Politics / February 20, 2024

Michigan’s “Uncommitted” Campaign Is Challenging Biden. It Could Also Save Him.

Rashida Tlaib, Andy Levin, and others are urging Michigan Democrats to send a message to the president about Gaza by voting “uncommitted” in the state’s February 27 primary.

John Nichols
(Listen to Michigan)

Detroit—Former Michigan US Representative Andy Levin is a veteran union organizer who comes from one of Michigan’s most prominent Democratic families. He knows Joe Biden and has supported the president in the past. He wants, very much, to see Donald Trump defeated in November. But Levin is not urging Michigan Democrats to vote for Biden in the state’s February 27 Democratic presidential primary. Instead, he is arguing that they should cast an “uncommitted” vote to signal to the president that he must end US support for the Israeli assault on Gaza, which has left almost 30,000 Palestinians dead.

Levin, who was an ardent advocate for peace and justice in the Middle East during his two terms in the House, is one of many Michigan Democrats who fear that Biden could lose the battleground state this fall—and with it, the White House—because of his refusal to demand a cease-fire in Gaza and his ongoing support for US military aid to Israel. “As a Michigander, I’m concerned about the impact that Biden’s funding of Israel’s war will have on our fight against Trump and for democracy,” says Levin. “I’m hearing from so many, especially young people, that thousands of innocents dying under US bombs and warplanes makes them feel ashamed.”

Levin’s not alone in worrying that the Biden administration’s support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government—and the war it launched in Gaza following the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel—will prove so unpopular in Michigan, a state with a large and politically active Arab-American population, that Biden could lose to Trump. US Representative Rashida Tlaib, the Palestinian-American Democrat who represents areas with some of the biggest Arab communities in the country, has warned that “American Muslims and Arab Americans do not feel represented by our government right now.”

Levin, a Jewish-American who was voted out of office following a heavily funded campaign against him by political groups such as the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee, and Tlaib, one of the first two Muslim women elected to the US House, are trying to send Biden a message about the moral urgency of supporting a cease-fire in Gaza, and about the political urgency of addressing the concerns of Michigan voters about Gaza. Both of them are amplifying the message of the “Listen to Michigan” campaign, which urges voters in the state’s Democratic primary to skip over Biden’s name and support the “uncommitted” option on the ballot.

“This is the way you can raise our voices,” said Tlaib in a video posted Saturday. “Right now, we feel completely neglected and just unseen by our government.” The House member, who campaigned actively for Biden in the fall of 2020, says, “It is also important to create a voting bloc, something that is a bullhorn, to say, ‘Enough is enough. We don’t want a country that supports wars and bombs and destruction. We want to support life. We want to support life. We want to stand up for every single life killed in Gaza.’”

The “Listen to Michigan” campaign has gained significant traction as the primary approaches. It’s backed by more than 30 Democratic elected officials—including Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud, who leads a city with one of the largest Arab-American populations in the United States, and state Representative Abraham Aiyash, the party’s majority leader in the state House of Representatives. In a joint statement where they pledged to vote “uncommitted” on February 27, the officials announced, “These are not empty words, they signify our steadfast commitment to justice, dignity, and the sanctity of human life, which is greater than loyalty to any candidate or party.”

The “Listen to Michigan” campaign has been endorsed by the widely circulated Metro Times in Detroit. It’s also earned the backing of Detroit’s well-established Democratic Socialists of America local, which in recent days has made more than 20,000 calls urging voters to mark the “uncommitted” box on their ballots, and the national progressive group Our Revolution, which was founded by supporters of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders after his 2016 presidential campaign.

Sanders, who has been highly critical of ongoing US support for the war, and who recently led an effort to block new military aid to Israel, says he is supporting Biden and is not associated with the Our Revolution effort. But the group is making a major push to run up the “uncommitted” vote. It refers to the drive as “a strategic effort to signal to President Biden that he must change his approach to the war between Israel and Hamas in order to realign with the values of his base, including young voters, voters of color, and Michigan’s significant Arab-American population.”

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In a letter to 87,000 Our Revolution supporters in Michigan, Levin wrote, “We need to send President Biden a message: We are outraged by US complicity in the destruction of Gaza, the killing of thousands of civilians, including more than 10,000 children, and it must STOP!”

While the letter expressed opposition to Biden’s policies, it was not an anti-Biden missive. In fact, Levin wrote, “Our Rev supporters can push Biden to change course on Gaza now and increase his chances of winning Michigan in November—because we MUST defeat the right wing Trump agenda!”

It is hard to see how Biden can beat Trump without winning in Michigan. The state is part of the “Blue Wall” of Great Lakes battlegrounds—along with Wisconsin and Pennsylvania—that is critical for Democratic presidential prospects. In 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton lost the “Blue Wall” states to the Republicans, and Trump became president. In 2020, Trump lost them to the Democrats, and Biden became president.

This year, with Democrats looking vulnerable in swing states such as Georgia and Nevada, and perhaps Arizona, the “Blue Wall” is more critical than ever. Unfortunately for Biden, while he looks to be reasonably strong in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, he’s been consistently losing to Trump in Michigan polls for months, sometimes by as much as eight to 10 points. Biden’s weakness with Arab-American voters, young voters, and others who support a cease-fire in Gaza is seen as a key explanation for why he’s having trouble this year in Michigan, a state he carried in 2020 by more than 150,000 votes, and where Democrats control the governorship and the state legislature.

That’s what has Levin and “Listen to Michigan” campaigners worried. “I feel like this is existential for Joe Biden’s political survival,” the former Democratic congressman explained in an interview last week. “I don’t see how he wins reelection without winning Michigan, and I don’t see how he wins Michigan without changing course.”

The prospect that Trump could win Michigan and the presidency unsettles many of the Democrats who are supporting the “uncommitted” campaign in Michigan. But, they argue, simply telling angry and frustrated voters that they must back Biden won’t be enough to swing Michigan to the president. “Trump is a threat to American democracy,” Hammoud has said. “So what will President Biden do to prevent the unraveling of our American democracy? Why is being aligned with [Benjamin] Netanyahu and the most right-wing government in Israel’s history worth potentially sacrificing our democracy?”

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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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