ANN ARBOR, Mich. — University of Michigan senior Bhavani Iyer, 21, stayed in line to vote until 1 a.m. last November to help reelect Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and vote on a ballot measure to codify the right to abortion in the state.
The 21-year-old considers herself a Democrat, but sitting here on the Diag — an open area on the center of campus where students gather between classes and club meetings — she said she doesn’t know if she will support President Biden’s reelection bid next November. One of her top priorities is protecting access to abortion, but her disapproval of Biden’s handling of the Israel-Gaza war and his decision not to call for a full cease-fire weighs just as heavily on her mind these days.
“In past elections, I voted a straight ticket,” said Iyer, who is now weighing third-party options but is still unsure whom she would support. “But in this one, I feel like it’s probably not going to be that way.”
Sitting on a concrete bench with friends Andrea Gonzalez and Humza Irfan last week as fellow students rushed through the campus hub, all three of the young, typically reliably blue voters expressed their own moral conflict about how to vote — or whether to vote at all — in next year’s presidential contest.
Gonzalez, a 19-year-old whose parents are immigrants, said that she feels a deep sense of responsibility to cast her vote in what will be her first time participating in a presidential election but that she is torn over what she feels is a lack of options. While she feels disdain for Trump and his years of controversial rhetoric toward women, immigrants and people of color, Biden’s stance on the war makes it difficult to decide where she leans. And Irfan, 21, who said his enthusiasm for the incumbent president has been diminished by the war, noted the conflict has changed Biden’s standing overall among Muslims, many of whom feel he has shown a lack of sympathy for Palestinian civilians.
The uncertainty shared by the three friends is emblematic of the broader disapproval many young voters across the country have voiced over Biden’s handling of the Israel-Gaza war. Gen Z and millennial voters — defined as those born from 1997 to 2012 and 1981 to 1996, respectively — have typically supported Democratic candidates, and young people were key to flipping swing states such as Michigan blue and securing Biden’s win in 2020.
But conversations with more than a dozen students here underscore that Biden’s handling of the war threatens to diminish enthusiasm for him among young voters ahead of the 2024 election, with many students and other young people divided on how they will use their vote and their organizing power. Against the backdrop of concerns about Biden’s age, a number of liberal students here expressed openness to third-party candidates and frustration with another likely Trump-Biden rematch, signaling they would shift the focus of their volunteering down-ballot as a result.
At least 1,200 people were killed in Israel in Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack. More than 11,100 people have been killed in Gaza, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which said on Nov. 10 that it could no longer provide an updated count because of the intensity of fighting in the enclave and repeated communication breakdowns. The ministry estimates at least 2,000 more could be dead.
Israel approved a deal with Hamas early Wednesday to temporarily pause fighting in the Gaza Strip in exchange for the release of at least 50 of about 240 hostages held inside the enclave, bringing a temporary four-day halt to the war. But that pause — the first major de-escalatory step since the war began — still falls short of the permanent cease-fire that young voters, in interviews before the deal was confirmed, said that they want to see.
Biden has remained unapologetic in his defense of Israel, writing in an op-ed for The Washington Post on Saturday: “As long as Hamas clings to its ideology of destruction, a cease-fire is not peace.”
Americans overall continue to side strongly with Israel, but polling shows those views have grown increasingly polarized across party and generation even before the war. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll earlier this month found 48 percent of Gen Z and millennial adults said Israel’s military response has been “too much,” compared with 38 percent of the public overall. Most young adults disapprove of Biden’s handling of the situation, according to national polls this month by Fox News, Quinnipiac University and Marist College. And a recent poll from NBC News found that 70 percent of voters age 18 to 34 disapprove of Biden’s handling of the war.
Many experts and activists over the years have attributed the divide to younger generations’ disapproval of the right-wing politics of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli blockade of Gaza and occupation of the West Bank, and comparisons between the treatment of minorities in the United States and Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.
“After what’s happening right now in the Middle East, it’s a very difficult decision for people from my background who we’re going to be voting for,” said Irfan, who is Pakistani American and said a relative was killed last month in an apparent Israeli strike.
Gen Z and millennial voters are expected to comprise nearly 40 percent of the electorate in 2024 and have already flexed their influence on elections. They helped flip the Wisconsin Supreme Court earlier this year to a liberal majority, and they boosted turnout on college campuses in Pennsylvania and Virginia in this month’s elections. Polling showed young voters were highly motivated by issues such as abortion, in which there is a clear contrast between the stances of Biden and Trump, the front-runner for the GOP nomination.
But a diminished turnout among young voters could complicate Biden’s reelection bid, especially in key battleground states such as Michigan. Biden flipped the state in 2020, and network exit polls found 61 percent of Michigan voters ages 18 to 29 supported his campaign.
“We are working hard to highlight how an extreme MAGA agenda would devastate the financial security, safety, and freedom of young people, and how President Biden and Vice President Harris are fighting for the future that America’s young people deserve,” Biden-Harris spokesperson Kevin Munoz said in a statement. “As Democrats did in 2020 and 2022, we will meet younger Americans where they are and earn their votes.”
