Young voters are mad about Gaza. But many don't see it driving their 2024 vote.

Young people are deeply critical of the Biden administration’s handling of the war between Israel and Hamas, as some college students participate in pro-Palestinian protests on campuses across the country.

But a pair of new focus groups of politically independent college students in Wisconsin highlighted a key distinction that’s also evident in public polling: Few of the participants believe the issue could actually change their vote for president this fall, though some questioned whether it would push them not to vote at all. And they almost unanimously believe former President Donald Trump would do no better (or even worse) on the issue than President Joe Biden has.

The interviews with a total of 16 students in the University of Wisconsin system shed light on the intensity of support for the protests among these potential voters, as well as a sense of relative apathy on politics in general. Many are considering supporting third-party or independent candidates, as they’ve soured on both Biden and Trump.

“I don’t think Biden is doing a great job; I don’t think Trump would do a better job,” said Cooper M., a 19-year-old University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire student who is currently backing Biden.

“As it stands, I can’t see it changing how I vote.”

More than half of the participants — interviewed as part of the NBC News Deciders Focus Group series in collaboration with Engagious, Syracuse University and Sago — singled out the war as the issue in the news that concerns them the most. Virtually all of the participants signaled some degree of support for the protests, and six of the 16 said they have been protesting themselves.

“I think it’s completely unfair for students who are paying tuition to not have a say in where their money goes,” said Suchita H., a 19-year-old student who is backing Biden and goes to school at the flagship University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. There, protesters are calling for the university system to divest from companies that have sold military equipment to Israel, which launched military operations in the Gaza Strip following an Oct. 7 attack by Hamas.

“On a bigger scale it’s just indiscriminate bombing and war and the debts have just not been equal on both sides,” Suchita H. continued, criticizing Israel’s conduct in the war.

Sophia K., an 18-year-old UW-Madison student who says she would vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, called the protests “educational.”

“The protests are very empowering to see a lot of young people on these campuses rising up together in solidarity with Gaza and the Palestinian people,” Sophia K. continued.

The students broadly saw the protests as a necessary tool to shine light on their side of the debate over the war between Israel and Hamas and put pressure on their schools and the White House. Some compared the protests to the student dissent in America over the Vietnam War, and the majority said they did not believe the protests were antisemitic.

Only four of the 16 said they backed protesters occupying buildings, however, an escalation taken by protesters on some campuses, like Columbia University.

“I would not prefer it, but I do think that’s almost the only way. A lot of people who talk about peaceful protest don’t realize that the point of protest is to carry out radical change, and as long as it’s peaceful and not getting in anyone’s way, that’s exactly when no one cares about it,” Suchita H. said.

But Angelina J., a 19-year-old University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh student who says she’d vote for independent Robert F. Kennedy Jr., voiced disagreement that others on the panel shared.

“The buildings didn’t create the problem, and my Wisconsin school personally is already underfunded,” she said. “It’s going to make the tuition rates go up even more if we start destroying the resources that we have already. I just think it’s unproductive to be destroying what we already have.”

And while some students said they had visited encampments on their campuses and are protesting, none are living there.

“Due to my class schedule, I just can’t do it. I also don’t have the appropriate supplies to live in the encampment,” said Emma S., a 20-year-old UW-Madison student who says she’d back Biden in a head-to-head against Trump but would support Kennedy if given the opportunity on her ballot.

Amara V., a 19-year-old University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee student who would back Trump in a head-to-head with Biden but would support Stein if given the opportunity, said she’s not joining the encampments because she says they send an “inappropriate” message.

“I kind of don’t appreciate how lax the rules are there. I feel like if you’re going to protest and live somewhere, I feel like you should commit to what you’re doing and you shouldn’t be able to play yard games and go and leave as you wish,” she said.

“I feel like that’s almost like a mockery of the people who are actually suffering right now and the people who can’t find a home and actually have to live in tents and actually are struggling,” Amara V. continued. “And I feel like that’s a little inappropriate.”

Not one of the 16 students said they supported how Biden is handling the war.

Overall, registered voters under 30 gave Biden a 17% approval rating on the issue in the most recent NBC News national poll, compared to 70% who disapproved.

But none of the focus group participants said they thought Trump would handle it better, even among the four out of 16 who expressed more general support for him.

That’s why the majority said the issue would not have a major effect on their presidential vote. While the same recent NBC News poll found that younger voters were more likely than older voters to say the Israel-Hamas war was the single most important issue to them, the overall share who felt this way was still small.

