Joe Biden’s Support for Israel Might Cost Him the Election

Joe Biden and his top advisers believe that fear of a potential Trump presidency will be enough to secure the Democrats’ victory in this year’s election. Polling data does not support this view. If Biden does not change course, he’s likely to face defeat.

Joe Biden speaking in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on March 13, 2024. (Sara Stathas / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room of the 2024 US presidential election: Gaza.

There are, of course, overwhelming ethical reasons for President Biden to reconsider and reset his administration’s Israel-Palestine policy, not least an imminent and entirely preventable famine endangering the lives of over one million people. The International Court of Justice summarized the case against Israel in its landmark January 26 ruling, when it found it plausible that Israel’s actions in Gaza could amount to genocide, understood in accordance with the international Genocide Convention as actions intended “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such.”

Such reasoning has thus far proved insufficient to sway President Biden, who, consistent with a position he has staked out throughout his entire political career, has insisted repeatedly that the United States must maintain its unqualified military and economic support for Israel. Where ethics and the law have failed, electorally focused movement politics is now beginning to alter the prevailing political calculus. This is evident in the decision of the United States to abstain in the March 25 UN Security Council vote demanding an immediate cease-fire in Gaza, following three US vetoes of earlier cease-fire resolutions. However, it may be a case of too little, too late.

The electoral numbers are stark. If Biden wishes to replicate his 2020 election victory then he must maintain the disparate coalition that enabled it. Moreover, he must do so in the crucial “swing” states that in the American electoral college system are the key to political success. Yet Biden is now haemorrhaging support on both counts.

Regarding the first, in 2020 Biden was able to win over the so-called “Obama voters,” namely young voters, voters of color (black, Latino, and Asian), and college-educated women voters. Since Israel’s invasion of Gaza, however, all these demographics have become increasingly critical of Biden’s one-sided support for Israel. According to an NBC poll conducted in November, 70 percent of voters aged eighteen to thirty-four said they disapproved of Biden’s handling of the conflict. Similarly, a New York Times poll published in December found that 46 percent of voters between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine strongly disapproved of his Israel-Palestine policy. In consequence, whereas exit polls in 2020 indicated that Biden won among voters under thirty by more than 20 percentage points, recent surveys show the president competitive with or in some cases trailing Trump among young people. Polls among people of color show a similar declining trend.

Regarding the second, Biden is rapidly losing support in precisely those swing states that were crucial to his victory in 2020. In Michigan, a three-week grassroots campaign urging voters to mark “uncommitted” on the ballot was an unexpected success. “Uncommitted” came second in the Michigan primary with 13 percent of the vote, totaling over one hundred thousand votes in a near-unprecedented repudiation of a sitting president by those who were meant to be some of his most committed supporters.

Not since the Vietnam War and the protest movements of the late 1960s has the Democratic Party confronted such a determined internal revolt. A half dozen other Super Tuesday states saw a similar protest vote against Biden, including North Carolina, in which more than 12 percent of voters selected “no preference.” The political danger to Biden is clear. In the case of Michigan, vital to Biden’s electoral success, his winning margin four years ago was less than 155,000 votes, when his approval ratings were significantly higher and those now protesting against him were leading grassroots campaigns to get him elected.

This last point suggests an even bigger political peril, connected to but not defined by Biden’s Israel policy. Whereas Trump has spent years building his Make America Great Again (MAGA) movement, the Democratic Party under Biden’s stewardship has largely abandoned movement building in favor of party politics. Whereas Trump’s followers are willing to go to the wall for their leader, including increasingly by resorting to violence or the threat of violence — a remarkable 41 percent of pro-Trump Americans now openly acknowledge the virtues of political violence — Biden’s Democratic Party apparatus has focused primarily on fundraising and legislative policy reform at the expense of inspiring and leading a grassroots movement of democratic solidarity and hope.

Whereas the Trump-controlled MAGA machine broadcasts its hate-filled propaganda around the clock via countless radio and television outlets and billionaire-owned social media companies, and movement-leader Trump demagogically, if ramblingly, fires the emotions of his followers at grievance-driven campaign rallies, Biden’s political handlers have increasingly been stage-managing their candidate to avoid the now ubiquitous Palestinian solidarity protesters even as his reelection campaign relies heavily on large donations from pro-Israel groups and individuals.

A very similar political dynamic resulted in the shock defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016. Then, as now, the Trump campaign tapped into, and stoked, an “anti-politics” of fear and hatred rooted in popular mistrust of and anger with the political classes. It castigated the corruption of governing elites, emphasized the government’s ineffectuality in the face of extreme threats to national well-being posed by Muslims and illegal immigrants and other easily scapegoated “outsider” groups, and maintained that Trump and Trump alone could “make America great again.” In response, the Clinton campaign noted the irony of a billionaire insider portraying himself as populist outsider and critic of elites. They also highlighted the authoritarianism of Trump’s claim that only he could fix America’s problems.

However, they struggled to portray Clinton, the consummate insider, as a plausible champion of a participatory democratic alternative. Far more damagingly, they made a concerted effort to crush the campaign of Bernie Sanders, which had inspired a visionary democratic socialist alternative to Trump’s mendacious faux populism.

In 2020, the Biden campaign learned from mistakes made in 2016 by making common cause with its youthful progressive base following Biden’s victory over Sanders in the Democratic primary campaign. The result was a grassroots movement–fired victory over Trump in the general election campaign. By contrast, in 2024 the Biden campaign has thus far alienated this crucial constituency with its disastrous pro-Israel policy and ill-advised turn away from movement building in favor of traditional party politics. It is gambling that young and non-white voters will return to the Biden fold in November rather than see the victory of an even more unpalatable and now vengeful and openly authoritarian former president Trump.

This is a very big gamble on the outcome of which the future of democracy in the United States and indeed the wider world may well depend.