Politics / February 28, 2024

Michigan Voters Made It Clear: Biden’s Gaza Policy Threatens His Reelection

The “Uncommitted” vote was a measure of frustration with Biden’s stance on Gaza, and it was up dramatically from past primaries.

John Nichols
Natalia Katie places a sign on the podium before the beginning of the press conference for the group Listen to Michigan during its election-night watch party for the Michigan presidential primary election in Dearborn on February 27, 2024.

Natalia Katie places a sign on the podium before the beginning of the press conference for the group Listen to Michigan during its election-night watch party for the Michigan presidential primary election in Dearborn on February 27, 2024.

(Mostafa Bassim / Anadolu via Getty Images)

The last time an incumbent Democratic president ran in a Michigan presidential primary, 20,833 Democrats voted “Uncommitted.”

That was in 2012, when President Barack Obama secured 90 percent of the vote in a low-turnout primary. Obama went on to carry the battleground state with relative ease in November.

This year, President Joe Biden was hoping for a similar show of support from all the constituencies that form the Democratic base in Michigan, a battleground state he desperately needs to win in what’s shaping up as a close November contest with Republican former president Donald Trump. That’s one of the reasons the Biden team and its allies at the Democratic National Committee moved Michigan’s primary to a position near the start of the 2024 nominating process. But on Tuesday night, primary voters in Michigan sent a very different message than the one the president was looking for. More than 100,000 of them checked the “Uncommitted” box—five times as many as did so in 2012.

As of early Wednesday morning, with 95 percent of the total counted, Biden had received just over 81 percent of the vote, while 13.3 percent chose the “Uncommitted” option on the Michigan ballot. The remaining votes went to author and 2020 presidential candidate Marianne Williamson, who has suspended her 2024 bid, and US Representative Dean Phillips (D-Mich.).

It’s no secret why “Uncommitted” performed so strongly. The protest vote offered an opportunity to express outrage over Biden’s hands-off approach to Israel’s assault on Gaza. That military offensive, launched after the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, has left almost 30,000 Palestinian civilians dead. More than 12,000 of the casualties are children.

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Biden has been warned for months, by critics and allies, that his unstinting support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war would put his campaign in peril. With Tuesday’s vote, which came at a point when the president and his aides say they are working to ease the violence in Gaza but have yet to achieve anything akin to an agreement for a permanent cease-fire, a substantial portion of Michigan Democrats showed him that they weren’t bluffing. Their message was blunt: Biden’s presidency could hang in the balance if he doesn’t pay attention to voters he needs in November.

“Every person who voted ‘Uncommitted’ today was personally compelled to use their voice to speak out against President Biden’s support of Benjamin Netanyahu’s ongoing genocide of the Palestinian people,” said Abdullah Hammoud, the mayor of Dearborn, a heavily Democratic city of almost 110,000 that is home to the largest Muslim population, per capita, in the United States—and where the “Uncommitted” option was beating Biden by a 56-40 margin. “Today, thousands said, ‘Enough’. As American citizens and Michigan voters, we have made our voices heard at the ballot box. Now, it is up to President Biden to listen to Michigan and do the right thing.”

The “right thing” was defined during the primary campaign by the “Listen to Michigan” movement, which was organized just three weeks ago to urge voters who are angry with Biden’s Gaza stance to cast “Uncommitted” ballots in order to deliver a message to the president. The campaign, which drew support from US Representative Rashida Tlaib and dozens of elected Democrats, as well as activist groups and Detroit’s Metro Times, focused on a pair of fundamental themes: the moral necessity for Biden and his foreign policy team to support an immediate and permanent cease-fire in order to stop the killing in Gaza; and the political necessity for Biden and his reelection campaign to recognize that Arab American voters, Muslim voters, young voters, and a substantial number of Black voters want a new direction when it comes to US policies regarding Israel and Palestine. All of those constituencies are key to Democratic prospects in Michigan, a swing state, where Biden trails Trump in most recent polls.

Michigan has for many years been one of America’s most closely contested battleground states. In 2016, when Democrat Hillary Clinton struggled to mobilize party constituencies, she lost Michigan to Trump by a little more than 10,000 votes, for a 0.23 percent margin. Four years later, when Biden maximized his appeal to the party base, the Democrat beat the Republican by roughly 155,000 votes, for a 2.78 percent margin.

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This year, says former US representative Andy Levin (D-Mich.), “I don’t think that Joe Biden can win the presidency without winning Michigan, and I don’t think that he can win Michigan without a change of course on Gaza.”

Levin is not alone in arguing that if Biden hopes to carry Michigan in November, he must recognize that he’s got a political problem in the state, and that this problem is rooted in anger over his Gaza stance among precisely the voters that he needs to win. Those voters are in places like Wayne County—with its large Arab American communities in Dearborn and Hamtramck, and its large Black population in Detroit and other communities—and Washtenaw County, a liberal stronghold where the Democratic vote is powered by student turnout at the University of Michigan campus at Ann Arbor and Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. Those counties registered some of the highest levels of frustration with Biden on Tuesday, as more than 17 percent of voters in Wayne and Washtenaw cast “Uncommitted” ballots.

Among Muslim voters, the numbers were most dramatic. An exit poll conducted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations and its Michigan chapter, suggested that over 90 percent of Michigan Muslims who were contacted for the survey had voted “Uncommitted.”

“What we know is this: Michigan is going to be a significant state in November, and there are a significant number of pro-peace, anti-war voters in Michigan,” explained Michigan State House majority leader Abraham Aiyash, a Democrat who said that, while “Donald Trump is by far the worst and most reckless candidate running for president,” many Michiganders believe that “Joe Biden hasn’t done enough to stop the mass slaughter and suffering of the Palestinians. We can and will demand more from the president.”

Aiyash says Michigan Democrats will take that demand to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago this summer, where they will push not just for a permanent cease-fire but for cutting US military aid to Israel. If Biden and the Democrats do not respond, suggests Aiyash, they risk the prospect of losing both Michigan and the presidency.

Michigan’s volatility has made it an essential swing state for many years. But it could be even more critical in 2024. That’s because several states that Biden carried in 2020, including Georgia and Nevada, could be harder to win this year. So the president needs Michigan. Yet the “Uncommitted” vote of Tuesday signals that he has a lot of work to do if he hopes to unite and turn out the whole of the Democratic base.

James Zogby, the founder and president of the Arab-American Institute, and a longtime member of the executive committee of the Democratic National Committee, summed up the message from Michigan on Tuesday warning Biden, “Read the room…. Change policy & promote justice for Palestinians—or risk losing.”

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John Nichols

John Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He has written, cowritten, or edited over a dozen books on topics ranging from histories of American socialism and the Democratic Party to analyses of US and global media systems. His latest, cowritten with Senator Bernie Sanders, is the New York Times bestseller It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.

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