A Democratic National Committee official pointed to the recent hire of a youth coalitions director and an already launched relational organizing pilot program focused on young voters in Wisconsin as efforts to invest early in infrastructure to organize the youth vote ahead of next year’s election.
But support for Biden among young people was waning long before the war — with University of Michigan students outlining their disappointment over unmet promises on policies such as climate change and student loan forgiveness and concerns about his age.
Breah Marie Willy, 19, said that she was previously excited to vote for president for the first time in 2024, but now she is not sure who to vote for. She had hoped other Democrats would challenge Biden and was disappointed in his approval of the Willow Project, a major oil development in Alaska. His stance on a cease-fire has caused a bigger fissure, with her friends now referring to him as “Genocide Joe,” she said.
“We all have TikTok, we all have Instagram. And it’s honestly like we’ve begun to form these parasocial relationships with the people in Palestine,” Willy said, citing posts by a creator named Bisan Owda who shares videos from inside Gaza.
As students weigh their 2024 options, some liberal students such as Willy said they are open to voting for a third-party candidate, even if doing so could boost Trump.
Among those willing to take that risk is Joseph Fisher, 20, who now sees a third-party vote as a broader effort to push back against the two-party system.
“I just can’t see how I can ever muster up the courage a year from now to walk to a ballot box and vote for this person that has directly been responsible for so much harm,” he said of Biden.
A self-described former “Bernie bro,” Fisher was too young to vote in 2020 and instead volunteered on the youth council of his local NAACP in Cobb County, Ga., a fast-growing suburb of metropolitan Atlanta that helped turn the state blue.
Now as the political action chair of the Black Student Union and the activism chair of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, the University of Michigan chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, he echoed disapproval of Biden’s performance and is seriously considering supporting Claudia De la Cruz, who is running a long-shot presidential campaign on the Party for Socialism and Liberation ticket.
Zaynab Elkolaly, 22, another member of SAFE, said she voted for Biden in 2020 as a form of harm reduction compared with Trump but doesn’t believe casting her vote for an outside candidate is the best strategy.
“The general sentiment [on campus] towards Joe Biden is that he absolutely sucks. But we have to put up with him because his alternative is even worse,” Elkolaly said.
Earlier this month, several leaders of national youth organizing groups penned a letter to the Biden administration calling for a cease-fire and warning that the president’s stance on Israel could lower youth voter turnout in the presidential election.
“You and your Administration’s stance on Gaza risks millions of young voters staying home or voting third party next year,” the letter read, adding that it “will not be possible for those committed to turning out the youth vote this election to recruit the volunteers, organizers, staff, and donors needed to deliver the margins for Democratic victory down the ballot.”
“It’s one thing to be mobilizing the youth vote; it’s another to be asking for people’s time to help make sure that others are doing the same,” said Michele Weindling, the political director of the youth climate group Sunrise Movement and a signee of the letter.
Jack Petocz, mobilization coordinator for Gen-Z for Change, said motivating young voters to support Biden in 2024 is a harder sell in the wake of war. “I’ve never seen this kind of frustration and energy from my generation before,” he said.
Beyond those pushing a cease-fire, some Democratic students who support Biden’s backing of Israel expressed other frustrations with his candidacy or offered suggestions on how he can better his message to their peers.
Sari Rosenberg, 21, does not support a cease-fire in the current climate without the return of all hostages held by Hamas but argued Biden should be more critical of Netanyahu.
“I think that it’s important that we have Israel as an ally, but I don’t think Biden has been critical enough of the far-right government and a lot of the things that they’re trying to impose,” said Rosenberg, a Democrat who is chair of the undergraduate governing board of University of Michigan Hillel. “I think that Biden does not really take that into account.”
Rosenberg said it feels as though Democrats could do better than “an old white man” as president, and that she wishes other strong candidates had jumped into the race, citing her concern that Biden is “starting to deteriorate … age-wise.” Still, she plans to vote for him next November.
Members of College Democrats at the University of Michigan, some of the president’s top defenders on campus, said they believe at the end of the day that their peers will turn out for Biden, especially when confronted with Trump as the alternative — even as some acknowledged that the president could improve his messaging around the war.
“I understand some folks’ frustration, especially of recent in light of the Israel-Palestine conflict … it’s a deeply emotional thing, deeply personal,” said Jade Gray, the co-president of the group. “And I do think that the steps that he’s taken are along the path to a cease-fire, and I know that that’s what folks are looking for next.”
Nate Aurbach, another member of the organization, believes young voters will come out in support more for Biden as the election approaches, confronted by the realities of another Trump term.
“I think that a lot of young people are stepping back and taking a break and don’t necessarily want to say right now that they’d support Joe Biden, but I think as 2024 comes around, they’ll be forced to see what Donald Trump is saying,” he said. “And I think that that will genuinely scare a lot of people, as it should because what he’s saying is scary.”