Could US campus protests over Gaza cost Biden the election?

Illustration - Analysis - Campus protests/Biden
7 min read
07 May, 2024

As New York police prepared to storm a Columbia University building last month, the Biden administration condemned the student protesters holed up inside.

“Forcibly taking over buildings is not peaceful - it is wrong,” the White House said in a statement that accused students of “hate speech” for using an Arabic term that means revolution. “Hate speech and hate symbols have no place in America.”

The comment, which came after two weeks of increasing tensions between students and the school, put Joe Biden firmly on the side of the ensuing crackdown, in which 48 students were arrested and at least one officer “accidentally” fired a shot.

Despite concerns from fellow Democrats, Biden doubled down on his support for the police raid the next day and declared that “dissent must never lead to disorder”.

"Biden has thrown his support behind a growing, violent crackdown on student protests, which has involved more than 2,500 arrests at colleges across the country"

For many of Joe Biden’s supporters, that decision could mark a breaking point. “This was a nail in the heart” of Biden’s re-election chances, argued James Zogby, a long-time Democratic operative and Arab-American leader.

“I've never dealt with an administration that was so unresponsive to where their own base is.”

As pro-Gaza protests sweep the country’s college campuses, Biden has found himself increasingly at odds with the very voters he needs to win in order to defeat former President Donald Trump in November’s election.

The growing disconnect has Democrats terrified of what could happen in a contest that may well be decided by a few thousand votes in key battleground states.

Experts and Democratic operatives alike say Biden is running out of time to change course to avert disaster. While foreign policy issues have traditionally played a secondary role in US elections, there’s reason to believe that the current situation is different.

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The president’s refusal to break with Israel had already supercharged tensions within the Democratic party and made Biden look weak in the face of a top policy issue - two factors that will likely hurt his chances in November, according to many political scientists.

Now, Biden has thrown his support behind a growing, violent crackdown on protests, which has involved more than 2,500 arrests at colleges across the country. That decision is only adding fuel to the fire ahead of the Democratic convention this summer when the full impact of these divisions could come out into the open in Chicago.

Without a real change in policy both at home and abroad, Biden may well lose his re-election bid, according to a senior Democratic organiser who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“​​When you're calling in riot police to haul out your classmates in zip ties and throw them into police vans, that really hits something deep among young people,” he said. “It's certainly not going to win him any votes having more and more police beating up his voters.”

US college campus protests
A violent crackdown on student protests has seen more than 2,500 arrests at colleges across the United States. [Getty]

An empathy gap

When Joe Biden ran for president in 2020, he pitched himself to voters as the king of compassion. The former vice president had experienced great tragedy in his life: just six months after Biden was first elected to the Senate, his wife and daughter died in a car accident in Delaware.

While his two sons miraculously survived the crash, Beau Biden passed away from an untimely cancer while his father was still serving in the Obama administration.

Biden’s “mourner-in-chief” message resonated with many Americans who had grown tired of President Donald Trump’s infamously brash approach to politics, especially as a pandemic upended lives across the country.

But Israel’s war in Gaza has revealed the limits of Biden’s trademark empathy. For months, the president has shown little regard for the pain Israel’s military has inflicted in the besieged territory, evincing only passing concern for Palestinian suffering while repeatedly highlighting the plight of Israeli hostages held by Hamas.

"The president's refusal to break with Israel had already supercharged tensions within the Democratic party and made Biden look weak in the face of a top policy issue"

Even Biden’s strong supporters have acknowledged this fact. “Do I think that Joe Biden has the same depth of feeling and empathy for the Palestinians of Gaza as he does for the Israelis?” asked Aaron David Miller, a CNN analyst and former high-level Middle East official. “No, he doesn’t, nor does he convey it. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”

That empathy gap has carried over to domestic policy. Biden has now become something of a law and order candidate, declaring that the protests are “antisemitic” and counselling that the US is not “a lawless country”. The shift has led to a crisis for many of those who are terrified of a second Trump term.

“If this is what beating Trumpist fascism looks like, then I think a lot of people are asking very reasonably, what is the real difference then between the two?” said David Austin Walsh, a historian of the American far right and a postdoc at the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism.

The question remains: If not Biden, then who? The most viable third-party candidate is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who consistently polls between 5% and 10% at the national level. Many young people view RFK Jr. as an anti-war candidate, according to the Democratic organiser, who lamented that most Americans are unaware of the candidate’s strong support for Israel’s war.

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Walsh said he’s not considering any third candidates and would instead simply ignore the top of the ballot come November. But, in the end, he will likely hold his nose and vote for Biden, he told The New Arab.

Will others follow? It depends on whether Biden is willing to accept some difficult facts, argued Zogby, who served on the executive committee of the Democratic National Committee until 2017.

Despite his long career in Democratic politics, Zogby says he and other Arab American leaders haven’t been invited to the White House for a meeting since November even as a powerful anti-Biden movement has grown in their community.

“If they did outreach, they'd have to be willing to hear bad news,” he said. “Maybe they just don't want to do that.”

For months, Biden has shown little regard for the suffering Israel's military has inflicted on Palestinian civilians in Gaza. [Getty]

Countdown to Chicago

Perhaps the greatest fear among Biden’s supporters is a repeat of the violence at the 1968 Democratic convention, when cops clashed with anti-Vietnam War protestors in an incident that likely contributed to Richard Nixon’s election victory.

One way to reduce the likelihood of such an outcome would be to simply stop deploying the police to break up protest encampments. If the events of the 1960s taught us anything, it’s that sending in the cops will tend to galvanise protestors and escalate the situation, according to historian Mitchell Hall of Central Michigan University.

Officials later blamed police for the violence at the convention, but Americans at the time only saw chaos in the streets, Hall notes.

"There's a concern that this could boil over into the Democratic National Convention. If they don’t resolve this, there's gonna be a real mess"

Indeed, that pattern has played out again in recent weeks. Republicans and pro-Israel advocates have seized on images of violence at protests without noting that they all came after police or National Guard troops were called in. An initial round of arrests at Columbia played into students’ decision to seize a building in the first place, making reference to 1960s-era protests that the university now praises.

By contrast, less violent responses have allowed administrators to strike deals with protestors, leading to peaceful resolutions at Northwestern, Brown, and Rutgers.

But political violence has a tendency to spread, as witnessed last week when pro-Israel agitators attacked a Gaza solidarity encampment at UCLA, injuring at least 15 protestors. And it will only get more difficult to keep a lid on things if Israel follows through on its threat to invade Rafah, where more than a million Palestinians have been pushed since the start of the war.

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The potential for clashes at the convention in Chicago this August has Democrats in Congress worried that the worst is yet to come, according to Hassan el-Tayyab, the legislative director of the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

“There's a concern that this could boil over into the DNC,” el-Tayyab said. “If they don’t resolve this, there’s gonna be a real mess.”

Connor Echols is a reporter for Responsible Statecraft. He was previously an associate editor at the Nonzero Foundation, where he co-wrote a weekly foreign policy newsletter.

Follow him on Twitter: @connor_echols