What do the US campus protests mean for Joe Biden in November?

The policies of Joe Biden and Democrats towards Israel, which have prompted thousands of students across the country to protest, could affect the youth vote for Biden and hurt his re-election chances, experts have warned, in what is already expected to be a tight election.

Thousands of students at universities across the US have joined with pro-Palestine rallies and, most recently, encampments, as Israel’s war in Gaza has killed more than 34,000 people.

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Some of the protests began as a call to encourage universities to ditch investments in companies that provide weapons and equipment to the Israeli military. But as the Biden administration has continued to largely support Israel, the president has increasingly become a focus of criticism from young people. Polling shows that young Americans’ support for Biden has been chipped away since 2020.

With Biden narrowly trailing Trump in several key swing states, it’s a voting bloc the president can ill afford to lose.

“The real threat to Biden is that younger voters, especially college-educated voters, won’t turn out for him in the election,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history of education at the University of Pennsylvania.

“I wouldn’t expect that the protesters on campuses today are going to vote for Trump, almost none of them will. That’s not the danger here. The danger is much simpler: that they simply won’t vote.”

Turnout could be key to Biden winning November’s election, given the devotion of Trump’s base, and there are signs that Biden’s handling of the situation in Gaza is already costing him support.

In Wisconsin, which Biden won by just 21,000 votes in 2020, more than 47,000 people voted “uninstructed” in the state’s Democratic primary, as a protest against the government’s support for Israel. It came after more than 100,000 voters in Michigan’s Democratic primary cast ballots for “uncommitted”: Biden won the state by just 154,000 votes four years ago.

Biden triumphed in Pennsylvania by a similarly small margin, and average polling shows him currently trailing Trump in the state, albeit by less than two points. Protests at campuses at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Pittsburgh probably have Biden’s campaign worried.

“In states like Pennsylvania, the margins are going to be so small, that it’s at least possible that a couple thousand people not turning out, or voting for one of the third-party candidates, could swing the election one way or the other,” Zimmerman said.

In April, a Harvard poll found that Biden leads Trump by eight percentage points among 18- to 29-year-olds, down from a 23-point lead Biden had at the same point in 2020. In the same survey, 51% of young Americans said they support a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, while just 10% said they were opposed.

Just as worrying for the voting figures was the sentiments Harvard unearthed. Nearly 60% of 18-to 29-year-olds said the country is “off on the wrong track”. Only 9% believe things are “generally headed in the right direction”.

On Tuesday, even the College Democrats of America – a centrist, Biden-supporting organization – criticized their own party.

“Each day that Democrats fail to stand united for a permanent ceasefire, two-state solution, and recognition of a Palestinian state, more and more youth find themselves disillusioned with the party,” the group said in a statement.

The White House said that Biden had “reiterated his clear” opposition to Israel invading the Gaza city of Rafah, where about 1.4 million Palestinians are sheltering, in a call with Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, over the weekend.

The administration said Biden had also “reaffirmed his ironclad commitment to Israel’s security”. That came after Biden said he condemned “the antisemitic protests”, although the president added: “I also condemn those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians.”

Zimmerman said “the most obvious” precedent for student protests influencing an election was in 1968, when Lyndon B Johnson dropped his re-election campaign in the face of anti-Vietnam war protests. Those protests, which had begun in 1965, weren’t the only reason for Johnson’s dropping out of the Democratic primary, Zimmerman said, but played a major role.

The Vietnam-era movement grew to something much larger in scale than the current demonstrations, although with hundreds of students arrested so far, there is evidence the movement is growing, and according to National Students for Justice in Palestine, an advocacy group, there are more than 50 encampments at universities around the US.

“A heavy-handed response to protests is basically not going to put them down. It’s just going to increase the protests and strengthen them, because then it becomes a question of free speech,” said Ralph Young, a history professor at Temple University whose work has focused on protest movements in the US.

If the protests against Israel’s conduct – and against Biden’s ability or willingness to reel Israel in – continue, it will not be an issue for Trump. In a Gallup poll in March, 71% of Republicans said they approved of “the military action Israel has taken in Gaza”, compared with just 36% of Democrats.

“The main negativity on this is for the Democrats. What Biden needs in order to win is a very heavy turnout of Democrats. If he loses even 10% of the Democratic vote and even if that does not go to Trump, I think the chances are slim for Biden to get re-elected,” Young said.

“If there is a ceasefire, or if things ease up, then maybe cooler heads will prevail and things will settle down. Maybe then the protests will not have as much of an impact on the election. But the longer they go on, the more impact they will have.”

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