Skip to main content

Michigan’s Primary Shows Biden Is Courting Political Suicide

The “uncommitted” vote in Michigan way outperformed expectations last night, reflecting Democratic unhappiness with Joe Biden’s support for Israel’s brutal war. He should change course on Gaza immediately.

Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud speaks during Listen to Michigan's election night gathering in Dearborn on Tuesday.,Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press

In the days leading up to yesterday’s Democratic primary in Michigan, President Joe Biden’s White House and reelection campaign were reportedly “freaking out” about the grassroots push to protest his handling of the Israel-Gaza conflict by getting voters to check “uncommitted” on the ballot. With the votes now cast and tallied up, it’s easy to see why.

“Uncommitted” came second in the Michigan primary with 13 percent of the vote, making up just shy of 101,000 individual votes, in a stunning rebuke of an incumbent president by the voters meant to be his most committed supporters. The three-week-old campaign cleared its own, self-set benchmark of ten thousand votes in a matter of hours.

Critics, not unfairly, charged the target had been set artificially low to exceed expectations. Yet by the end of the night, the final total was not just ten times this number. It was both a higher percentage and roughly five times the raw total that “uncommitted” drew against Barack Obama in the state’s 2012 primary. That was a year in which Obama’s reelection chances were considered perilous, owing to the then president’s sagging approval rating — one that was nonetheless still seven points higher than Biden’s current, historically low approval.

Last night’s “uncommitted” vote was also far higher than that of the Michigan Republican primary four years ago, when Biden’s likely opponent Donald Trump was the unpopular incumbent fighting for reelection, but saw only 4.2 percent (or 28,485) of his own party’s voters in the state rebuke him in the same way.

The result is both a breathtaking organizing achievement and a testament to Democratic voters’ near-unprecedented discontent with their own president.

The Listen to Michigan campaign, organized by a broad collection of activists comprising, among others, young voters, Arab and Muslim Americans, local Democrats, and left-wing organizations like Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), managed this after only three weeks of work and little funding. The most high-profile support it got was from congresswoman and DSA member Rashida Tlaib, who has been roundly attacked in the media for backing the effort, and former congressman Beto O’Rourke. This all comes amid a Democratic primary contest that has been specially shaped to smother opposition to Biden and smooth his way into the general election, from nonsensically rearranging the primary schedule to favor the president, to canceling debates and depriving his few challengers of both airtime and ballot access.

More ominous for Biden is what this result signals for his chances to win the key battleground state in November. Biden’s winning margin there four years ago was roughly 155,000 votes, not much more than the number of “uncommitted” Michiganders this year — and that came under historically favorable conditions, when Biden was viewed vastly more favorably, and as a result of a determined organizing campaign by many of the same groups and individuals now involved in whipping “uncommitted” votes.

Maybe more significant was Trump’s winning margin of eleven thousand votes in 2016, when Democratic turnout was depressed by a lack of enthusiasm, as well as the figure that the Listen to Michigan campaign pointedly took up as its goal. As Dearborn mayor Abdullah Hammoud put it, “We’re not sizable enough to make a candidate win. But we’re sizable enough to make a candidate lose.”

Sure enough, “uncommitted” trounced the president by sixteen points last night in heavily Arab and Muslim Dearborn, which Biden had won in 2020 with 74 percent of the vote. Similarly, Washtenaw County, home to state colleges including the University of Michigan, saw “uncommitted” take home 17 percent of the vote, a sign of young voters’ well-documented disapproval of Biden’s unconditional support for the war. Both groups were key parts of Biden’s winning coalition over Trump in 2020, not just in Michigan but nationwide.

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

All of this amounts to a resoundingly clear message to Biden on Gaza from the Democratic base, one that the president is showing some signs of comprehending. On the eve of the vote, Biden told reporters in a rare televised appearance that his “hope” was to have a cease-fire in place by next Monday. California representative Ro Khanna — who has visited Michigan and urged Biden behind the scenes to change course on Gaza out of concern it could cost him the election — has said the timing of Biden’s announcement wasn’t a coincidence. Former defense secretary Mark Esper told CNN that Israeli officials he spoke to had been “surprised” by Biden’s admission, adding that “a cynic might say that President Biden said that because we’re on the eve last night of the Michigan primary, where words like that would resonate well with Arab Americans and Muslim Americans.”

What’s not clear is whether Biden is really intending to follow through. In the same interview, Esper disclosed that Israeli officials were confused by Biden’s words, since what they wanted was a “pause” or “temporary cease-fire.” The most recent news is that the administration has given Israel until the middle of March to put in writing that it will let humanitarian aid into Gaza and won’t violate international law while taking US weapons, which the State Department will then certify by the end of the month. That suggests that if a cease-fire doesn’t come by Monday, Biden will allow Israel at least another month to wage its war before considering cutting off the flow of arms, if that even happens.

Even if a cease-fire does come, it’s unclear if it will take the permanent form that Listen to Michigan organizers are demanding, or if it will hew closer to what Israeli officials are envisioning. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to press forward with an Israeli assault on Rafah — where 1.4 million Gazans were corralled into on the false pretense that it would be a “safe area” — after a pause that lasts at most two months, which would make the cease-fire functionally meaningless.

Though some disaffected voters, like organizers of the smaller “Abandon Biden” campaign, view their goal as convincing voters to sit out the presidential election and inflict a political defeat on Biden, supporters of Listen to Michigan explicitly framed their effort as a way to shake the White House awake and give Biden a path to winning back their votes. It remains to be seen if he’ll listen: according to Politico this morning, “presidential aides continue to believe that today’s ‘uncommitted’ voters will be November’s Biden voters once they have a stark choice in front of them.”

This is a big gamble, especially for the president himself. Biden has staked much of his legacy on his defeat of Trump in 2020 and came into office with ambitions of being a historic, consequential leader. Long resentful at team Obama’s tendency to look down their noses at him, Biden reportedly loved the growing narrative at the start of his presidency that he was a bolder leader than his former boss.

By ignoring the demands of pro-cease-fire voters — now the overwhelming majority of not just his own party but virtually every demographic in the United States — Biden risks being remembered as a disastrous one-term president who split his own party and brought a far more virulent, radical Trump presidency to power, all thanks to a stubborn and increasingly inexplicable determination to back a foreign government’s unpopular, heinous war.

The president’s aides have reportedly been “keeping him in a bubble” regarding voters’ unhappiness with his Israel-Gaza policy. If this Michigan result isn’t what bursts it, then they need to step in and do it themselves.

Branko Marcetic is a Jacobin staff writer and the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.