US election: why it’s not the protesters’ votes that the Democrats should worry about

As hundreds of New York police officers in riot gear were called in to clear away a student protest at Columbia University on Tuesday night, the university president Nemat Shafik was saying she had “no choice” but to take this action.

Earlier that day, after defying administrative orders to disband their two-week encampment, a group of Columbia students had broken into and occupied a major academic building on campus, causing considerable damage. The incident and other protests have not only brought tensions over the Gaza war protests erupting across American universities to a fever pitch, it has also made the political stakes much clearer.

In recent weeks, a palpable unease has gripped some Democrats, fearing that anger among young people displayed at campuses such as Columbia’s could spill over into November’s election. Headlines like “The campus is coming for Joe Biden” (The Economist) and “How protests against Israel and war in Gaza could hurt Biden in November” (PBS) underscore the gravity of concern among certain White House officials.

Yet, despite the political pitfalls that campus protests pose for Biden on the left, dissatisfaction among young people over the Israel-Hamas war is unlikely to initiate a major swing in the 2024 presidential election. What it could do, however, is turn the broader electorate against Biden if he fails to take a stiff enough line against the most extreme agitators. Here’s why.

Protesters are unrepresentative

If there’s one point to glean from the recent spate of campus protests, it’s that participants are unrepresentative of young Americans as a whole. While protests have since rippled out to other institutions, demonstrations have mostly originated at America’s most prestigious (and expensive) universities, including Columbia, Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

Elite universities tend to foster progressive, activist student bodies that don’t look like the demography of American higher education generally, much less the US youth population overall.

Also, just a tiny fraction of students, even at elite institutions, are active in the Gaza demonstrations. At Columbia, for example, only about 200 students were arrested at a school that enrols more than 30,000.

Reports suggest that some protesters are non-students, and that outsiders have been responsible for orchestrating public displays. Some protesters don’t even have strong or well-formed views on Israel.

Zooming out, there’s no clear consensus among America’s youth on how the US should deal with Israel, or that it’s a top concern in the forthcoming election. According to the most recent Harvard Institute of Politics Survey of Young Americans, a slight majority, 51%, of young voters support a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. For 18- to 29-year-olds around 41% have no firm position on America’s alliance with Israel.

Among youth voters, ordinary domestic issues like the cost of living are almost certain to be more salient in driving ballot box decisions than violence in the Middle East. For instance, according to the same Harvard IOP poll, only 2% of young Americans cite the Israel-Palestine conflict as the issue that concerns them the most.

Campus protests could trigger a backlash in favour of support for Israel — not against it. Some Americans are unhappy about the student protests, which will only be exacerbated by the recent violence at Columbia. And one poll suggests that overall 80% of Americans support Israel in the war against Hamas.

While there’s doubtlessly sympathy among Democrats (and Americans as a whole) for a Gaza ceasefire, much of the rhetoric employed on campuses — such as chants of “from the river to the sea”, calls for a “global intifada”, or exhortations for Israel to “go to hell” — threaten to undermine public support.

Other examples of student agitation will also earn enemies. The hoisting of the Palestinian flag over Harvard Yard, the central courtyard at Harvard University, in violation of school policy. A UCLA student wearing a Star of David necklace appeared to be denied access to a campus entrance by protesters. One masked protester yelling: “Never forget the 7th of October. That will happen not one more time, not five more times, not 10 more times, not 100 more times, not 1,000 more times, but 10,000 times.” And another demanding “humanitarian aid” be provided in the form of a meal plan from university officials after occupying an academic building. The list goes on.


Read more: US election: two graphs show how young voters influence presidential results as Biden gets poll boost


In part, the campus protests over Gaza can be seen as an outgrowth of the protests that Biden has seen in the primary elections. In the Michigan primary, for example, the state with the highest percentage of Arab Americans in the country, more than 100,000 Democrats voted “uncommitted” to express their discontent with the administration’s policies.

Yet if Biden were to align himself more closely with these protests, he’d encounter resistance from Jewish and other voters who demand his full-throated support of Israel. That could open up a lane for Donald Trump, who’s already trying to frame campus protests as evidence of chaos under the current administration.

Even before the recent violence, Republican senator Tom Cotton had labelled the Columbia protests a “nascent pogrom” and encouraged enlisting the National Guard to quell student “mobs”.

Former Harvard president Larry Summers has observed that: “Academic leaders who fail to enforce regulations at many of our leading universities are giving a political gift to Donald Trump and his acolytes.”

Biden has said that he “condemn[ed] the antisemitic protests”, while also “condemn[ing] those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians”. Although the both-sideism statement has been criticised, it largely reflects Biden acknowledging the complexity of the issue.

Young voters will be critical to Biden winning in November. If Democrats can get that age group out to vote out, they may just nudge Biden over the line. However, this means appealing to far more young people than those who attend the country’s top universities.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Thomas Gift does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.