Why Michigan Could Be a Big Wake-Up Call for Joe Biden

Progressives and Arab Americans in the state are urging Democrats to vote “uncommitted” in protest of the president’s Israel-Hamas war policies. “We need a cease-fire,” says one organizer.
Image may contain Joe Biden People Person Accessories Formal Wear Tie Crowd Face Head Photography and Portrait
US President Joe Biden delivers remarks during a black-tie dinner at the White House on February 24, 2024 in Washington, DC.By Anna Rose Layden/Getty Images.

In what will be a major test of Joe Biden’s reelection campaign, Arab Americans, progressive activists, and nearly 40 state and local officials are calling for Michigan Democrats to vote “uncommitted” in the state’s Tuesday primary. The hope is that the ballot protest will pressure the president into relinquishing his support for Israel’s war in Gaza.

“What we’re saying is, first and foremost, we need a cease-fire, not some temporary thing,” Abbas Alawieh, a veteran Democratic strategist and spokesperson for Listen to Michigan, the organization leading the effort, told NPR. Alawieh argued that Biden, who is trailing Donald Trump in the latest Michigan opinion polls, must be made aware that he has “lost many people here in Michigan, key voters.… And unless you take a different approach, you will be handing the presidency back to Donald Trump and his white supremacist buddies.”

Among the notable Democrats who have joined the protest are US representative Rashida Tlaib, Dearborn mayor Abdullah Hammoud, and former US representatives Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke. “I do think it makes sense…to exert that political pressure and get the president’s attention and the attention of those on his campaign so that the United States does better,” said O’Rourke, a onetime rival of Biden in the 2020 presidential primary, in an interview last week with the Michigan Advance. “I agree with the aims and the goals [of Listen to Michigan].”

Listen to Michigan hopes to win at least 10,000 votes for “uncommitted”—roughly the margin by which Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 general. And judging by the last Democratic presidential incumbent to run in Michigan, the goal appears within reach: More than 20,000 “uncommitted” ballots—or 10% of all voters who took part in the contest—were submitted when Barack Obama ran in the state's 2012 primary.  

Although Biden is still assured an easy victory on Tuesday, some of his supporters have taken note of the protest. “I do believe that no matter what the results of Michigan, the takeaway should not be, ‘Oh, everything’s good,’” Wes Moore, the Democratic governor of Maryland and a top Biden surrogate, told The Wall Street Journal. Moore added the contest is “going to feel like a scrimmage where the win is going to be less important than the lesson.”

Others in Biden’s camp have sought to suppress the ballot protest by arguing it will only benefit Trump. During a Sunday appearance on CNN, Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic governor of Michigan and a national cochair of Biden’s campaign, declared that “any vote that’s not cast for Joe Biden supports a second Trump term.” Warning of what would follow another Trump victory, she proceeded to invoke the former president’s past effort to ban all Muslims from entering the US. (Listen to Michigan has stated that it is not opposed to Biden’s reelection.)

A rising Democratic star and likely future presidential prospect, Whitmer enjoys high approval marks in Michigan and has helped lead a statewide Democratic Party revival. But her unequivocal support for Israel has hampered her popularity. In October, she canceled a visit to a fundraiser in Dearborn after activists planned to protest the event. “I told Gretchen when she was here, ‘If you want to come as Gretchen Whitmer and talk to us, anytime you’re welcome,’” Osama A. Siblani, the publisher of the Dearborn-based Arab American News, told The New York Times while discussing his private meeting with the governor. “But now, if you are going to come in to lobby for Biden, we’re going to have to shut the door. We’re not going to be able to even talk about that.”

An estimated 30,000 Palestinians have been killed thus far in Israel’s months-long bombing campaign and ground invasion of Gaza. The emotional toll of the bloodshed has been especially acute in Michigan, the state with the highest percentage of Arab Americans. Dearborn, meanwhile, is home to the largest concentration of both Arab Americans and Muslim Americans in the US.

Arab and Muslim Americans and are notably key constituencies that Democrats will need in November: In Michigan’s last presidential election, Muslim Americans reportedly cast more than 146,000 ballots—a number nearly equivalent to Biden’s winning margin in the swing state. While Biden has expressed concerns about Israel’s assault on Gaza and its occupation of the West Bank, he has yet to lobby for a permanent cessation of hostilities; the president has instead called for a “temporary ceasefire” that would allow for the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas and more humanitarian aid to enter Gaza.