Sizeable ‘uncommitted’ vote in Michigan ignites debate among Democrats

The unexpectedly large number of “uncommitted” votes in Michigan’s Democratic primary Tuesday is igniting a debate in the Democratic Party over the magnitude of the challenge President Biden faces from an energized pro-Palestinian movement, which is challenging his handling of Israel’s war in Gaza and plans to mount similar efforts in other upcoming primaries.

Biden campaign officials and allies noted that the percentage of those who voted uncommitted in Michigan, rather than pulling the lever for Biden, was about 13 percent, not necessarily out of line with past results. And while about 101,000 people voted “uncommitted,” roughly 620,000 voted for Biden, reflecting strong Democratic turnout that they said bodes well for November.

Former president Donald Trump, the leading Republican nominee, faced his own challenges in Michigan, as former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley garnered about 27 percent of the GOP vote Tuesday night. For Trump, far and away the dominant figure in the GOP, that suggested potential trouble ahead, Democrats and Haley supporters contended. Trump has won all of the Republican primary contests so far, but he has often performed worse than polls suggested he would.

Still, some Democrats argued that the sheer number of people who voted “uncommitted” was a flashing warning sign that the president must change course and rebuild trust with key parts of the Democratic Party if he hopes to win the critical swing state in November. Some said privately that they feared the Biden campaign is significantly underestimating the anger among Arab Americans, Muslims, young voters and people of color over the president’s nearly unwavering support for Israel, whose onslaught has devastated Gaza.

Biden wins Michigan primary but faces ‘uncommitted’ protest

“Over 100,000 Democratic voters choosing uncommitted, and 75 percent of Arab American voters doing so, should be a warning that the status quo policies on Gaza are eroding the broad, multiracial, modern Democratic coalition that Obama built,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who is a Biden surrogate but disagrees with his Israel policy.

Khanna added, “I am proud of the president’s win last night and desperately want him reelected. But we need a change of course on Middle East policy.”

The debate among Democrats revolved in part around which voters Biden should be prioritizing. Khanna and other liberal Democrats argued that Biden needs to energize the party’s base and build a multiracial coalition to spur turnout among young voters, people of color and progressives. Others in the party, however, say suburban swing voters are key to victory.

Liberals worry that Biden’s focus on suburban voters, including in Michigan, is now coming at the expense of the base of Democrats who lodged protest votes on Tuesday. Those voters were crucial in propelling Biden to victory in 2020.

Biden officials voice confidence that many disaffected progressives, including those who cast “uncommitted” ballots in Michigan, will ultimately support the president in November, when he is likely to be facing off directly against Trump, a figure loathed by many progressive Democrats.

Larry Cohen, chairman of the liberal group Our Revolution, said that in the days before the primary, his organization had sent 87,000 robocalls recorded by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), the only Palestinian American in Congress, asking voters to choose “uncommitted.” About half of the people contacted by phone or text said they would support the effort, he said.

Cohen, a member of the Democratic National Committee who said he would vote for Biden in November, nonetheless took particular issue with the president’s embrace of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right governing coalition.

“Working with elected [officials] and others in the Democratic Party, we are going to continue to push to get a change in U.S. policy, not just because of the politics but because of the morality and necessity of breaking with Netanyahu,” Cohen said. “Even if you are solely focused on Israel, this is not a survival path — supporting a right-wing government that doesn’t pay attention to the rights of Palestinians.”

Leaders and activists in the protest movement, who consider the Michigan results a big win, have now set their sights on Minnesota, which holds its primary March 5 and, like Michigan, has a relatively high percentage of Muslim voters. Democratic leaders in Minnesota, like those in Michigan before them, expressed confidence that Biden would win an overwhelming victory.

“Folks are entitled to vote however they want. We have nine different candidates and options on the ballot next Tuesday,” said Ken Martin, chair of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. “However, as I have traveled around the state, it is clear to me that the party, and the folks who show up at this process, want President Biden to be the nominee.”

Unlike Michigan, Minnesota is not seen as a key swing state by either party, given Democrats’ strength there. But the state’s voters do have a history of being attracted to third-party candidates, which could present a challenge for the Biden campaign.

Michigan Muslim and Arab Americans push to defeat Biden

While the debate was rippling through the Democratic Party, Republicans were anxiously grappling with the Michigan results on their side, especially Trump’s failure to win by as big a margin as some surveys suggested.

