The Gaza War Still Can Decide the American Presidential Election

Latest polls indicate that President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are in a dead heat in the presidential race at this point in the campaign, which is only six and a half months away from the election on November 5. How each candidate can move the needle depends on several factors, including the state of the economy and whether Trump is convicted of felonies in his current or upcoming trials. Normally, US presidential elections are determined by domestic issues, but this time around foreign policy will also play a significant role, especially the war in Gaza. Important Democrat Party constituencies in key battleground states are disillusioned with Biden’s indulgence of Israel and neglect of the plight of the Palestinians. Biden is undoubtedly hoping that the war in Gaza that has dogged his campaign will end soon, but that hope may be based more on wishful thinking than concrete evidence. Given that both candidates have political liabilities, the election contest is likely to remain tight up through November.

Déjà Vu All Over Again

That Biden and Trump are again to face off against each other has dampened the enthusiasm of the American people for the November election. Although Biden, a longtime politician and Washington establishment figure, has returned “normalcy” to the White House after the chaotic years of the Trump presidency, many Americans see him as too old and feeble to take on four more years. For his part, Trump is only a few years younger than Biden, but is seen as more vigorous than the incumbent. But he has numerous legal troubles and several trials ahead of him beside his current one in New York. This has hindered his ability to stage numerous campaign rallies and raise sufficient campaign funds at this point. Biden, like before, is trying to portray Trump as a threat to democracy, given his opponent’s admiration for authoritarian leaders, while Trump is trying to paint Biden and his family as “crooked” for alleged misdeeds. This reciprocal labeling has caused many Americans to turn away from the presidential campaign and, while each candidate has his share of diehard supporters, many people will likely go to the polls to vote against a candidate rather than for one.

Economic and Social Factors

To borrow the phrase coined by former President Bill Clinton’s colorful campaign strategist, James Carville, “it’s the economy, stupid.” Like most other elections, economic issues will likely predominate in the 2024 election. The Biden camp, including Democrats running for Congress, will tout the fact that the economy has been exhibiting remarkable growth and the unemployment rate is at record lows. Trump and the Republicans are highlighting rising inflation, which stood at 3.5 percent in March (in part because of higher gasoline prices) and high mortgage rates (currently running at 7.1 percent on average) as hurting the American family and new home buyers. The Biden team, hoping that inflation and mortgage rates will drop by November, is also touting the massive government spending in the so-called Inflation Reduction Act—a very large infrastructure bill that included support for renewable energy—that was passed in 2022 as an important boon to the economy. By contrast, Trump and the Republicans see that bill with its high spending as contributing to inflation and high interest rates for borrowers. Trump has claimed he built “the greatest economy in the world” during his presidency, while Biden has caused “soaring inflation.”

In addition, social issues like abortion will also be front and center in the campaign. Knowing how divisive abortion is among the public (a majority of Americans are in favor of legalizing the procedure), Trump has tried to steer a middle course, taking credit for appointing conservative justices to the Supreme Court which in 2022 overturned the 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade decision which had made abortion legal in the entire United States. Trump now says that abortion should be left to individual states, implying that there should be no nationwide legislative ban as most Christian evangelicals, who are part of his political base, would like. Although the latter group, including Trump’s Vice President Mike Pence, have criticized this position as a betrayal of the pro-life movement, they are not going to throw their support behind Biden and the Democrats who have called the overturning of Roe v. Wade a grave mistake.

Trump faces several legal trials which could work against him even though he tries to play the role of a martyr to his base.

Immigration and crime have also risen to the forefront of the campaign. Trump, Republicans, and their media echo chamber are criticizing Biden for the large influx of migrants who have crossed the southern border following his administration’s lifting Trump’s more draconian policies there. House Republicans even succeeded in impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas for the supposedly lax border policy (although the Senate rejected putting him on trial). Biden and the Democrats have countered that they had reached a legislative compromise with Republicans in Congress on immigration earlier this year, only to have Trump use his influence among Republican legislators to scuttle the deal because he wanted to use the issue as a wedge against Biden and the Democrats. On crime, Trump and Republicans are claiming how unsafe the American major cities have become under Biden’s watch. According to a Gallup poll, 77 percent of Americans believe crime has gone up, whereas in reality it has declined nationwide, according to the FBI, except in the case of a few cities.

But unlike Biden, Trump faces several legal trials which could work against him even though he tries to play the role of a martyr to his base by claiming that the proceedings are all politically motivated. According to a recent AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll, only one-third of Americans believe that he did anything illegal by paying hush money to a porn star—the basis for his current trial in New York. However, half of all Americans believe if he is convicted in this case of falsifying business records to cover up these payments, he should be deemed unfit to serve as president again. Moreover, half of all Americans believe Trump’s other, pending trials, involve more serious charges. To be sure, Trump’s base will support him despite all allegations, and Democrats will tend to believe Trump is guilty of all of the charges, but it is the independents who could tip the balance here. Although the Constitution is silent on whether a citizen can run for president from jail, the optics of such a development would likely turn many of these independents away from Trump. Hence, while Biden may be vulnerable on the economy (especially the high cost of living) and the immigration issue, Trump is vulnerable on his legal challenges, especially if he is found guilty of a felony.

Israel, Gaza, and the Changing Views of the Electorate

The Israeli-Palestinian issue has not only highlighted differences between Republicans and Democrats, but it has also divided Democrats and galvanized the younger generation of Americans.

