Several political reporters are speculating that President Joe Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas conflict could lead to his defeat in 2024. Several polls indicate his support for Israel’s military response, however nuanced, has caused a dip in support among younger voters nationally and a cratering of support among Arab and Muslim voters who are key constituencies in the swing state of Michigan.
Most presidential elections hinge on the economy, except when American troops are fighting and dying abroad. The only elected incumbents to lose reelection in the last 100 years—Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Donald Trump—couldn’t overcome high unemployment. Two others—Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson—were hounded out of running for reelection while waging unpopular wars. Preparations for war complicated the reelection campaigns of Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, but neither had yet sent American troops into battle, and both won re-election. We don’t have an example of a presidential election outcome determined by an international crisis that doesn’t involve American troops.
That history suggests the emotional reactions to Middle East violence today won’t have electoral significance 12 months from now. Yes, reporters are picking up anecdotal evidence of Michigan Arab-American voters who insist they will not forget and will not vote for Biden again. Is it possible that the 2024 election will be close enough and some voters’ connection to the Middle East deep enough for this time to be different?
Perhaps. We actually have one historical example where Middle East violence had some bearing on a presidential election: Truman’s first election to a full term in 1948.
Truman recognized Israel in May 1948, minutes after it declared independence. His sympathy for the persecuted Jews was “heartfelt and deep-seated,” wrote David McCullough in Truman, and he viewed foreign policy in general as a “moral mission,” according to Alonzo L. Hamby in Man of the People. But both biographers also noted Truman was fully cognizant of how the charged issue could affect the presidential election.
In 1948, New York was the biggest Electoral College prize with 47 electoral votes, more than one-sixth of the 266 needed for victory. More than 2 million of New York State’s nearly 15 million residents were Jews, making the Jewish vote a critical voting bloc.
New York was not safely Democratic. In 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt faced off against New York Republican Governor Thomas Dewey, and won by only 5 points, with a raw vote margin of a little more than 300,000. In early 1948, Dewey had not yet claimed the GOP nomination for a second time, but he was the favorite.
Palestine had been under a British mandate since World War I when the Ottoman Empire dissolved. The British had allowed Jewish immigration to the region before World War II but then clamped down out of concern over conflict with Arabs, prompting militant Jewish attacks against the colonial overseers. By 1945, the United Kingdom’s immigration restrictions left 100,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors without a place to go, fueling the decades-long Zionist push for a Jewish state which had already grown considerable support because of the Holocaust.
In a 1946 statement on Yom Kippur, Truman declared that “our Government could give its support” to a Jewish state “in an adequate area of Palestine instead of in the whole of Palestine” that would accept the 100,000 refugees. In November 1947, with crucial American backing, the United Nations General Assembly voted to split Palestine between Jews and Arabs. Two weeks later, the British announced their mandate over Palestine would end on May 15. Zionists celebrated, but Arabs did not. The U.N. did not try to enforce the partition plan, and violence between the two camps escalated.
Politics, principles, and pro-Zionist lobbying pushed Truman to support partition. But his State and Defense Departments were unmoved. They viewed the brewing conflict through the lens of national interest, and expending resources on protecting Jews didn’t add up. Defense Secretary James Forrestal, believing a Jewish state would require defending by 100,000 American soldiers, coldly told White House aide Clark Clifford, “You just don’t understand. Forty million Arabs are going to push four hundred thousand Jews into the sea. And that’s all there is to it. Oil: that is the side we ought to be on.” Dragging out the conflict by propping up the embryonic Jewish state was seen as detrimental to the extraction of oil.
In March 1948, the U.N. Security Council was backing away from the floundering partition plan, and the State Department wanted to propose a temporary U.N. trusteeship over the area. Truman approved of planned remarks to the General Assembly by his U.N. Ambassador to that end, not realizing the proposal would be interpreted as an abandonment of a Jewish state.
The ambassador’s remarks, according to McCollough, were “shattering” to Jews overseas and in the U.S. In his diary, Truman claimed to be blindsided: “The first I know about it is what I see in the papers! Isn’t that hell! I am now in the position of a liar and a doublecrosser…There are people on the third and fourth levels of the State Dept. who have always wanted to cut my throat. They’ve succeeded in doing so.”
The New York Times editorialized, “A land once known for milk and honey now flows with oil, and the homeland of three great religions is having its fate decided by expediency.” Moreover, the “shift in American policy on Palestine … comes in a climax to a series of moves which has seldom been matched, for ineptness, in the handling of any international issue by an American Administration.”
Truman’s standing with the public plummeted well beyond New York Jews. By April 1948, his job approval in Gallup polling sunk from 55 percent the previous September to 36 percent. And while a January poll showed him beating Dewey by 5 points, now he was losing to him by 8. Hamby attributed the drop to a proposed-then-shelved civil rights package (angering all camps), as well as “all the waffling on Palestine,” which “made him seem to a wider public weak and not in control of his administration.”
During this period of waffling, Henry Wallace launched a third-party presidential bid—the culmination of his tortured history with Truman.
Wallace was Roosevelt’s second Vice President from 1941 to 1945. Originally Roosevelt’s Secretary of Agriculture, Wallace was known for his leftism and conciliatory approach to the Soviet Union. Recognizing Roosevelt’s tenuous health, moderate Democratic Party leaders in 1944, with Roosevelt’s tacit assent, maneuvered to replace Wallace with Truman at the party convention.
