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Young Voters and the Israel-Palestine Conflict

The conflict in the Middle East is one of several issues that may shape youth engagement in the 2024 election

Author: Alberto Medina
Contributors: The CIRCLE Team

At a Glance: Main Findings

Youth Are Paying Attention

About half of young people say they’re paying some or a lot of attention to the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Youth Are More Sympathetic to Palestinians

Close to half of young people say they sympathize more strongly with Palestine than Israel.

One of Many Key Issues

Youth are usually not single-issue voters, and are also concerned about the economy, climate, and other issues

Since the Hamas attack in October 2023 and the subsequent, ongoing military action by Israel in Palestine, the conflict has become an acute global issue. In the United States, it has also become a political issue that has galvanized activism and other forms of civic engagement, and that may play a role in the 2024 election.

Much of the conversation about the potential electoral impact of the Israel-Palestine conflict has been focused on young voters, who data suggests have different views than older adults. While we do not have data on this issue from our own survey (which was designed before October 2023), we can use data from other polls, as well as broader insights into how youth approach political issues, to shed some light on young people’s attitudes and participation.

A Note about Language

We understand that this conflict elicits strong feelings, and that people’s views on it are tied to deeply held values. That can extend to perspectives on how people discuss the issue and the specific language to use. We have tried to describe it as simply and straightforwardly as possible so that we can keep the focus on young people's views on and engagement with this issue. We acknowledge that not everyone will agree with our choice of language and respect disagreement and criticism.

Young People Are Paying Attention to the Conflict

In recent years, only a small percentage of young people have ranked matters related to foreign affairs among their issue priorities. In our polls during previous election cycles, foreign policy was chosen as a top-3 issue by a tiny percentage of youth. Even in 2022, in the midst of the Russian war in Ukraine, only 4% picked “foreign relations” as a top-3 issue—which does not necessarily signal that young people did not consider it important, but that it did not rise to the level of other political priorities in young people’s lives like the economy, gun violence prevention, and climate change.

The Israel-Palestine conflict appears to be different. Unlike some other foreign policy issues, young people may be viewing this conflict through a different lens that is informed by their generational experiences and, especially, their concerns about racial justice—issues that they have historically prioritized more and that remain major concerns for some young people.

That may help explain why, according to the January Economist/YouGov poll, 82% of youth (ages 18-29) said foreign policy was somewhat or very important to them, on par with other major issues like abortion (83%) and climate change (81%). While this data does not tell us that youth are ranking the Israel-Palestine situation as highly as other issues they care about, it does indicate that young people consider it important. 

Other data also suggests that young people are paying attention to this issue. In a December 2023 Yahoo!/YouGov poll, nearly half (47%) of young people said they were following “the situation with Israel and Hamas” somewhat or very closely. By comparison, the January poll cited earlier found that 62% of young people are paying some or a lot of attention to the 2024 presidential election.

Youth Want a Ceasefire, Don’t Trust Biden or Trump on the Issue

It’s clear that a significant proportion of youth care about and are paying attention to the Israel-Palestine conflict. But the data on how they feel about it and how it may shape their political engagement is mixed.

According to the December Yahoo!/YouGov poll, 33% of young people approve of President Biden’s actions on the Israel-Palestine conflict, compared to 38% who approve of his job performance overall. At the same time, 45% disapprove of his actions on the conflict, which is also lower than his 53% overall job disapproval rating. The difference is that 22% of young people said they’re not sure whether they approve of his handling of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

According to that December poll, young people also have a higher approval and lower disapproval of President Biden on the Israel-Palestine issue than 30- to 64-year-olds. However, some of that is likely driven by young people’s higher support for the president, and for Democrats overall compared to adults over 30 years old.

But other data suggests that there is some level of disapproval among Biden’s own voters or supporters. According to the Harvard/IOP Fall poll, 46% of young Democrats ages 18-29 “trust” President Biden on this issue. Nine percent trust former president Trump, and 45% trust neither candidate. Among youth who don’t identify with either major party or identify as independents, 18% trust Biden, 25% Trump, and 56% trust neither.

Other polling also appears to indicate dissatisfaction among young voters that goes beyond the President's handling of the issue but that may shape their political participation. According to a November-December 2023 Pew Research poll, 38% of youth ages 18-34, including 56% of those who identify as or lean Democratic, thought Israel’s military operation was going “too far.” Youth were much more likely than older age groups to say so.

According to the Economist/YouGov poll from January, young people are also the age group most likely to consider what’s happening in Palestine a genocide. About half of youth (49%) said they believe “Israel is committing genocide against Palestinian civilians” and 28% want an “immediate ceasefire,” the highest of any option presented and higher support for a ceasefire than any other age group. That appears to be a concrete policy objective that many young people want the U.S. government to pursue.

At the same time, young people are also aware of issues like rising antisemitism. According to a More in Common survey, more than two-thirds of young people believe antisemitism is a somewhat or serious problem in America, and the percentage of youth who identified it as a problem rose by 11 points among Gen Z youth and by 23 points among Millennials between September and November 2023. This also suggests that young people are deeply attentive to, and taking into account, the ways this conflict generally intersects with racial justice and potential discrimination.

