If six weeks ago anyone had asked about the issues that could significantly influence the next US election, most commentators would have pointed to inflation, the economy or immigration.
Joe Biden’s age might have been up there as well.
Very few would have opted for Israel or Gaza.
Since the attacks by Hamas last month, the Biden administration has fully backed Israel while calling for it to act within the laws of war.
In common with other centre-left and left political organisations across the world, there is strong support for the Palestinian cause among many Democrats, particularly on the party’s progressive wing.
The full-throated backing for Israel was always going to generate a reaction, particularly as Palestinian civilian casualties increased. Last weekend at pro-Palestinian rallies there were the first hints that the White House stance could have electoral consequences.
Some at the demonstrations said they had voted for Biden in 2020 but would not do so again due to his support for Israel.
Last weekend Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American woman to serve in the US Congress, accused Biden of supporting a “genocide” against Palestinians and warned of repercussions in next year’s election.
“The American people will not forget. Biden, support ceasefire now or don’t count on us in 2024,” Tlaib said. “Mr president, the American people are not with you on this one. We will remember in 2024.”
On Wednesday New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez warned that the White House’s position on Israel could hit Biden’s standing among young voters. Concerns among young people about the human rights of Palestinians had been growing for years, she said, and the potential impact of Biden’s stance on the conflict on his re-election prospects should be “top of [his] mind”.
The US youth vote is not all that’s at stake in the context of the Middle East.There are also regional issues to consider.
Michigan, for example, is a key state. Donald Trump won there in 2016 but Biden came out on top in 2020. The state has a sizeable population, estimated at more than 300,000, with Middle Eastern or north African heritage.
It is not so much that progressives, young people or those who come from a Middle Eastern background may suddenly decide to vote for Trump or some other Republican – who more than likely would be even stronger in their support of Israel. It is that if a sufficiently large number opt to stay at home on polling day in competitive states such as Michigan, it could make a significant difference overall.
All of this comes as two polls this week generated concern among some Democrats that the coalition of groups that elected Biden may be cracking and that Trump is leading in several of the crucial swing states.
Biden defeated Trump among black voters by 75 points in 2020. But a CNN poll on Tuesday found the president now ahead of Trump by 73 per cent to 23 per cent. The poll also found that Latino voters now backed Biden over Trump by only four points compared to 33 points in the 2020 election.
A New York Times poll showed Trump leading Biden by ten points in Nevada, six in Georgia, five in Arizona and Michigan and four in Pennsylvania. Biden was ahead by two in Wisconsin. If these results were replicated in the election a year from now Trump would likely be heading back to the White House.
But Biden has been underestimated before. And Democrats had a successful night in elections on Tuesday. A Democrat governor was comfortably re-elected in the Republican state of Kentucky while Democrats now control both houses of the legislature in Virginia.
Importantly, the results seemed to indicate that the issue of abortion still has the power to swing results in favour of Democrats – a pattern first noticed in midterm elections last year after the conservative majority in the US supreme court eliminated the 50-year-old constitutional right for women to have a termination.
The White House points out that poll findings a year out from election day often end up being remote from what actually happens. Barack Obama, for example, was being forecast to lose 12 months before he secured his second term.
However, an alternative view is that while the Democratic message on issues such as abortion seems popular with voters, it is their attitude to re-electing a president in his 80s that may be more a cause for worry.