Why the Israel-Gaza war is so politically dicey for Biden

With President Biden already struggling to keep the Democratic base happy and enthusiastic a year before the 2024 election, it is difficult to think of many more inauspicious foreign policy developments than a war in Gaza and Israel.

Although the GOP is overwhelmingly pro-Israel, the Democratic base has been split on which side it sympathizes with more — and had increasingly aligned with the Palestinians before the war. Passions run high on both sides.

Biden has long been staunchly pro-Israel, and his response thus far reflects that. But groups more favorable to the Palestinian cause tend to be the very groups crucial to the Democratic base, which Biden has struggled to motivate: young voters, African Americans and Hispanics.

New polling shows how this could pose problems for Biden.

A Quinnipiac University poll shows that reviews of Biden’s handling of Israel and the war are about evenly split. But that’s in large part thanks to his unusually high 30 percent approval on the issue among Republicans — voters who wouldn’t seem likely to back him in 2024.

Among Democrats, it’s more of a mixed bag. While Democrats approve of him by a 62-point margin overall, that drops to 36 points on the war in the Middle East. Forty percent of Black voters and 50 percent of Hispanic voters disapprove of his handling of it.

Similarly, a Marist College poll shortly after the war began showed non-White voters disapproved by a slight margin of Biden’s handling of the conflict. And only about half said the U.S. government should publicly support Israel.

Perhaps as notable in the newer poll is how many of those who disapprove of Biden’s Israel policy support independent candidates.

The story of the poll is those independent candidates. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Cornel West — both of whom are candidates for the presidency but still must make the ballot state by state — register by far their best numbers yet, totaling one-quarter of the vote. That’s a number not seen in polling of third-party presidential candidates since the 1990s.

History suggests that those numbers, in all likelihood, will not hold up as the race progresses. But that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t matter in a close race. And Biden’s losing support to Kennedy and West even at this point is surely a measure of dissatisfaction.

The poll suggests that the danger independent candidates pose to Biden is especially acute among Democrats who disapprove of his Israel policy.

While Biden takes 94 percent of Democrats in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup with Donald Trump and 79 percent in a four-way matchup, that number drops to just 60 percent among Democrats who disapprove of Biden’s Israel policy. Nearly one-third back either Kennedy (15 percent) or West (17 percent), the latter being strongly aligned with the Palestinian cause.

There is a bit of a chicken-and-egg question here. Is this a matter of people who disagree with Biden’s Israel policy threatening to desert him when there are more options? Or is it a matter of people who were already skeptical of Biden also just happening to say they don’t like his Israel policy?

It could certainly be some of the latter, but probably not all. The same poll shows a similar number of Democrats disapproving of Biden’s handling of the southern border (30 percent), and his support among them also drops in a four-way matchup. But it doesn’t drop by quite as much — from 79 percent overall to 66 percent.

The flip side of all of this, of course, is if Biden’s alliance with Israel pulls in other voters who are on the fence about him but agree with that policy. But both the Quinnipiac poll and the recent Marist College poll showed independents leaning toward disapproving of his handling of the situation.

And again, the looming issue is whether this depresses support or turnout in some key groups that Biden needs. Trump is polling remarkably well for a Republican among young voters and Black and Hispanic voters right now.

Like the third-party candidates’ shares, that might not hold up over time. But, at the very least, it would seem to reflect a lack of enthusiasm, which also is borne out in the polling. And giving those groups any reason to be less enthusiastic is not what Biden needed now.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post