Biden is of an older generation of Democrats that has remained unreservedly pro-Israel, and this position was evident by his close embrace of it in the immediate aftermath of Hamas’s October 7 attack. Biden’s decision to travel to Israel and meet with its war cabinet gave the optics of giving Israel the green light to mount an offensive in Gaza as it saw fit. However, when Palestinian civilian casualties started to mount and Israel restricted humanitarian supplies into Gaza, Biden found himself in a political quandary, as members of his own party in Congress and key constituencies criticized his administration’s stand on the war.

A growing number of Democrats in Congress, and not just those on the left, have called on Biden to restrict US arms to Israel or place conditionality on military supplies in the wake of its indiscriminate attacks on Gaza and its failure to allow for more humanitarian aid to enter the Strip to aid stricken civilians. These sentiments are to some degree reflective of the party’s changing views in recent years toward the Israeli-Palestinian situation. A Quinnipiac University poll in mid-November 2023, for example, showed that, among Democratic voters, 41 percent said they sympathize with the Palestinians compared to 34 percent who said they sympathize with the Israelis, while 25 percent said they were undecided. In addition, there is a growing age gap in the Democrat Party between younger and older people on this issue. About 69 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters under the age of 35 disapprove of Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war, with only 24 percent approving it. By contrast, 77 percent of Democrats 65 years and older approve of Biden’s handling of the war, with only 16 percent disapproving it.

This age gap within the party is reflective of American society in general. A recent Pew poll found that a third of Americans under the age of 30 say they sympathize entirely or mostly with the Palestinians while only 14 percent say they sympathize with the Israelis. The remainder say their sympathies are with both or are undecided. By contrast, among Americans 65 years and older, 47 percent say they sympathize with the Israelis, while only 9 percent say they sympathize with the Palestinians, with 27 percent saying they sympathize with both groups.

Perhaps taking these numbers into account, Biden has called Israel’s actions in Gaza “over the top” and has sanctioned some settlers in the West Bank for their violent acts against Palestinians. Still, his administration has rejected putting any conditionality on military aid or sales to Israel. In fact, Biden is on track to sign a massive aid package for Israel that has passed the House of Representatives and the US Senate.

Biden found himself in a political quandary, as members of his own party criticized his administration’s stand on the war.

Such one-sided policies have particularly upset the Arab-American and Muslim-American communities who overwhelmingly supported Biden in the 2020 election not only because they objected to Trump’s harsh anti-Muslim rhetoric but believed Biden would be more even-handed on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. In the important battleground state of Michigan which went for Trump in 2016 and for Biden in 2020 by small margins, the Arab-American vote, or lack thereof, could be decisive this November. Already, activists in the community have shown their clout by running a successful “uncommitted” campaign in the February 2024 Democratic primary (which garnered over 100,000 of such responses on the ballot), a warning to Biden that he needs to change his policies.

In addition, African-Americans, who voted 90 percent for Biden in 2020, have been increasingly focused on the war in Gaza, showing sympathy for the Palestinians. According to an early February New York Times/Siena College poll, 34 percent of African-American voters sympathize with Palestinians compared to 28 percent who sympathize with the Israelis. And, like the above-mentioned statistics, these differences are more pronounced by age. African-Americans, and not just those of the Muslim faith, have been increasingly focused on the plight of the Palestinians, seeing a similar path of historical subjugation. One prominent African-American pastor of the Mother Bethel AME Church in Pennsylvania, Reverend Mark Tyler, told a reporter: “I want the president to get it right [on the Palestinian issue] because it’s right.” He added that he has lost count of the number of conversations he has had with parishioners on the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

While Biden is losing support from these key constituencies, they are unlikely to switch to Trump. As is known, when Trump was president he fully embraced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s agenda, which included the sidelining of the Palestinian issue. The Republican Party also has remained solidly behind Israel even during the current Gaza operation which has killed over 34,000 Palestinians. The most Trump has said on the issue is that the Hamas attacks of October 7 would never have happened under his presidency and that Israel needs to “get it [the war against Hamas] over with fast.” Nonetheless, the danger for Biden is that many in these constituencies might simply stay home on election day in November as a form of protest. A no-show on election day might very well tilt the electoral contest in Trump’s favor in key battleground states like Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Impact of the New Foreign Aid Bill

After months of wrangling over aid to Ukraine, which divided the House Republicans and held up additional aid for Israel and Taiwan, the House and Senate finally passed a supplemental foreign aid package of $95 billion to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. The bill includes a whopping $26 billion in additional aid to Israel, with $9.1 billion of this particular amount slated for humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians. Although the Biden administration is trying to sell the bill to the disaffected constituencies as providing “desperately needed humanitarian aid to Gaza,” Muslim-American leaders see it differently, focusing on the large imbalance going to Israel. Some have called the bill an “absolute disaster” and said they are “outraged.” Moreover, the bill forbids any assistance to UNRWA, the UN agency that has provided relief and development assistance to Palestinian refugees since 1949, and comes on the heels of the US veto of a UN Security Council resolution that aimed to give the Palestinians full UN membership (they currently have observer status).

Although it is difficult to predict the outcome of the November elections at this point, Biden and the Democrats are undoubtedly hoping for an end to the war in Gaza, a slowdown in the inflation rate, and a felony conviction in Trump’s legal troubles. But if any of these things do not happen, a Trump return to the White House and Republican control of both houses of Congress is within reach.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Shutterstock/Matt Smith