Why Michigan’s Protest Vote Could Change Joe Biden’s Calculus: “There Will Be Political Consequences”

Over 100,000 primary voters backed “uncommitted” in a staggering show of opposition to the president’s policies on Israel. “If your only argument for winning the presidency is ‘My guy is less evil than the other guy,’” says one Arab American business leader, “that’s a weak argument.”
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A Democratic voter uncommitted to President Joe Biden rallies outside of a polling location as a car drives past at Oakman Elementary School on February 27, 2024 in Dearborn, Michigan.by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images.

Although an electoral victory for Joe Biden, Michigan’s Democratic presidential primary on Tuesday also proved a triumph for Democrats opposed to the president’s unconditional support for Israel in its war in Gaza. More than 101,000 votes—or 13.3% of all voters in the primary—were cast for “uncommitted,” an option that organizers had chosen as their avenue to register outrage toward Biden, who won the primary with about 81% of the vote. “This has already been a huge success. We’ve seen record turnout in this election,” said Abraham Aiyash, a Democratic lawmaker and the majority leader of the Michigan House. “I voted ‘uncommitted,’ and we will continue to force this administration to change course because it’s never too late to do the right thing.”

That a ballot protest targeting the race’s incumbent would clear the six-figure mark, especially when its goal was just 10,000 votes, is historically significant: Michigan was decided by roughly 150,000 votes when Biden won it in 2020—and around 10,000 in 2016, when it went for Trump. “People all around the state grabbed onto this idea because they needed something to vote for,” explained Abbas Alawieh, a veteran Democratic strategist and spokesperson for the organization Listen to Michigan, which led the “uncommitted” campaign. “We have shown President Biden that he needs to change his policies…or there will be political consequences.”

Needless to say, that sentiment is not shared within Bidenworld, which has argued that a vote for “uncommitted” may as well have been for Donald Trump. “Any vote that’s not cast for Joe Biden supports a second Trump term,” Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic governor of Michigan and a top Biden surrogate, said during a CNN interview Sunday. “A second Trump term would be devastating…. This was a man who promoted a Muslim ban.”

Nasser Beydoun, a Michigan business leader and supporter of the “uncommitted” campaign, dismissed Whitmer’s claim. “If your only argument for winning the presidency is ‘My guy is less evil than the other guy,’ that’s a weak argument,” Beydoun said. “We’re not going to take the blame if Trump is elected—this is solely the Democratic establishment and Joe Biden’s responsibility.” The Democratic mayor of Dearborn, Abdullah Hammoud, has also echoed that warnings of a second Trump term ring hollow in the face of the loss that his constituents have suffered over the past four and a half months. “I had a resident come before a council meeting who said that 80 of his family members had been killed in Gaza,” said Hammoud, whose city is home to one of the highest percentages of Arab Americans in the country. “I think you’re gonna have a tough time telling him that things could be worse [under Trump].”

Sensing their anger, White House officials were dispatched to Michigan earlier this month to meet with Arab American leaders and offer apologies. “I heard from people in the White House who said, ‘Hey, they’re really scared of this ‘uncommitted’ thing,’” said Alawieh. “We sat down with those officials and those officials admitted to us that President Biden and this White House had failed to talk about Palestinians and their lives as inherently valuable.”

Although US military support of Israel has not faltered since the start of the war, Biden and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu have reportedly been at loggerheads over its timeline and objectives. Earlier this month, the president openly criticized the assault as “over the top” and said he was lobbying for a humanitarian pause. More recently, on the eve of the Michigan primary, Biden signaled that a temporary cease-fire agreement could be reached by next week, though that appears uncertain.

Listen to Michigan’s campaign was largely a grassroots effort, with just $200,000 reportedly spent on advertising and organizing that primarily targeted Muslim, Arab American, young, and progressive voters. However, both Aiyash and Hammoud emphasized that the campaign was a multiracial, multigenerational, and multifaith effort. “Uncommitted” received the most votes in Washtenaw County, which is home to the University of Michigan, and Wayne County, where Dearborn is located—but also received 10% or more of the vote in 73 out of 83 counties. (Similar “uncommitted” campaigns are cropping up in other states, including Minnesota, where Listen to Michigan organizers are working to assist like-minded activists ahead of the state’s Democratic primary next week.)

Among those who took part in the Michigan campaign was Jewish Voice for Peace Action, an anti-Zionist Jewish organization with national reach. “Four years ago, I was knocking on doors for Joe Biden and raising money to make sure that we can deliver Michigan for him,” said Joshua Feinstein, a Jewish Voice for Peace member and Michigan voter. “But President Biden has not earned my vote and the votes of people who have always been quote-unquote loyal Democrats because of his steadfast support for this genocide.”

Beydoun, meanwhile, verbalized his discontent in more explicit terms. “We’ve pretty much given up on Biden,” he said. “But what the ‘uncommitted’ vote does for us—the Arab and Muslim community here in Michigan—is it makes the people coming in the next presidential election understand that they can’t take us for granted.”