Michigan Democratic Protest Votes Aren’t as Big a Threat to Biden as They Look

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

Politicians hate complexity. Complexity doesn’t play well on cable news. Complexity doesn’t fit into a tweet. Complexity doesn’t sell.

The results of Michigan’s Democratic presidential primary, held on Tuesday, were nothing if not complex. Which is why they’ll change little about how President Joe Biden approaches his presidency or re-election campaign. The only takeaway is that there wasn’t much of one.

Spoiler alert: Biden won. He won big, with 87 percent of the vote. But he also won with a caveat: Some 13 percent of Democratic voters in a state with a large Arab American and Muslim population voted “uncommitted” in protest of his support for Israel’s campaign in Gaza.

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What does this mean? It’s… complicated.

The “uncommitted” effort was impressive. The voters in Dearborn and Hamtramck made a point that was heard in Washington. I am not sure they did more than that. I am not sure they intended to.

In 2012, Barack Obama faced an almost identical share of uncommitted voters when running for re-election. Yes, there were fewer of them overall, and they weren’t motivated by a single issue. Still, it would be disingenuous to call 2024’s “uncommitted” movement a juggernaut.

“Uncommitted didn’t do well by any reasonable benchmark in Michigan, not sure why people are trying to spin this into a story,” wrote political analyst Nate Silver on X. “If anything [I’m] a little bullish for Biden insofar as it suggests that the protest vote over Gaza might not be all that large.”

Organizers of the Listen to Michigan movement deftly claimed they wanted only 10,000 “uncommitted” votes, an underpromise on which they overdelivered, netting about 101,000 ballots in their favor. To some, this seemed a confirmation of progressive calls for Biden to take a tougher line with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“President Biden, you ignore this vote at your risk,” said James Zogby, the pollster and founder of the Arab American Institute.

The White House is aware that Arab Americans (who are not all Muslims) and American Muslims (who are not all Arabs) are furious at the nearly 30,000 deaths that Israel’s response to the Hamas attacks has caused. Many of those deaths have come via American weapons, which aren’t supposed to be used against civilians.

But it’s complicated, in a way that some of the media coverage simply doesn’t acknowledge. For one, there is what Biden himself believes. “You need not be a Jew to be a Zionist. I’m a Zionist. Where there’s no Israel, there’s not a Jew in the world to be safe,” he told the late night host Seth Meyers earlier this week. He has lived through a half-century of polls. He doesn’t frighten easily.

Then there’s his national security team, composed of straight arrows like National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Tony Blinken, who is Jewish and whose stepfather is a Holocaust survivor. Much as they might despise Netanyahu’s embrace of Israel’s nationalist right, they are not going to abandon Israel. Nor will Congress, where anti-Israel voices are a vociferous minority.

We are only having this conversation because of the “uncommitted” movement. Its savvy founders saw an opportunity in Michigan, where about 500,000 Arab Americans live and about as many students attend college. The latter group tends to sympathize more with the Palestinian cause than the Israeli one. Michigan was also the only state to hold a primary on Tuesday, meaning that media attention wasn’t devoted elsewhere.

‘Uncommitted’ Campaign in Michigan Shatters Expectations Against Biden

It’s easy to blame the media for overhyping or under-covering a story, but most journalists are not trying to game reality. They’re just trying, as the Rolling Stones song goes, to make some sense. What was once called a news cycle is closer to a news hurricane, always howling with notifications and alerts.

The need to fashion a narrative out of the swirling maelstrom of information is greater than ever. Last week, the narrative was Biden’s age. This week, it is his vulnerability with younger voters and progressives. His most seasoned advisers—like Ron Klain and Anita Dunn—understand as much. They aren’t going to change course just because progressives are upset on MSNBC.

In fact, Listen to Michigan may have won the battle but lost the war.

By making its demands so forcefully, it has made it impossible for Biden to alter his approach to Israel without making it seem as if he had been bullied into doing so. I doubt the president will draw closer to Netanyahu out of spite for the uncommitted bloc, but he has always bristled at being told what to do, and this time is no different.

Remember, also, that we’ve got a lot of ballgame left until the general election. For 100,000 voters to either stay home or vote for a third-party candidate like Cornel West, the war in Gaza would have to continue at the present pace for eight more months.

That’s simply not feasible for Israel, which needs to tend to its ailing economy. At the beginning of the war, Israel called up 300,000 reservists—an enormous number for a country of only nine million people. Now, many are no longer needed on the front lines and are coming home, resuming their jobs at Tel Aviv startups and on farms in the Negev Desert. “They’re now coming back,” says Israeli American investor Jon Medved. “The economy is coming back.”

Nor does Israel have much of a reason to continue the kinetic phase of its Gaza invasion aside from a potential battle for Rafah, on the Egyptian border, which has swelled with Palestinians fleeing fighting the devastation of Gaza, but may also harbor the last of the Hamas battalions, as well as the group’s leadership.

“Total victory is within reach,” Netanyahu said on Face the Nation last Sunday. “Not months away, weeks away once we begin the operation” in Rafah. There is good reason to question the promise of “total victory,” which Netanyahu has defined in vague, maximalist terms. The suggestion that heavy fighting could end in a matter of weeks, however, is more credible, especially with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan approaching. He may have been posturing but also telling the truth.

‘Uncommitted’ Voters Must Accept Trump Is Much, Much Worse Than Biden

Finally, there’s Trump, who instituted a ban on travelers from several majority-Muslim countries as one of his first significant acts as president in 2017. If the “uncommitted” vote manages to sufficiently harm Biden in November to return Trump to the White House, he is all but certain to pursue policies harmful to both Arab Americans in the United States and Palestinians fighting for statehood and survival. He has, for example, already promised to deport immigrants who voice support for Hamas at pro-Palestinian protests.

“Unless you actually want Trump back in the White House, your inability to support the only viable alternative to him doesn’t make any rational sense,” the progressive activist Joanne Carducci, who is better known as @JoJoFromJerz on X, where she has nearly a million followers, wrote for The Daily Beast.

In other words, we hear you, Dearborn. We see the suffering in Gaza. But electing Trump again is not the answer to your pain.

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