Despite polls, Biden aides insist Gaza campus protests will not hurt reelection bid

WASHINGTON: Several top White House aides say they are confident protests across US college campuses against Israel’s offensive in Gaza will not translate into significantly fewer votes for Joe Biden in November’s election, despite polls showing many Democrats are deeply unhappy about the US president’s policy on the war.
The White House optimism on the issue, which is shared by many in the Biden campaign, runs contrary to dire warnings from some Democratic strategists and youth organizers who warn misjudging the situation could cost Biden dearly in a tight race with Republican rival Donald Trump.
Several aides told Reuters they are advising Biden to remain above the fray, rather than directly engage with the relatively small groups of protesters on college campuses, arguing their numbers are too insignificant to harm the president’s reelection campaign.
Faced with a choice between Biden and Trump in November, many officials remain confident even Democrats who oppose US policy will choose Biden. Reuters interviewed nearly a dozen top White House officials in recent days, but only two expressed concern about the impact of the protests and Biden’s handling of the issue.
The issue returns to the spotlight Sunday, when Biden makes the commencement address at Morehouse College, over some objections by students and faculty, and a warning from the college’s president that the ceremony will stop if there are protests.
Most officials Reuters spoke to said they believe housing costs and inflation were the issues top of mind for young voters, not the war in Gaza, pointing to a recent Harvard poll that ranks Israel/Palestine 15th on a list of issues, after taxes, gun violence and jobs. Several aides refer to the protesters as “activists” rather than students.
Asked for comment on the issue, White House senior deputy press secretary Andrew Bates said Biden understands this is a painful moment for many communities and is listening. He has said too many civilians have died in the “heartbreaking” conflict and that more must be done to prevent the loss of innocent lives, Bates added.
Biden and Trump are nearly tied in national polls, and Trump has the edge in the battleground states that will decide the election, multiple recent polls show. On economic issues like inflation, Trump scores higher with voters overall than Biden.
A new Reuters/Ipsos poll found Democrats deeply divided over Biden’s handling of both the war in Gaza and the US campus protests against it, with 44 percent of registered Democrats disapproving of Biden’s handling of the crisis, and 51 percent of his handling of the protests.
Young voters still favor Biden, but support has dropped significantly since 2020, polls show. A Reuters/Ipsos poll in March showed Americans aged 18-29 favored Biden over Trump by just 3 percentage points — 29 percent to 26 percent — with the rest favoring another candidate or unsure if anyone would get their vote.
Two White House officials Reuters spoke to emphasized Biden’s support among young voters is not where it was in 2020 and said they worry the administration is not taking the drop seriously enough.
With over 35,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza since war began in October, US support for Israel’s government could weigh heavily on the presidential election in November, they said.
“There is almost a level of defiance when it comes to some of the president’s closest advisers on this issue,” said a senior White House official with direct knowledge of the matter, who did not wish to be named. “They think the best approach is to simply steer clear and let it pass.”

BIDEN SPEAKS CAUTIOUSLY
Protests over Israel’s war in Gaza have broken out at more than 60 colleges and universities this year, disrupted Biden’s events around the country, pushed Democrats in key battleground states to vote “uncommitted” and divided the Democratic party.
Biden, who is known for saying what he thinks, even when it’s not politically beneficial, has been cautious on the issue of protests over Gaza. He spoke in early May on the importance of following the law, while defending free speech and later on addressed the threat of antisemitism on college campuses.
Both times, he mostly avoided the issue that has sparked the protests — how young Americans feel about his support for Israel. But he also said bluntly that protests will not change his Middle East policy.
Groups organizing the protests say that a recent halt to some weapons to Israel was too little too late, and are planning fresh demonstrations, though the summer break may quieten action on campuses.
Michele Weindling, political director of the climate-focused youth group the Sunrise Movement, said “young people are incredibly disillusioned, they are angry at the way the president has treated this conflict.”
“A huge risk right now is that young voters will completely stay out of the electoral system this November, or deliberately vote against Biden out of anger,” Weindling said.
That has the potential to cost Biden dearly, given 61 percent of the more than half of Americans aged 18 to 29 that voted in the 2020 general election voted Democratic, a Tufts University research group found. The youth turnout was up 11 points from 2016.

GAZA NOT A TOP ISSUE
Republicans both overwhelmingly disapprove of the protests and Biden’s handling of the war, a Reuters/Ipsos poll published this week shows. Some Republicans have called for him to send National Guard troops on to campuses.
But until a day before Biden delivered his first speech on the protests on May 2, he remained unsure he needed to address the issue, two officials said. Biden asked his team to put together “something rudimentary,” so he could edit and change it, which he did that evening, one of the officials said.
He did not make the final decision to speak until the morning, after violence broke out on the UCLA campus, the official added.
The Harvard youth poll showing Israel/Gaza is low on youth concerns is being circulated at internal meetings at the campaign and the White House and is in line with private data the White House has seen, the first official said.
The president doesn’t speak about every issue in the news, on purpose, another White House official said. It “doesn’t always happen, no matter what kind of news it is, whether it’s the news of the day or the week or the month,” he said.

 

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