Support for Israel Is Costing Biden. But for How Long?

President Joe Biden sits with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the start of the Israeli war cabinet meeting, in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023. (Photo by Miriam Alster/AFP/Getty Images)

Since shortly after Hamas’ October 7 terrorist attack against Israel, we’ve been hearing a great deal about the price President Joe Biden will pay for his embrace of the Jewish state.

The first warning signs came from Arab-American voters, who make up a considerable bloc in swing-state Michigan. One poll showed Biden getting only 16 percent of the Arab-Muslim vote in a state he would almost certainly need to win again to retain the White House.

And this week, a new survey from NBC News puts Biden not only at the lowest approval rating of his presidency, but trailing his most likely general election opponent, former President Donald Trump.

Biden’s decline mostly comes not from disenchanted swing voters, but from within his own party. Within that party, he struggles most among younger Democrats, the most progressive—and most critical of Israel—faction. 

It all adds up to 41 percent disapproval for Biden’s handling of the issue among Democrats. That, when combined with the reflexive 69 percent disapproval among Republicans, puts Biden deep underwater—34 percent approval, 56 percent disapproval—with the electorate as a whole.

The best evidence of where these disapproving voters sit on the political spectrum is how Biden’s weak numbers on job performance and in a hypothetical rematch with Trump don’t do anything for the challenger. Biden is down 5 points in his share of the 2024 vote since July, but Trump’s number is basically unchanged. Just by standing still while Biden falters, Trump has benefited. 

To see the implications for Biden, consider what happened when pollsters asked respondents to consider the race with candidates other than the incumbent and Trump. Biden crashes from 44 percent against Trump down to 37 percent support in a matchup with a generic Republican nominee, trailing the GOP alternative by 9 points. 

But removing Biden from the equation has an even more notable effect on Trump than removing Trump does on Biden. The former president goes from a 2 point advantage over Biden to a 6 point deficit against a generic Democrat.

No candidate is generic, and whomever would replace either Biden or Trump would immediately be freighted with much of the same partisan baggage as the current frontrunners—depending on the individual, perhaps with even greater liabilities. But it is a helpful way to think about where the persuadable electorate is today. 

A normal Republican would do far better than Trump, but a normal Democrat would entirely alter the nature of the election in the minds of voters, changing the contest from a narrow loss for the party in power to an easy win for Democrats. Significantly, the share of voters who are undecided, voting for a third party, or dropping out is almost identical in both the no-Trump and no-Biden scenarios.

Trump is a bigger drag on Republican chances than Biden is for Democrats. 

The conventional wisdom on how the Israel-Hamas war is affecting Biden’s chances isn’t wrong, per se. But it is most certainly incomplete. 

Right now, Biden’s policies are being juxtaposed in the minds of Democrats with the bothsidesism being put forward by former President Barack Obama. Younger Democrats no doubt would like a more nuanced approach from the current administration.

But the framing of the debate will change. Trump, having tested the waters on criticizing Israel and found them very uncomfortable, raced to the right of his Republican rivals. He took almost no time to get back to his posture from 2016 in favor of travel and immigration restrictions for Muslims, etc. 

Biden also has to consider the other side of the coin when he thinks about his poor ratings among Arab-American and Muslim voters. They are certainly a consequential group in Michigan, a state Biden won by more than 154,000 votes. But Jewish voters make up serious chunks of the electorate in multiple states, including the huge electoral troves of Pennsylvania and Florida.

And so far, Jewish Americans seem strongly supportive of Biden. In a new poll of Jewish voters conducted for the nonpartisan Jewish Electorate Institute, Biden was getting 74 percent approval for his handling of the crisis and leading Trump in a head-to-head matchup, 68 percent to 22 percent. Jewish voters said by a 39-point margin that they trusted Biden more than Trump to fight antisemitism.

In the most generous estimate of the number of Muslim voters in the 2020 election, researchers counted 1.1 million. There are about 6 million Jewish Americans of voting age in America. Even a modest erosion of support among the much larger number of Jewish voters would be far more damaging to Biden’s chances than a sharp rebuke from the Arab and Muslim communities.

While it is certainly possible that a widening war may ensue or that the Israel-Hamas war continues well into the election year, the safer bet would be that by the fall of 2024, the question of Biden’s support for Israel will a) be much less significant and b) generally benefit Biden. 

Here, in one issue, is an encapsulation of how Biden can win reelection. The farther Democrats are from the prospect of Trump being returned to power, the easier it is for them to indulge in criticism of the president. But as the choice moves closer to one between an imperfect Biden and Trump, the nightmare fuel for young progressives, the more forgiving they will become.

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