As a consolation prize, Roosevelt named Wallace to lead the Commerce Department. He was only on the job a month when Roosevelt died in April 1945, and Truman took over the White House. Wallace did not get along with his new boss. After publicly breaking with the president’s strategy to contain communism in 1946, Wallace was forced to resign.
Wallace’s quixotic presidential bid threatened Truman’s reelection by appealing to socialistic voters and fracturing the Democratic coalition. Moreover, Wallace was a steadfast supporter of a Jewish state and had the potential to siphon off Jewish votes in New York.
The minute the British mandate ended on May 15, 1948, Jewish leaders in the region declared “the establishment of the Jewish State in Palestine, to be called Israel.” In the days leading up to the announcement, Clifford and Secretary of State George Marshall argued over whether Truman should recognize Israel. Marshall, believing recognition was a crass ploy to aid reelection, said he wouldn’t be able to vote for Truman if he took Clifford’s position. Truman did anyway, recognizing Israel minutes after the announcement.
Yet that wasn’t enough to fully hold on to the Jewish vote in New York. The establishment of Israel sparked a full-blown war with neighboring Arab states, and Truman had to decide whether to lift a months-old arms embargo on the region. The British warned if the Americans armed Israel, they would arm the Arab states, and State Department diplomats feared damage to the U.S.-U.K. alliance.
Truman accepted the logic and kept the embargo. This gave Wallace an opening.
At one of Wallace’s final campaign events, speaking to the American Jewish Congress in Manhattan, he scorched Truman as well as Dewey. Israel “stands betrayed by the bipartisan,” he thundered, “That living democracy is being drowned in blood and oil.” But his harshest attacks were for the man who replaced him as FDR’s running mate, charging that he “stands like Lady Macbeth looking at his blood-stained hands. Like Lady Macbeth, he says, ‘Out, out, damned spot!’ But like Lady Macbeth, the spot will not out. The blood cannot be driven out when it is fixed in hands by oil.”
While Truman won 75 percent of the Jewish vote nationally, according to data published in Jews and American Politics by Stephen D. Isaacs, that was down from the 90 percent won by Roosevelt in 1944. That 15 percent difference went to Wallace and decidedly not to Strom Thurmond, the segregationist governor of South Carolina who left the Democratic Party to challenge Truman. Thurmond won four Southern states.
Wallace’s best performance was in New York, with 8.25 percent of the vote powered by Jewish ballots. According to historian Rafael Medoff, Wallace cracked 20 percent in several Jewish precincts, reaching 28 percent in Brownsville, the most Jewish neighborhood in the country at the time. Medoff argued these voters “were furious that as newborn Israel was fighting for its existence, Truman refused to give it any weapons.”
Who won New York’s 47 electoral votes? Dewey did, the first Republican to do so since Herbert Hoover in 1928 beat Al Smith, the Empire State’s governor. Dewey won it with a 1 percent margin, a difference of about 61,000 voters over Truman. Wallace’s haul of nearly 510,000 votes in the state well covered Dewey’s margin of victory. According to Medoff, Wallace’s voters were “former Roosevelt supporters who likely would have voted for Truman if Wallace had not been in the race.” Dewey also helped his cause as a supporter of Israel, earning 20 percent of the Jewish vote in New York State, slightly less than Wallace.
But even though Wallace tipped New York to Dewey, Truman won the White House, edging Dewey in the popular vote by 4 points, and more decisively in the Electoral College, 303-189. Truman lost liberal Zionists in New York. But Truman’s renewed support for civil rights galvanized the African-American vote to win Illinois and Ohio, the latter won by Dewey in 1944. Truman’s agricultural price supports impressed farmers and helped him flip additional rural states, including Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
And the overall economy boosted the incumbent. Per Hamby, “the nation was overwhelmingly prosperous, despite such irritants as inflation[.]”
If Middle East politics could splinter the 1944 Democratic coalition in New York, could the same happen in 2024 with Michigan?
It’s mathematically possible. But the Arab/Muslim vote in Michigan today is much smaller than the Jewish vote in 1940s New York. Arabs make up about 3 percent of the Michigan population. Jews in 1948 made up about 13 percent of the New York population.
The Muslim advocacy group Emgage estimates that 146,296 Michigan Muslims voted in 2020, and a national exit poll by the Council on American-Islamic Relations found Biden won support from 69 percent of Islamic voters, with Trump getting 17 percent. If we assume the Michigan percentages were the same, then Biden won about 76,000 more Muslim voters in the Wolverine State than Trump, accounting for nearly half of Biden’s margin of victory. Biden could have still won if these Muslim voters didn’t show up or voted for a third-party candidate, but it would’ve been a nail-biter.
Clearly, Biden should not be cavalier about Michigan’s Arab/Muslim vote, just as Truman couldn’t be about New York’s Jewish vote. That’s one lesson from 1948. But another conflicting lesson is that presidential elections are shaped by a myriad of factors, usually most significantly by the overall economy. Any slippage Biden suffers from one constituency over one issue could be offset by others.
A third related lesson is that while presidents can’t be blind to political considerations, they should first pursue the policies they believe to be the wisest and worry about politics second. There are simply too many factors that can theoretically tip an election. Bending over backward to appease one constituency can alienate others. Doing an overall good job will please many constituencies.
Biden should do all he can to minimize bloodshed in the Middle East because minimizing bloodshed is the right thing to do. Then, after a year, perhaps both Arab and Jewish voters will have a greater appreciation for how he handled a complex crisis.
And if they don’t, Biden can still hope the steadily growing, inflation-cooling, job-creating economy will carry him on Election Day.