, were all well below that mark. For Clinton’s reelection campaign the youth voter turnout dropped 13 points. For Obama’s, it dropped six points. In other words, under normal circumstances, the historical pattern tells us to expect a regression toward the mean in youth voter turnout this November.

Two additional factors may well shape youth turnout. First, unlike Clinton and Obama before him, who were both right around 50 years old as they ran for reelection, Biden is 81 years old, making him the oldest president to run for reelection. When Ronald Reagan’s second term concluded, he was 77 years old. Should Biden win and complete a second term, he’d be 86. Never before in history has a candidate been so far removed in age from a demographic constituency he’ll rely on for victory.

Additionally, it is not 2020 anymore. By the time the election came in 2020, Americans were in the midst of a profound economic crisis spurred on by a global pandemic that was being disastrously managed by the federal government under Trump. Every day voters were being confronted with the news of the stock market diving down while the Covid death toll was climbing. Meanwhile, President Trump was repeatedly downplaying the threat of the virus and suggesting people consider injecting bleach. After four years of the chaos and craziness of a Trump presidency, which culminated in a year when the world ground to a halt, the public was especially receptive to Biden’s return-to-normalcy campaign. And since Trump was the incumbent in 2020, the election was a referendum on him. But even though he is on the ballot again in 2024, this election will be a referendum on Biden, whose first term is in the foreground while Trump’s is further from memory. And how do Americans remember Trump? A recent CNN poll found that 55 percent of surveyed Americans said they now see Trump’s presidency as a success, while only 39 percent said they think the same of Biden’s presidency. Framed as a referendum on Biden, things don’t look so good for the president right now. His approval rating is about 38 percent—lower than any incumbent president ever had in an election year.

Given all these factors, it is more than reasonable to expect a significant decline in youth turnout in this election. Compounding this problem for Biden is that polls suggest he shouldn’t expect as big a margin with younger voters as he had in 2020. A recent poll has Biden only +2 among Gen Z/Millennials, and another poll shows that disapproval of Biden is highest (64 percent) among respondents aged 18–34.

If these polls are a red flag for the Biden campaign, the protests that have swept college campuses in opposition to Israel’s horrific war on Gaza should set off the loudest sirens. The scope of this mobilization has not been seen since the anti-apartheid movement or perhaps even since the antiwar protests of the 1960s. It is certainly the biggest mobilization on Palestine in American history, and it is being powered by young people of all backgrounds.

The cross tabs on a recent poll that asked respondents if they believe Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza are particularly revealing. Democrats say yes, it is genocide, 56 to 22 percent. People under 45 agree 55 to 23 percent, Black voters 44 to 18 percent, and Latinos 48 to 29 percent. The only categories of respondents who don’t see it that way were whites, non-college voters, males, people over 45, and Republicans.

The youth vote is not the only issue of concern for Biden, as these numbers show. Black voter turnout helped Obama secure reelection in 2012 when it hit a record 62 percent. But it dipped below 56 percent in 2016 when Trump won. An uptick to close to 59 percent in 2020 helped Biden win. It likely swung the state of Georgia, whose 16 electoral votes went to Trump in 2016 but to Biden in 2020 thanks to just 12,000 votes. Even if overall voter turnout is down in 2024 compared to the historic turnout of 2020, Biden simply cannot afford significant dips in voter turnout among either the youth or the Black vote if he hopes to win in November. Right now, it is hard to escape the likelihood that we will see dips in both.

The Biden administration’s continued support for Israel, even as it pulverizes Gaza’s population, into the eighth month of this war is morally wrong and strategically inept. Those are reasons alone to sharply and decisively shift gears and bring maximum pressure to bear on Benjamin Netanyahu. But given how close the November election would likely be under any circumstance, as well as the views and trends recapped above, Biden’s continued support for Israel may well cost him the election and America its democracy.

Netanyahu wouldn’t mind this outcome at all. The Israeli prime minister wants to run a perpetual military occupation over millions of voteless and stateless Palestinians while dividing his own society and undercutting his judiciary with his theocratic allies so he can stay in power. Netanyahu isn’t interested in democracy in his own state; he certainly won’t care if we in America lose ours. Neither would Trump, of course. And Biden shouldn’t pay much attention to Democratic megadonors like Hiam Saban, who recently admonished Biden in a leaked note and warned him about the election consequences of doing anything to stop Israel. If forced to choose between American democracy and support for Israel, Saban would pick Israel. We know because he told us; he’s a “one-issue guy and [his] issue is Israel.”

It is painfully obvious why the Trumps, Netanyahus, and Sabans of this world wouldn’t mind seeing Biden and American democracy lose so long as U.S. support for Israel remains constant. But it makes no sense why Biden seems fixated on arriving at this outcome in a few month’s time as well. Should that happen, Biden’s campaigners can’t say they were not warned.