Polls this year have accurately shown Trump heading to comfortable victories in each of the first four nomination contests, but they have overestimated his leads by 7.6 percentage points, according to a Washington Post analysis. The overall level of error is about average for presidential primary polls, according to 538.

Still, that overestimate of Trump’s primary margins does not necessarily spell trouble for him in November. In 2016, polls also exaggerated Trump’s support in the primaries, by an average of 4.5 points, and Trump ultimately went on to beat Hillary Clinton.

Haley’s campaign spokeswoman, Olivia Perez-Cubas, framed the Michigan results as a “flashing warning sign for Trump in November.”

And Haley, speaking at a rally in Orem, Utah, on Wednesday, listed Michigan as one of several states where Republicans “are losing” due to Trump.

“We are in a ship with a hole in it. That hole is Donald Trump,” Haley said. “We can ignore the hole all we want, and we’ll go down with the ship. Or we can go and see this for what it is and understand if we go in a new direction that we can save ourselves.”

Trump supporters, however, argued that his performance in Michigan was a sign of strength, not weakness.

“President Trump has received more votes in Michigan tonight than all Democrat primary votes COMBINED,” former congressman Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) wrote on X, in a calculus that appears to exclude the “uncommitted” votes. “It’s possible that the ENTIRE blue wall gets painted red this November.”

Many Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday warned against overstating the impact of the “uncommitted” campaign, but they also signaled it would be dangerous to discount the voices of 101,000 voters in a state where the slimmest of margins could decide the victor. Trump won Michigan in 2016 by about 10,000 votes, while Biden won in 2020 by about 154,000 votes.

“People across this country feel passionately about what’s happening in the Middle East,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), adding that senators have had “frank” conversations with the White House about the conflict. “The humanitarian disaster that has been created by [Netanyahu] in his prosecution of this war has got to stop, and Israel must open up for more humanitarian aid to make it into Gaza.”

Others projected cautious confidence that Biden would do well in November despite the anger over his handling of the Middle East. “Of course I’m worried, but I’m very comfortable and confident that Biden will prevail in Michigan again,” said Barry Goodman, a member of the Democratic National Committee from the state and a Biden donor.

Goodman said Tuesday’s results went as expected and that a significant portion of the electorate that voted for “uncommitted” will vote for Biden in November. Another positive sign for Biden, he said, is Trump’s struggle with some parts of the Republican Party.

“There’s large swaths of the electorate that are not voting for Trump,” he said.

About three weeks ago, activists from a group called Listen to Michigan began organizing their campaign to get as many voters as possible to select “uncommitted” in the Democratic primary. Some activists said Biden must, at a minimum, call for a permanent cease-fire in Gaza before they would consider whether to support him in November.

The war in Gaza erupted after Hamas militants stormed through the Israel-Gaza border fence on Oct. 7 and killed 1,200 people, many of them civilians, and took about 250 others hostage.

In response, Israel launched an attack on Gaza that has killed almost 30,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Israel’s tactics in the territory have been widely condemned by human rights groups, including its enforcement of a siege that has cut off access to most food, water, electricity and medicine, putting hundreds of thousands of Palestinians at risk of starvation and disease.

Biden in recent weeks has shown more willingness to criticize Israel, calling its military operation in Gaza “over the top,” and he has on a handful of occasions spoken in more detail about Palestinian suffering. But Arab American activists have said this rhetoric is woefully insufficient.

The president said recently that he hoped a weeks-long pause in fighting could come as soon as next week. Such a pause is being negotiated as part of a potential deal that would include the release of Israeli hostages, freedom for Palestinian prisoners — and, U.S. officials hope, a surge of desperately needed humanitarian aid into Gaza, where the level of aid has decreased over the past several weeks as Israel has allowed far fewer trucks into the enclave.

Biden’s statement after the Tuesday primary thanked “every Michigander who made their voice heard today,” but it did not mention the “uncommitted” votes. Activists from Listen to Michigan said on Wednesday that the statement showed he making little effort to bring the Democratic Party together.

“Biden’s statement last night did not unite this party nor seek to unite this party,” Abbas Alawieh, a Listen to Michigan spokesperson, said at a news conference. “His statement last night ignored the more than 100,000 voters who showed up and asked of him to stand with the children of God, to stand against war crimes, to stand for peace and for a cease-fire.”

Scott Clement, Liz Goodwin and Dylan Wells contributed to this report.

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