10 min read

How big a story are the campus protests?

And how big an issue are they for Joe Biden and the Democrats in 2024?
How big a story are the campus protests?
This photo shows three things at once: 1) The pro-Palestinian encampment at Columbia University. 2) A collection of journalists filming them. 3) Outside its perimeter, campus life going on as usual. (Photo by Pamela Drew)

Good morning! It’s Monday, April 29, 2024. Election Day is 190 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

After major political marches or protests, I’ll invariably hear from readers — on both sides of the aisle — who ask why I didn’t do more to cover the latest demonstration (or its excesses) in the newsletter.

And the truth is, I have a mixed relationship with covering protests. On one hand, of course, protests play a vital role in our democracy: the right to peaceably assemble is enshrined in our First Amendment, and there are many obvious examples of mass movements that have directly led to huge social change or important legislation.

On the other, I try to hew pretty carefully to covering government in this newsletter — telling you what your elected leaders are doing (or not doing) — and it’s not always clear in the moment when a protest will have much of an impact on governmental action (or on which party will control the government).

In recent political history, there have been protests, like the demonstrations against the Trump administration’s child-separation policy, that successfully applied pressure on elected officials and clearly achieved their goals. There are others, like the Tax March or the Climate March, that drew tens of thousands of protesters and plenty of media coverage, but failed to move the needle in any way in Washington. There are those, like the Tea Party, that might not get what they demanded, but unquestionably changed the composition of the government. There are some, like the Black Lives Matter movement or the March for Our Lives, that achieve little on the federal level but succeed in affecting state or local policy. And there are still more, like Occupy Wall Street, that failed to get what they want in the moment but which set into motion broader changes within a political party that were hard to detect contemporaneously.

When a protest is going on, it’s hard to tell which will be which, separating the politically consequential from the merely well-attended — and this, of course, is by design. Activists always want to make it seem like their movement has the maximum support and will make the maximum impact. It’s the (often difficult) job of journalists to discern when they are telling the truth, and when they are blowing smoke.

Which brings us to the latest campus demonstrations about Israel and Gaza, which have been given quite a healthy dose of media coverage in the past few days.

There are plenty of reasons for that level of saturation. Good reasons include the fact that the war in Gaza is undeniably a very important story, and these protests provides a relevant domestic angle for that story. Accusations of antisemitic rhetoric and arrests made at many campuses only serve to increase the newsworthiness of the protests. Many elected leaders, especially Republicans, have also spoken out about the protests, further giving them reason to be covered. (This is a logical move for Republicans: a political party will always want to emphasize issues that unite their party and divide the opposition.)

But then there are not-so-good reasons, like the fact that the protests started in New York City, making them logistically convenient for journalists to cover, or that graduates of elite colleges are heavily over-represented at many media organizations, and stories about protests at those institutions are naturally interesting to their alumni.

It should go without saying, but just because a story is tailor-made to be interesting to journalists, does not necessarily mean it’s important or worthy of coverage. And certainly not of over-coverage. Above all, the issuing of scaling is important here. I’m not saying campus protests deserve no coverage, but, to me, this frenzy reached its fever pitch on Friday, when The New York Times — the country’s paper of record — sent a push notification to its millions of subscribers announcing that Columbia had punished a little-known student protest leader.

Of course, the Times is a New York paper, but is it much of an urgent breaking news story that a college has barred from campus (not even suspended or expelled) a student who barely has a public profile?

The protests haven’t taken place exclusively at elite colleges, to be sure, but most of the coverage has centered around schools like Columbia, NYU, Yale, and Wash U, universities that are very small in relative terms. Putting aside the fact that many young Americans don’t even attend college, only 6% of those that do attend schools with acceptance rates of 25% or less. Yet it has been hard to open a national newspaper recently without reading about students who, at best, make up around 6% of that 6%.

It seems to me that the scaling has gotten a bit off-kilter.

Still, another good reason to cover the protests would be if journalists believe they are poised to play a role in the 2024 election. (As an outlet that doesn’t focus on foreign policy or higher education, that would certainly be a reason for me to cover them at Wake Up To Politics.)

The youth vote — while perhaps not as pivotal as some have claimed — is poised to be an important factor in the presidential race, and these protests would certainly be coverage-worthy if it could be proven that they represent a large Gen Z swing against Joe Biden over Israel/Gaza.

The problem is, that link is very hard to prove. And it’s especially hard to prove in an environment where polling young voters has become so difficult.

