More than a month after the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel killed about 1,200 civilians, the world is watching Israel carry out its response. Its prosecution of the war—as well as how other countries are reacting—is escalating concerns among swing voters that World War III could be approaching.
In focus groups on November 7 with 11 Trump-to-Biden swing voters from Arizona, all had heard the news that Israel was attacked by Hamas on October 7, with a slight majority—six—closely following news of the latest developments of the war.
Our probing found none believe that Hamas was justified in attacking Israel given the way Israel has treated the Palestinians. On the contrary, eight believe it’s the proper role for the U.S. to come to Israel’s defense, with eight supporting additional military assistance to Israel—over and above the annual military assistance the U.S. already provides. Only five think the U.S. should give Israel financial assistance to help its war effort.
Ten of 11 swing-voting Arizonans say they are worried this Middle East war could lead to World War III. For comparison’s sake, in our previous month’s focus groups, just four days after October 7, none of our Georgia swing voters said they feared such a profound escalation.
This month, we heard comments such as these:
“There’s already been at least one report of somebody trying to pull back one member of the Israeli parliament that wanted to drop a nuke on Gaza City….If that’s the kind of rhetoric that’s being tossed around…It’s been very inflammatory, and the weaponry has gotten to the point where it very easily could become global if certain spots in the region are hit. So it’s a tinder box,” said Chris, 44, in Gilbert.
John, 53, in Mesa, remarked, “You’ve already got a war with Ukraine and Russia, and then if you come into play where North Korea is giving weapons to Russia and then you’ve got Iran that might come into the mix with the Israeli conflict or any other countries, I just feel that this could expand if it’s not controlled. Meaning that these countries are going to piggyback off of one another and find allies, and those allies are going to grow and become problematic potentially.”
Despite our swing voters’ support for Israel, they are split on whether Israel is justified in the way it has responded in Gaza during the war’s first month. Six believe it is justified, and the other five say it’s not, or they’re unsure. Notably, all 11 swing voters draw a clear distinction between Hamas and the Palestinian people generally, with only one believing that most Palestinians inside Gaza support the October 7 attack.
Some, such as Bob, 62, from Scottsdale, are clearly supportive of Israel’s situation:
“I think what a lot of people don’t realize is that Israel has been under attack for its entire existence, most recently by Hezbollah and by Hamas. It’s not just a single event, which happened back on October 7, so Israel is lashing out right now in a strategic manner. They’re faced with a difficult task of trying to free the hostages, but at the same time, trying to target the Hamas leadership, while other countries in the background are trying to minimize the conflict to not become a full regional conflict.
Israel has the manpower, the technology, and the weapons to wipe Gaza off the face of the earth, and they’re not doing that. They’re going in and trying to attack Hamas through the underground, destroy their underground tunnels. Hamas is using innocents as shields, unfortunately, and Hamas is trying to gather, in my opinion, world opinion for their side by publishing numbers of casualties, which are not confirmed. There’s no independent source there…I think what Israel is doing is a strategic response, and they’re being restrained by the rest of the world from not just going in and wiping out all of Gaza.”
Others shared doubts about Israel’s response:
“I think that it’s just completely unnecessary and vicious, and there’s too many people that are getting killed for absolutely no reason, including young children and babies. It’s just very sad. It’s a sad time for the world,” remarked Stephanie, 41, from Phoenix.
“I think it’s possible that they had to act immediately to prevent any further Hamas attacks,” commented Steven, 63, from Prescott Valley. “There is certainly a little bit too much collateral damage; innocent people are getting killed. It’s a real sticky situation—how to go after that group without harming civilians. That’s the difficult part for me. How do you do that?”
Three approve of President Biden’s handling of America’s role in this conflict, while the other eight are fairly neutral at this point. None disapprove of Biden’s handling of the situation.
Among those who approve, swing voters told us we need to support our allies and Israel is our only “true ally in the Middle East.” Also, they approve of his call for a “pause” in the conflict for humanitarian reasons.
Among those who are fairly neutral at this point, swing voters commented that they want to withhold judgment until they see how involved the U.S. is going to become in the conflict and how everything plays out, given how complicated the situation is.
Notably, none of our swing voters believe former President Trump would do a better job of handling the crisis than President Biden. They described him as a “loose cannon” who cannot be trusted. They doubted that he has the experience to deal with the dynamics of the situation, and he would be focused on other things than Israel, as he has shown by speaking out against helping Ukraine.
This observation about how Trump would react was entirely consistent with answers we heard to the same question a month earlier among Georgia swing voters. In an international crisis, Trump is just not trusted.
Rich Thau is the president of the research firm Engagious, which specializes in message testing and message refinement for trade associations and advocacy groups. He is also the moderator of the Swing Voter Project, conducted in partnership with Sago. Matt Steffee is vice president of research services at Engagious.