BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images
Biden’s pro-Israel stance boosts his standing in Pennsylvania
Democrats worry they’ll lose left-wing voters over Biden’s pro-Israel stance. But in Pennsylvania, he’s gotten a boost — along with other top leaders.
Shortly after hundreds of Hamas terrorists launched the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, President Joe Biden delivered an emotional address pledging to stand by Israel in responding to the massacre.
The months since have brought devastating fallout, both in the Middle East, where a bloody war in Gaza is ongoing as Israel tries to eradicate the Palestinian terror group, and in the U.S., where antisemitism has exploded and civil unrest has erupted over the war. Some Muslim Americans and young left-wing activists are threatening to sit out the 2024 presidential election or vote for third-party candidates over their opposition to Biden’s support for Israel.
While that scenario has sparked serious concern among Democrats in Michigan, which has the nation’s largest proportion of Arab-American residents, Democrats in Pennsylvania — the biggest battleground state and a must-win for Biden in November — view the political ramifications of the Israel-Hamas war differently.
Pennsylvania’s Democratic leaders, from Gov. Josh Shapiro to Sens. John Fetterman and Bob Casey, have emerged as strong supporters of Israel and close allies of the state’s Jewish community since Oct. 7. (In another sign of Pennsylvania voters’ support for Israel, Republican Dave McCormick is running against Casey by arguing he has a stronger pro-Israel record — and making a January visit to the Jewish state.)
In December, after a protest outside a Philadelphia falafel shop owned by the Israeli-American chef Michael Solomonov, Shapiro called for all leaders to condemn antisemitism in strong terms. He also called out the former president of the University of Pennsylvania, Liz Magill, for her failure to address antisemitism on campus. And Fetterman, a Pittsburgh-area Democrat who ran with support from progressives, has become one of Israel’s fiercest backers in Congress. After anti-Israel protesters appeared at his house one night in January, he stepped onto his roof to wave an Israeli flag at them.
With the fourth-largest Jewish population in the country, Pennsylvania is one of just a handful of states where Jewish voters can have a decisive impact on election results. A 2021 study found that the state has 299,000 Jewish adults, about 3% of Pennsylvania’s voting population. In 2020, Biden beat Donald Trump in the state by roughly 1.2%, or 81,000 votes.
“Pennsylvania has a significant Jewish population, one of the core parts of the Democratic base in the state,” said Christopher Borick, a polling expert and the director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. “You have that group that you need. But also, of course, the Democratic coalition in Pennsylvania includes younger voters and voters of color who certainly have differing views on Gaza.”
Nearly a dozen Democratic activists and consultants in the Keystone State told Jewish Insider that they all recognize the concerns that the war in Gaza presents when it comes to young, left-wing voters. But many of them also said that Biden’s support for Israel and the Jewish people after the Oct. 7 attacks has solidified his standing with a key constituency.
“I think the reason that people are standing by Biden so strongly in the Jewish community is because he recognizes the historic nature of this conflict, the historic nature of Israel and the Jewish people fighting for our rights to have a place to live,” said Josh Portney, a city councilmember in State College, Pa., and law student at Penn State. “He is somebody who recognizes how strong of an ally Israel is, and how much we need them as much as they need us. From a foreign policy perspective, I think Jews really appreciate it.”
Biden’s backers in Pennsylvania acknowledge the uncomfortable reality that governing during a deadly war in one of the world’s most complicated regions means making difficult choices that will inevitably alienate some members of the president’s coalition.
“No matter what decision he made, part of the Democratic support base would be unhappy,” said Sue Berman Kress, a clinical psychologist and a Jewish Democratic activist in Pittsburgh.
Larry Ceisler, a public affairs executive in Philadelphia, argued that this is “the dilemma you’re in when you’re in office, and it’s your responsibility. You can’t please everybody, and you just have to try to do your best.”
If Biden had changed his strategy and ceded to the demands of anti-Israel voices on the party’s left, some Pennsylvania Democrats argue he likely would still have faced political consequences — just from a different direction.
“If you go down that alternate route, and say, ‘Biden would have reacted the way some on the left want him to react,’ there’s no question that he would have paid a political price for that as well. It just would have been with, say, Jewish moderates in places like suburban Philadelphia or Long Island,” said one top Pennsylvania Democratic elected official.
The Biden campaign declined to comment on how the president’s handling of the war in Gaza is impacting his political standing.
“Our personal freedoms and democracy itself are on the line this November, and Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will spend the next nine months earning every vote and assembling the broad and diverse coalition it takes to win the White House,” said Seth Schuster, a Biden campaign spokesperson. “Meanwhile, Donald Trump echoes the rhetoric of Nazi Germany and invites white supremecists to dinner at Mar-a-Lago. The choice this November could not be clearer.”
Early polling averages show Biden with a slight edge over Trump in Pennsylvania, one bright spot in an otherwise bleak polling landscape for the president. More voters viewed Fetterman favorably after his outspoken backing of the Jewish state, according to a January Quinnipiac poll. That same survey found nearly twice as many Pennsylvania voters (26%) appreciated his pro-Israel stance than were turned off by it (14%).
Nationally, public opinion polling about Biden’s handling of the war presents a mixed picture: A new Economist/YouGov poll found a 52% majority of Democrats approve of Biden’s handling of Israel’s war against Hamas, while 29% disapprove. The findings show there’s a clear divide within the party on the polarizing issue, but the pro-Israel wing of the party is much larger.
“I think a lot of hay has been made for a relatively small number of folks who have had some consternation over the actions of this administration,” said Dan Siegel, a Democratic consultant who led the Biden campaign’s outreach to Jewish Pennsylvanians in 2020. “As an American Jew, I feel like my president is standing with me. And that’s enough for me.”
Abigail Salisbury, a state representative in Allegheny County, said she has seen deep divides within her heavily Democratic district over the war. But she thinks the war in Gaza, and Biden’s handling of it, ultimately will not be the decisive factor in how her constituents vote in November.
“People are focused on their day-to-day living,” said Salisbury. “One cannot blame them for not being absorbed in international affairs.”
Mitch Kates, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, quoted Biden to explain his party’s prevailing message — that not showing up is akin to casting a vote for Trump.
“As Joe Biden says, ‘Don’t compare me to the Almighty. Compare me to the alternative,’” Kates told JI. “ We have a very strong story to tell on the accomplishments of this administration, and when you contrast that with what the other side is bringing, especially with Donald Trump, we think that people are going to, at the end of the day, show up because they need to.”