Another recent survey of only young voters, the Harvard Youth Poll, showed respondents ranking other issues facing the U.S. as more important to them.

“I don’t feel like either of them would really handle it in a way that I would like them to handle it. So it’s not really a factor,” said Ryan H., a 20-year-old University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee student who supports Biden over Trump but would back independent Cornel West if given the opportunity.

Sophia K., the Stein supporter who said she wouldn’t vote if given only the choice between Biden and Trump, said both candidates’ support for Israel is part of what’s driving her to not back them.

“If Joe Biden does not change what he’s doing, I’m not going to vote for him. And I’m not going to vote for Trump,” she said.

Addressing the protests Thursday, Biden was asked by a reporter whether the protests have compelled him to reconsider his policies in the region.

“No,” he replied, before leaving the podium.

Distaste for Biden and Trump opens door for third-party candidates

The 16 students had broadly negative views of both Biden and Trump — leading to significant interest in third-party or independent candidates. They panned Biden’s age and follow-through on certain campaign promises, painting him as someone who couldn’t deliver while framing Trump as radical and an ally of the rich.

Just three participants said they were paying a lot of attention to the presidential race. Given the option between only the two major party candidates, seven backed Biden, three backed Trump and six said they wouldn’t vote.

But that Biden support crumbled when they were given the choice of choosing Kennedy, Stein and West as well. In that five-way scenario, Biden won just three votes, Trump won two and Kennedy won seven, with Stein and West each winning two.

Kevin Y., a 18-year-old UW-Madison student who backed Biden over Trump, said he’d choose Kennedy if given the opportunity to, even though he wasn’t “super familiar” with his policies.

“He’s not Biden; he’s not Trump. I think both presidents have done some bad for this country, so I’d like to see what a non-Democrat or -Republican president can do,” he added.

“RFK Jr., and to a lesser degree Cornel West and Jill Stein, give these young voters a place to park their profound dissatisfaction with Biden and Trump — rather than not voting at all,” said Rich Thau, the president of Engagious and moderator of the sessions.

That said, 11 of the 16 students said they were more scared of a second Trump term than a second Biden one, panning the former president’s rhetoric and record.

“I don’t want somebody representing our country who’s going to attack other people for what they believe instead of fixing problems, and he’s creating more,” Angelina J., the Kennedy supporter who said she wouldn’t vote if she had to choose between Trump and Biden, said of Trump.

That’s why those who chose Biden over Trump framed their choice largely not as support for the Democrat, but a repudiation of the Republican.

“Just Trump’s overall plan if he gets in the office, I couldn’t vote for that. So I’d rather vote for Biden, not for Biden specifically, but for the Democratic Party and what it stands for and stances that they’ve taken before,” said Maxwell B., a 20-year-old UW Oshkosh student.

TikTok ban frustrates young voters

Ten of the 16 students said they use TikTok, and that same number said they opposed the new law that would ban the social media platform if its Beijing-based parent company does not sell it. Only two said they supported the law.

The TikTok supporters praised how small businesses and content creators rely on the app for their livelihoods and noted that they use the app themselves.

“I use TikTok every day; it’s what I use to relax at the end of the day. So if I didn’t get to have TikTok, I don’t know. It’s just been a part of my life for so long that I love it,” said Cecilia M., a 21-year-old student at UW-Eau Claire who backs Trump.

Those who oppose the ban were broadly dismissive of the privacy concerns around the Chinese company potentially having access to American user data, arguing the fight over data privacy ended long ago (with users losing) and not differentiating between an American or Chinese company having that data.

And of the seven that said they’d hold the law against Biden when deciding how to vote in the fall, six said they were backing a candidate other than the Democrat.

“They don’t care that our data’s being stolen. They care that it’s being stolen by a Chinese company. If it was sold to an American company, nothing would change. They’d still be stealing our data. It just wouldn’t be Chinese,” Maxwell B. said.

That sentiment stood out to Margaret Talev, the director of Syracuse University’s Institute for Democracy, Journalism and Citizenship in Washington.

“Several of these young voters said outright that Biden’s signing of a law that could lead to TikTok being banned in the U.S. could make them less likely to vote for him — and some said if Trump protected their TikTok access, that might sway them to support him,” she said.

“I was struck by how most did not view TikTok, with its ties to China, as a national security threat — they simply saw the motivation behind data collection as tied to moneymaking and equated it to what any U.S. tech company might be after,” Talev continued.

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