As I wrote last week, the topline presidential polls have been all over the place recently, flitting between Biden leads and Trump leads (which I recommended you mentally average out to a tie). For example, a CNN poll came out this weekend giving Trump a six-point lead nationally, which is simply incompatible with CBS News surveys this weekend that showed one- and two-point races in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

But these polls are showing particularly incompatible results when it comes to young voters. The CNN survey showed Trump up 11 points among 18-to-34-year-olds, while CBS showed Biden with healthy double-digit leads among the same demographic in all three battleground states. One of those results would suggest a five-alarm fire for Democrats, perhaps partially attributable to Biden’s policies in the Middle East. (In the CNN poll, 55% of young voters say the Israel/Hamas war will be “very or extremely important” to their presidential vote.) The other result suggests that young voters are essentially where they were in 2020. They can’t both be true at once.

Amid this crosstab chaos, one thing we can do is look towards polls that only survey young voters. Most polls include very small samples of specific demographics, which make it dangerous to dive into the crosstabs and expect comprehensive results.

The Harvard Youth Poll, on the other hand, surveys more than 2,000 18-to-29-year-olds (almost double the number of total registered voters CNN surveyed in its entire recent poll). It has been polling young voters for more than 20 years, and is one of the most widely respected barometers of youth opinions. In 2020, its final pre-election reading nailed Joe Biden’s percentage of the youth vote (60%) exactly. (It should be noted that the poll’s director, John Della Volpe, consulted on the Biden campaign last time around.)

Its latest poll came out this month, and it tells a fairly clear story about Biden, young voters, and Israel/Gaza:

1. Young voters are not big fans of Joe Biden, including when it comest to the Israel-Hamas war.

  • 31% of 18-to-29-year-olds approve of his job performance, while 64% disapprove.
  • 18% approve of Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza, while 76% disapprove.

2. They also don’t particularly care about the issue, and don’t really lean towards one side or the other in the conflict.

  • 9% say they are following news about the war “very closely,” compared to 33% say they are following “not very closely” and 26% who say “not at all.” 28% said they are following the war “somewhat closely.”
  • Almost equivalent amounts said they sympathize with the Palestinian people (56%) and Israeli people (52%), and with the Palestinian government (32%) and Israeli government (29%).
  • 28% said the U.S. should be more of an ally to Israel or maintain its current relationship, while 29% said the U.S. should be less of an ally to Israel or not an ally at all. 41% said they didn’t know.

3. Accordingly, most young voters plan to vote for Biden despite their concerns with his Mideast policy. This is especially true among likely voters.

  • Among all 18-to-29-year-olds, Biden is ahead 46% to 37%, with 16% undecided.
  • Among likely voters, Biden’s margin moves closer to his 2020 result, taking 56% of the youth vote to Trump’s 37%. (This still represents a gain for Trump, but one not nearly as dramatic as other polls have shown.)
Graph by John Della Volpe

In this telling, the students in encampments are not very representative of their age group, and rather are outliers who have succeeded in doing what activists always try to do: receiving media coverage disproportionate to their peer support.

To underscore that point, only 14% of young voters in the Harvard poll said they had participated in a political rally or demonstration in the last 12 months. To be more issue-specific, only 1% identified Israel/Palestine as their top issue, which presumably many in the encampments would.

The poll also took 16 major issues and gave them to respondents in a series of randomized match-ups, trying to find out which issues which more important to young voters than each other issue. In the aggregate of all these match-ups, Israel/Palestine came out #15 out of 16 issues.

Harvard Youth Poll Spring 2024 - Issues by Gender, Race, and Political Party
Graph by the Harvard Youth Poll

To the extent that Biden is underperforming among young voters, this graph suggests that it is more logical to focus on their dissatisfaction about economic issues than anything currently being protested on college campuses.

Still, there are two important caveats to this narrative. One, this poll could be wrong. Clearly, polling young voters has only gotten more complicated, and while I’d prefer to lean on surveys dedicated to tracking youth opinion, that doesn’t mean those surveys have nailed it. Other polls tell a different story about Biden’s youth support, and they could end up being right. (No other poll offers as comprehensive a look at youth opinions on specific issues, so it’s hard to compare the Harvard results on Israel/Gaza against any other survey.)

Second, we know this will be a close election, so the war in Gaza would not have to swing many voters for it to still play a role in 2024. Even if this is only about the 6% of the 6%, those are still voters Biden can’t afford to lose in some key states.

But, if we’re returning to our original question — should these protests be covered as representative of a bigger Gen Z problem for Biden and the Democrats? — there’s mixed evidence at best, and not much that would suggest the answer is a “yes.”

More news to know.

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