Young People of Color Are More Likely to Sympathize with Palestine

It’s also critical to understand differences among youth, especially by factors like race/ethnicity, that may shape the electoral participation of different communities in 2024. Notably, data suggests that young people of color are much more likely to sympathize with Palestinians and to be critical of how the United States is approaching the conflict.

Youth overall are more likely to sympathize with Palestine than Israel. The December 2023 New York Times/Siena poll, found higher sympathy for Palestinians (47%) than for Israelis (26%) or for both (10%) among likely voters ages 18-29. That sympathy appears to have grown since late October, when an Economist/YouGov poll found that 28% of that age group sympathized more with Palestinians, 20% more with Israelis, and 31% with both equally—with 22% saying they were not sure.

Those sentiments appear to be largely driven by young people of color. A November 2023 GenForward poll of young adults ages 18-40 found that white respondents were the only racial/ethnic group to sympathize more with Israelis (25%) than with Palestinians (18%)—though even more said they sympathized with both (26%) or didn’t know (30%). Black, Latino, and AAPI respondents in that age group were all more likely to sympathize with Palestinians than with Israelis, though also more likely to sympathize with both.

White respondents in that survey were also just as likely to say that the U.S. government was being “too supportive” of Israel than to say support was “about right”: both of those options were chosen by  28% of respondents. Younger people of color were much more likely to say that the U.S. was being too supportive of Israel.

According to the Harvard/IOP Fall poll, while the plurality of youth across all age groups trust neither Biden nor Trump on this issue, Black (52%), Asian (57%), and Hispanic youth (47%) are much more likely than white youth (39%) to say they trust neither major candidate. Asian youth are the least likely to trust President Biden (20%) and more of them (23%) said they trusted former President Trump more on the issue. Those numbers cannot be explained by partisan preferences alone: In 2020, according to AP VoteCast data, 83% of Asian youth voted for Biden and 15% for Trump.

The different views on this issue among some communities of youth may also be connected to the ways those young people view it as a matter of racial justice and highly prioritize those issues. In our 2024 survey, for example, while 13% of all youth (ages 18-34) chose fighting racism as one of their top three political priorities, 32% of Black youth selected it. 

Notably, 45% of the 41 million Gen Z youth who will be eligible to vote in 2024 are young people of color.

Youth Care about, and Connect, Many Different Issues

It seems likely that the Israel-Palestine conflict will be a decisive issue at the polls for some young people. It may also indirectly influence civic participation: in recent election cycles, protests movements connected to racial justice, gun violence prevention, and abortion rights fueled youth engagement, as some young people connected their concerns to the candidates on the ballot. We know from our research that there can be a connection between some types of protests and voter registration, and that young people engaging with their peers, including through social movements, can be a powerful pathway to political participation.

But it is unclear for how many, to what extent, and how young people’s other concerns and priorities will affect their electoral participation. Young people are usually not single-issue voters; they care about a wide range of economic and social issues that can drive and shift their voting behavior.

When we ask youth about their top concerns, as we did for our pre-2024 election youth poll, young people report having diverse priorities. In that poll, the cost of living/inflation was chosen as a top-3 issue by just over half of youth, but no other issue was picked by more than a third of young people, and 10 different issues were chosen by at least 10% of youth. That suggests that, as opposed to the vast majority of youth focusing on just a handful of priorities, many different issues are top of mind for different youth.

Among those were issues as different as gun violence prevention, jobs, public education, and reducing the national debt. In fact, young people often choose seemingly disparate issues: more than a third of young people in our pre-2024 election poll were likely to include cost of living/inflation, gun violence prevention, and climate change in their top three priorities.. Our research also suggests that young people of color are even more likely to be “intersectional” issue voters who are worried about a wide range of concerns.

Young people also connect political issues to political participation differently. Despite economic issues like the cost of living/inflation and jobs that pay a living wage being young people’s top two concerns in our poll, youth who prioritize those issues were less likely to say they’re “extremely likely” to vote in 2024. Meanwhile, nearly 3 in 4 youth who chose abortion or climate change as a top priority said they’re extremely likely to vote.

This presents both challenges and opportunities for parties, candidates, organizations, and others who want to engage youth in the 2024 election. Many young people’s complex and intersectional approach to political issues works both ways: some youth may be prioritizing the Israel-Palestine conflict because they connect it to broader concerns about racial justice; attention and action to those concerns, and to other issues vital to young people, may help engage them despite disillusionment or distrust of the U.S. government’s handling of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

There is plenty of time left before November for stakeholders to speak with and listen to youth about every issue. Those conversations should acknowledge many young people’s deeply held views about the Israel-Palestine conflict and other issues that matter to them. The action of directly engaging with youth, seeking out their voices, and encouraging their participation is part of the work necessary to grow voters equitably and effectively in our democracy. Ultimately, our success in growing voters is likely to have a much greater impact on voter turnout and long-term political participation than views on any single issue—even one as contentious as this one