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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Poll finds wide disapproval of Biden on Gaza, and little room to shift gears

Relatives and friends mourn during the funeral of Alon Shamriz in Shefayim, Israel, on Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023. Yotam Haim, Samer Talalka and Alon Shamriz, who were kidnapped by Hamas on Oct. 7, 2023, were killed on Friday by Israeli forces, who mistakenly identified them as threats. (Avishag Shaar-Yashuv/The New York Times)

By Jonathan Weisman, Ruth Igielnik and Alyce McFadden

Voters broadly disapprove of the way President Joe Biden is handling the bloody strife between Israelis and Hamas, a New York Times/Siena College poll has found, with younger Americans far more critical than older voters of both Israel’s conduct and of the administration’s response to the war in the Gaza Strip.

Voters are also sending mixed signals about the direction U.S. policymaking should take as the Israel-Hamas war grinds into its third month, with Israelis still reeling from the Oct. 7 terrorist attack, thousands of Palestinian deaths in Gaza and the Biden administration trying to pressure Israel to scale back its military campaign. Nearly as many Americans want Israel to continue its military campaign as want it to stop now to avoid further civilian casualties.

That split appears to leave the president with few politically palatable options.

The findings of the Times/Siena poll hold portents not only for Biden as he enters the 2024 reelection year but also for long-term relations between the Jewish state and its most powerful benefactor, the United States.

The fractured views on the conflict among traditionally Democratic voter groups show the continued difficulty Biden faces of holding together the coalition he built in 2020 — a challenge that is likely to persist even as economic indicators grow more positive and legal troubles swirl around his expected opponent, former President Donald Trump.

Overall, registered voters say they favor Trump over Biden in next year’s presidential election by 2 percentage points, 46% to 44%. The president’s job approval rating has slid to 37%, down 2 points from July.

But there is considerable uncertainty over whether disaffected voters will even vote. While it is still early, the race is flipped among the likely electorate, with Biden leading by 2 percentage points.

Economic concerns remain paramount, with 34% of registered voters listing economic- or inflation-related concerns as the top issue facing the country. That’s down from 45% in October 2022, but still high.

Voters between 18 and 29 years old, traditionally a heavily Democratic demographic, jump out. Nearly three-quarters of them disapprove of the way Biden is handling the conflict in Gaza. And among registered voters, they say they would vote for Trump by 49% to 43%; in July, those young voters backed Biden by 10 percentage points.

“I don’t want to vote for someone who is not aligned with my own personal values, as Biden has shown he is not when it comes to Gaza,” said Colin Lohner, a 27-year-old software engineer in San Francisco. But, he asked, “Do I vote for Biden or do I not vote at all? That’s really difficult, because if I don’t vote for Biden, I open up the possibility that Trump will win, and I really do not want that.”

The electorate appears to be of two minds on what should come next, a cease-fire or a continuing campaign against Hamas, whose terrorist attack Oct. 7 killed around 1,200 Israelis and set off the conflagration.

Given a choice between two courses of action, a narrow plurality of voters, 44%, said Israel should stop its military campaign to protect against civilian casualties, already totaling nearly 20,000 people killed, according to health authorities in Gaza. A similar number, 39%, advised the opposite course: Israel should continue its military campaign even if it means civilian casualties in Gaza mount.

Most young voters, however, responded to question after question with answers showing that they see the worst in Israel. Few of them believe Israelis are serious about peace with the Palestinians. Nearly half say Israel is intentionally killing civilians. Nearly three-fourths say Israel is not taking enough precautions to avoid civilian casualties. And a majority oppose additional economic and military aid to Israel.

The broader electorate, by contrast, takes a much more pro-Israel view, suggesting that Israel’s image problems with American voters are more acute on the political horizon than at present.

Still, fully 48% of all voters surveyed said they believed Israel was not taking enough precautions to avoid civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip.

Those who identify as regular users of TikTok were the most adamant in their criticism. The social media platform, which is owned by a Chinese company, has come under heated criticism from both parties, but especially from Republicans, for an inflammatory stream of videos aimed at users who skew very young. Even when controlling for their age, TikTok users were more critical of the Biden administration’s policies toward Israel.

The war also appears to be advancing the process of turning Israel into a partisan issue. For years, Republicans, led by Trump, have accused Democrats of undermining Israel’s government and have implored Jewish voters to leave the party that nearly three-quarters of them traditionally have called their political home.

Now, a partisan divide is emerging that could affect some Jewish voters’ comfort within the Democratic Party: 76% of Republicans said they sympathized with Israel over the Palestinians. Among white evangelical Christians, whose theological emphasis on Israel is at the core of the GOP’s unquestioning support, sympathy with Israel is even higher, at 80%. Democrats show no such consensus: 31% said they sympathized more with Israel, 34% said they sympathized more with the Palestinians, and 16% said their sympathies lay with both.

The split among Democrats could alienate Jewish voters who overwhelmingly chose Biden in 2020 and are anxiously watching a rise of antisemitism that has accompanied anger at Israel’s war effort. Cory Lebson, a 50-year-old Jewish Democrat in Silver Spring, Maryland, said antisemitism “feels like the worst that I can remember in my 50 years. It’s more salient, it’s more visible.”

But he had high praise for the president. “I think he has been very good at balancing both from the left and the right and coming up with a nuanced response,” Lebson said, adding, “Biden historically, for his entire political career, has always been supportive of the Jewish community and very against antisemitism.”

Older voters were far more sympathetic to Biden’s efforts Of registered voters 65 years and older, 52% approve of Biden’s actions on Israel, 12 percentage points more than those who disapprove. And older Americans reliably vote.

“The armchair quarterbacking in this situation, what do they expect?” asked Christine Johnson, 69, a retired computer consultant in Oak Park, Illinois, who plans to vote for Biden. “What would they do? My feelings are I approve. I think he’s doing the best that can be done.”

It is unclear how much the criticism of Biden will translate into votes for Trump, or anyone else, given the admitted disaffection of young voters sympathetic with the Palestinians. Voters younger than 45 who say they disapprove of the president’s policies on Gaza are also more likely than young voters who approve of his policies to concede that they did not vote in 2020. Such youthful critics are picking Trump over Biden, by 16 percentage points, but they may not vote.

The young voters who disapprove of Biden’s Israel-Gaza policies but still say they will vote for him are also a little more likely to say they are certain to vote than young critics who side with the ex-president.

And many are torn. Evan Crochet, a 30-year-old video producer in Cary, North Carolina, who supported Sen. Bernie Sanders, a left-wing independent, in the 2016 Democratic primary, said he saw Biden and Trump as “two sides of the same coin.”

“I don’t trust Biden on Israel; I don’t trust Trump on Israel,” he said.

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