US election: Jewish and Muslim votes probably don’t have the power to change the outcome – despite backlash on Gaza policy

US election: Jewish and Muslim votes probably don't have the power to change the outcome – despite backlash on Gaza policy

Recent polling suggests that Joe Biden’s policy of backing Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian war is hurting him in the eyes of American Muslims.

An #AbandonBiden campaign was launched by Muslim voters in Minnesota in October 2023, after the US president didn’t call for an immediate ceasefire in the war. As part of the campaign, some Muslims have suggested they will organise to stop people voting for Biden in swing states for the upcoming presidential election in November.

The American National Election Study reveals that 83% of Muslim voters in the United States supported Joe Biden in the presidential election of 2020 as the chart below shows. But, while some analysts have speculated that that this could affect Biden in the presidential election, if you look at the figures this is unlikely to be significant.

Muslim voters currently constitute only just over 1% of the US population, according to 2017 census data. So even if a significant proportion stayed away in the election or voted for Trump (Biden’s likely competitor) the Muslim vote is not expected to make a difference between a win or a loss.

But is the Jewish vote significant? The election study showed that 75% of them supported Biden in 2020 but since they make up just under 2.5% of the US population, according to the same data, their direct impact on US elections is also small.

This means that the impact of the war on US electoral politics will depend on the attitudes to the conflict among all Americans, and currently they are preoccupied with domestic political issues.

Voting by religion in the US presidential election 2020

Traditionally, the US has been a staunch supporter of Israel and in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attack on October 7 there was a great deal of sympathy for the Israeli side of the conflict. However, a YouGov poll conducted just two weeks after the initial attack showed that US attitudes had already started to change.

Within a week sympathy for the Israelis fell by 7%, and sympathy for the Palestinians increased by 3%. The respondents having equal sympathy for both sides rose by 5% over the period.

More recently, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center on December 7 showed large differences in public attitudes to Biden’s policy on the war between Republicans and Democrats and between the different generations.

The poll showed that Americans were divided over whether Biden is striking the right balance between the Israelis and Palestinians. Some 21% thought that his administration favoured the Israelis too much, with 16% thinking this about Palestinians. Altogether 25% thought he had it about right. But 38% of respondents said they were not sure, so there are a lot of Americans who haven’t made up their minds about this yet.

An important question in the Pew survey asked about the Israeli military response in Gaza. Some 45% of Democrats thought that Israel is going too far in its military operations, compared with only 12% of Republicans.

In relation to perceptions of the responsibility for the conflict, age differences were also quite striking. Some 46% of the 18-to-29 age group thought Hamas had a lot of responsibility for the war and 42% thought this about the Israelis. In sharp contrast 81% of the over-65s thought this about Hamas and only 28% blamed the Israelis.

These findings raise an interesting question as to why young Americans and Democrats are much more sympathetic to the Palestinians than their older Republican counterparts. There are several reasons why this has happened.

First, US interests in what happens in the Middle East have declined over time. The late Henry Kissinger is often quoted as saying: “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.” Kissinger, who died in November at the age of 100, was a firm advocate of the realist school of international relations whose views are captured by this quote.

Read more:
Henry Kissinger was a global – and deeply flawed – foreign policy heavyweight

US-Israeli relationships

For decades, the US and its western allies saw Israel as a key partner in a region where the west’s vital interests were at stake. This was where the west got much of its oil – and during the cold war it was seen as key to protecting the region from Soviet influence.

However, rising concerns about climate change, which are particularly important for young people, together with the fact that the US is now much less dependent on oil from the Middle East means that Israel has declined in importance as a US ally. Thanks to fracking, US exports of oil reached records highs in the first part of 2023. This is a trend that will only continue as the world reduces its reliance on fossil fuels.

A second factor is the military defeats experienced by the US and its allies in Afghanistan and Iraq and, to a lesser extent, in Libya. The Afghan and Iraq wars were launched by Republican president George Bush in 2001 and 2003. The late Senator Edward Kennedy described the Iraq invasion as “George Bush’s Vietnam”. So, it is no surprise that young Democrats, are opposed to the United States being dragged into yet another Middle East war.

A third factor is the actions of the Israeli government and Benjamin Netanyahu since the right-wing coalition was formed in December 2022. Millions of Israelis have been protesting about the government’s attempts to concentrate power in the executive and weaken judicial accountability. Biden also criticised this development as did other Democrats.

Another factor that could influence voters is that the current conflict is seen by some as a colonial war. Israeli settlers have been involved in a wave of violence against Palestinians in the West Bank and some ministers in Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition have actively encouraged this violence.

Meanwhile, the Republicans in Congress have just defeated a bill proposed by Biden to give more aid to the Ukraine and Israel. They did this on the grounds that the US should be concentrating on illegal immigration on its southern border rather than overseas conflicts.

What is still uncertain is whether US voters’ attitudes might shift away from domestic issues in 2024. At the moment that seems unlikely.

Paul Whiteley has received funding from the British Academy and the ESRC.