Michigan Democrats send message to Biden, with thousands voting for 'uncommitted' in primary

The large vote had historical precedent in Michigan but still signaled sizable discontent with Biden's support for Israel.

President Biden, in profile, wears a black baseball hat and holds a megaphone emblazoned with an American flag to his mouth in front of a sign reading: UAW.
President Biden joins striking members of the United Auto Workers union on the picket line in Belleville, Mich., Sept. 26, 2023. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)
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Michigan Democrats made their opposition to Israel’s war in Gaza known in the state’s presidential primary Tuesday, casting an eye-opening number of votes against President Biden.

Biden won the party primary easily. He was on track to receive around 80% of the vote, with no other candidates higher than 3%.

The Associated Press called the race for Biden at 9:00 p.m. ET, just after the polls closed in Michigan. The AP also declared former President Donald Trump the winner in the Michigan Republican primary, held the same night.

With about 98% of the vote counted, more than 13% of Michigan Democrats had cast ballots for “uncommitted,” following an organized campaign in the state to register displeasure with the president’s policy in the Middle East.

Why Michigan?

A woman wearing a headscarf and winter coat stands along a sidewalk near several other people and holds a sign reading: Vote uncommitted.
An activist urges voters to cast an uncommitted ballot instead of voting for President Biden outside a polling place in Dearborn, Mich., on Tuesday. (Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images)

Michigan is home to a large community of Arab-American voters, many with ties to or sympathy for the Palestinian community in the Gaza Strip, where the Israel Defense Force’s invasion in response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel has killed nearly 30,000 people, according to the territory’s Hamas-run Health Ministry.

Michigan Democrats have a history of voting for the “uncommitted” option. Even in 2020, over 19,000 Democrats in the state pulled the lever for “uncommitted,” ostensibly as an expression of neutrality or displeasure with the existing options.

In 2008, Barack Obama skipped the Michigan primary, and the “uncommitted” option was a proxy to express support for him, or opposition to Hillary Clinton. Over 238,000 Michigan Democrats supported “uncommitted” in 2008.

And in 2012, as Obama cruised to reelection, a surprisingly large percentage of the Michigan primary vote — over 10% — cast a protest vote against Obama for “uncommitted.”

The raw number of votes against Obama in 2012 was only around 20,000, compared to just over 100,000 against Biden this week. But there were also far more votes for Biden this week — almost 618,000 — than the 174,000 that were cast for Obama in 2012, indicating a high degree of intensity among all Democratic voters.

Understanding the results

A person holds a flyer reading: Tell Biden, Count me out for genocide, vote uncommitted by February 27th
Activists urge Michigan Democratic primary voters to vote "uncommitted" instead of for President Biden on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor on Feb. 20. (Jeff Kowalski/AFP via Getty Images)

Michigan Democrats who campaigned in recent weeks for the “uncommitted” option were clear that they were registering a protest vote against Biden’s policy of support for Israel, and not against the president remaining in office.

“We don't want to see Trump return to the White House. We know what a danger he is to our democracy. We know what a threat he is to our institutions. And so today is an appeal,” state Rep. Alabas Farhat, a Democrat, told CNN.

Both parties face internal unrest

Side-by-side images of President Biden and former President Donald Trump.
President Biden and former President Donald Trump. (AP)

Among Democrats, there is a debate over whether Biden should step aside and allow a younger candidate to take his place. So far, that argument has not appeared to gain much traction beyond left-leaning talking heads.

And in the GOP, even though former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has lost every contest to Trump, she continues to win a solid third of the vote. Many voters who support Haley have told pollsters that they will not support Trump in the fall election.

Trump has gained an air of invincibility due to his dominance of the Republican grassroots. These are the voters who decide the primary elections, who strike fear in the hearts of GOP politicians who want to be reelected.

But a regular protest vote against Trump the person and the candidate, of 30% to 40%, is as big a problem for him as a 15% protest vote against Biden’s Middle East policy is for the Democrats, if not a bigger one.

Haley made that very point Tuesday night.

Biden seated in a chair next to Seth Meyers, seated behind a wooden desk.
President Biden smiles during a break in a taping of NBC's "Late Night With Seth Meyers" in New York City on Monday. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

“Joe Biden is losing about 20% of the Democratic vote today, and many say it’s a sign of his weakness in November. Donald Trump is losing about 35% of the vote. That’s a flashing warning sign for Trump in November,” Haley said.

Biden, of course, is saddled with his own problems besides discontent among the Democratic base over support for Israel. Voters are increasingly concerned with the president’s age and ability to do the job effectively, an issue that was exacerbated by special counsel Robert Hur’s recent report, which raised questions about the president’s memory.