In the lead-up to the Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clinton, now officially the Democratic nominee, and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont clashed over U.S. policy on Israel and Palestine. In one debate, Sanders criticized Clinton for not playing an even-handed role in the conflict, and more recently, the candidates’ appointees to the party’s platform committee disagreed over language calling for an end to the Israeli occupation. But is this disparity between the candidates and their surrogates reflected in the views of their constituents? Polls suggest not.
Political scientists are already debating whether Sanders supporters tend to be more “liberal” than those of Clinton on domestic policy, with two political scientists indicating they are not. Based on two national polls I conducted in May and June, these results seem to hold true for U.S.-Middle East policy as well. There is generally little difference between the supporters of Clinton and Sanders on these issues, despite significant demographic differences.
In contrast, the divide between Clinton and Sanders supporters and Donald Trump supporters is huge on some Middle East policy issues — even larger than on some of the most deeply divisive domestic issues.
American policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict
Over the past few years, I have asked Americans about their attitudes on American policy toward Israeli settlements. In a November 2015 poll, 49 percent of Democrats expressed support for imposing sanctions or harsher measures on Israeli settlements. In a May 2016 poll, 51 percent of Democrats expressed the same view (within the margin of error of the November poll).
Those expecting Clinton’s backers to be less supportive of such measures than Sanders’s are in for a surprise: 51 percent of Sanders’s supporters wanted punitive measures imposed, and 54 percent of Clinton’s expressed the same opinion — a statistical tie. In contrast, only 24 percent of Trump supporters voiced support for such measures.
A similar pattern emerges on the question of American diplomacy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Do Americans want the United States to lean toward the Israelis, the Palestinians or neither side? Among Clinton supporters, 83 percent want the United States to lean toward neither side, compared with 81 percent of Sanders supporters but only 43 percent of Trump backers — a 40-point gap between Trump and Clinton supporters.
If the issue of Palestinian statehood comes up at the United Nations, 44 percent of Clinton’s backers want the United States to vote in favor, compared with 39 percent of Sanders’s backers. In contrast, only 12 percent of Trump supporters want the United States to vote in favor of Palestinian statehood.
If the two-state solution is no longer an option, Americans, overall, continue to favor Israel’s democracy over its Jewishness. While 84 percent of Clinton supporters favor Israel’s democracy, 87 percent of Sanders backers express the same view, again within the margin of error. On this issue, a smaller majority of Trump supporters, 54 percent, also favor democracy over Jewishness — a 30-point gap with Clinton backers.
Perceptions of Islam and Muslims
With perceptions of Islam and Muslims, supporters of both Democratic candidates are as close as can be, while their views are most notably different than those of Trump. Eighty-two and 84 percent of Clinton and Sanders supporters, respectively, claim they hold favorable views of “the Muslim people” compared with only 34 percent of Trump supporters — a striking difference of some 50 points — higher than the partisan divide on divisive domestic issues such as abortion. The same point-spread is also true of American attitudes toward Islam: While nearly the same percentage of Clinton and Sanders supporters have an equally favorable view of Islam (66 and 64 percent correspondingly), only 16 percent of Trump supporters say the same.
Why are candidates’ rhetoric different when supporters’ views are similar?
On what may be considered quite divisive Middle East policy issues, there appears to be little difference between the supporters of Clinton and Sanders. Overall, Sanders’s campaign positions have reflected the views of most Democrats, including Clinton backers. The candidates’ divergent postures on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, both in the Democratic primaries and on the Democratic Party Platform committee are not driven by public constituent differences. More likely, they are sustainable because the Palestinian-Israeli issue is not among the public’s top-priorities, so big campaign contributors hold more sway.
In a December 2014 piece I wrote with Katayoun Kishi, we concluded that although public opinion on the Middle East was not a deciding factor in general elections, the gap between the views of the Democratic constituents and their elected officials was so wide that this issue was bound to become a primary issue.
In many ways, then, the rise of a candidate like Sanders — whose positions on Middle East issues are more closely aligned with the Democratic majority — was predictable. Now that Democrats have chosen their nominee, views on issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict are not likely to become campaign issues for Democrats in the general election — except, perhaps, when forced to respond to extreme right-wing positions. These issues are not priorities for most Americans, and the gap between the Democratic and Republican nominees dwarfs the gulf between Democratic politicians and their constituents. Still, it remains to be seen whether, in the meantime, frustrations over this gap between the Democratic campaign position and the views of the Democratic public will keep some voters home in November.
Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland and a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.