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'Message sent': Surge of 'uncommitted' voters in Michigan puts state at risk for Biden, experts say

Massive turnout in 'uncommitted' voters can be repeated in other swing states like Georgia and Pennsylvania, pollster says
Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud (centre) at a press conference at Haraz Coffee House in Dearborn, Michigan, one day after the Michigan presidential primary, on 28 February 2024 (Jeff Kowalsky/AFP)

US President Joe Biden won the Democratic primary in Michigan on Tuesday, but a wave of voters casting an “uncommitted” ballot underlined how his support for Israel’s war on Gaza could pose serious troubles for him in the swing state.

Just over 100,000 people in Michigan voted uncommitted in the swing state's Democratic primary, marking a major victory for Arab, Muslim and progressive organisers who led the campaign to protest against the administration's steadfast support for Israel's military assault on Gaza.

“Message sent,” James Zogby, a pollster and election analyst specialising in Arab American and Muslim voters, said. “One-hundred plus thousand uncommitted voters, much larger than anyone anticipated, makes a point: President Biden you ignore this vote at your risk.”

Biden comfortably won Michigan with 81.1 percent of the vote, but the uncommitted voters carried roughly 13 percent. In Dearborn itself, home to the largest concentration of Arab-American voters, Zogby said, uncommitted voters beat Biden.

“If Michigan's primary results are any indication, Biden may very well lose the state to Trump in November. And all because Biden can't bring himself to even pretend to care about Palestinians or put any conditions on Israel's killing of Palestinian civilians,” Shadi Hamid, a Washington Post columnist, wrote on social media platform X.

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The Biden administration appeared to publicly downplay the split within the Democratic Party.

Biden faced no real threat in the primary, but some Democratic lawmakers backed the uncommitted campaign. Rashida Tlaib, the Palestinian-American member of Congress whose district includes parts of Dearborn, said she was “proud…to pull a Democratic ballot and vote uncommitted”.

US: Michigan's Arab and Muslim Americans mobilise to show Gaza will cost Biden presidency
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Abdullah Hammoud, the mayor of Dearborn, along with other local elected officials, also backed the campaign.

"President Biden's administration [has] continued to make destructive policy decisions [on Gaza]. ... If he continues this course, he will be remembered for sacrificing American democracy in 2024,” Hammoud told MEE.

But heading into November, Biden also has to reconcile with pro-Israel voices within the party and Israeli lobbying groups. He has also retained support among the bulk of senior Democratic lawmakers and officials. Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan’s Democratic governor, is a co-chair of Biden’s re-election campaign and one of his most vocal supporters.

A statement released by his campaign on Tuesday thanked “every Michigander” for voting, and touted the administration’s economic policies and pro-abortion stance. It didn’t mention Gaza or Israel.

The US has been a close ally of Israel for more than 50 years, and Biden has positioned himself as a staunch supporter of Israel since he began his political career as a senator in the early 1970s. However, his unconditional support for Israel has riled the Democratic Party’s progressive base.

It’s unclear whether Biden is willing or able to deliver the immediate ceasefire in Gaza that many who cast uncommitted ballots want. A key question Biden campaign officials will likely examine, former US officials have told MEE, is the electoral impact of the vote.

Can uncommitted voters tip the election that matters?

Michigan is a key swing state which is seen as crucial to winning the nationwide election. It has been won by narrow margins in the past.

In 2016, Donald Trump became the first Republican to carry Michigan since 1988. Winning over working-class voters helped Trump beat Clinton by just under 11,000 votes. Biden won the state by some 150,000 in 2020.

Though the percentage of uncommitted votes was similar to that seen in 2012 during Democrat Barack Obama's re-election campaign, where it hit 11 percent, that only represented some 20,000 votes.

Estimates of the number of Arab Americans in Michigan vary.

According to the Arab American Institute, in 2017 they numbered 277,000 people. But the 2020 US census put the number of people identifying as Middle Eastern and North African at 310,087 (this includes Kurds, Israelis and other non-Arab minorities).

The data doesn’t break down the voting and non-voting age of US citizens.

But activists said the 100,000 number reached on Tuesday clearly showed that Biden risked jeopardising his election chances in November based on his margin of victory in 2020.

“We just wanted to make a point in Michigan,” Zogby said on X. “It was the place to make the point. But frankly, it can be read in Virginia, in Georgia, in Pennsylvania."

“We can extrapolate from the rest of the states what the turnout would be in November if we ignore this issue and continue to ignore this issue.”

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