Michigan voters go to the polls amid ‘uncommitted’ protest push: What to know

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Michigan’s presidential primary Tuesday is set to provide a window into the critical battleground state, the last key race before dozens of Super Tuesday contests next month.

Days after former President Trump trounced Republican rival Nikki Haley in her home state of South Carolina, he’s expected to score another win in Michigan, where Haley hasn’t heavily invested. And President Biden is the clear Democratic front-runner, though he faces a surge of calls for Michiganders to cast protest votes over the administration’s actions around the war in Gaza.

The Tuesday race could give observers hints about how the general election could play out later this year in the battleground state, which went to Trump in 2016 and flipped back to Biden in 2020.

Here’s what to watch in the primary:

How does Biden do? 

Biden has cleared his long-shot challengers in the early states so far, but he faces growing opposition in the Great Lakes State amid anger from some Democrats over the Israel-Hamas war.

Recent pushback from progressives and Michigan’s significant Arab American population are elevating concerns as the state heads toward what looks like a tight general election race in November.

As both Trump and Biden appear poised to win their parties’ respective nominations, a Decision Desk HQ/The Hill average of polls out of Michigan shows Trump 3 points ahead of Biden in the state, which the incumbent won in 2020.

As anger over the administration’s actions around Gaza grows, Biden can’t afford to alienate any coalition of voters. The incumbent is on track to win Michigan, but the results could reveal frustrations that could hurt him later on.

“This is a really unique presidential primary, because the results are really not the story. We know who’s gonna win. But the political swirl that is around both political parties’ process is the most interesting aspect of this,” said David Dulio, a political science professor at Michigan’s Oakland University.

The Democratic front-runner will appear on the party’s ballot alongside challengers Rep. Dean Phillips (Minn.) and Marianne Williamson, who has dropped out of the running — as well as an “uncommitted” ballot option that some are pushing for as a protest vote.

How successful is the ‘uncommitted’ Biden protest vote? 

Listen to Michigan, a campaign urging voters to vote “uncommitted” on the primary ballot in protest against Biden’s policies toward the Israel-Hamas war, has gradually been gaining steam over the past several weeks.

“We don’t want a country that supports wars and bombs and destruction,” Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), the only Palestinian American in Congress, said in a recent video. “We want to support life. We want to stand up for every single life killed in Gaza.”

Tlaib is among those backing the campaign, which also recently garnered support from former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke.

In Michigan, the “uncommitted” choice on primary ballots “indicates the voter is exercising a vote for that political party but is not committed to any of the candidates listed on the ballot,” according to the secretary of state’s rules.

If enough voters cast “uncommitted” votes the party can send noncommitted delegates to the national convention. That could be a big warning sign for Biden from the state’s progressives as the race revs toward the general election.

“If we can demonstrate our political power and discontent through thousands [of] ‘Uncommitted’ votes in the Michigan Democratic primaries, then Biden would feel more at risk of losing Michigan in the general election, prompting a potential reassessment of his financing and backing of Israel’s war in Gaza,” according to the Listen to Michigan site.

A broader Abandon Biden effort is encouraging voters in swing state primaries across the country to hold off from supporting the president. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) said Sunday that she’s “not sure” what will happen with the effort Tuesday.

“If uncommitted gets more of their sort of normal share of the vote, I think it’s a signal, and yes, it can carry over to the general,” Dulio said of the Michigan effort. “The folks that are going to vote that way — heavy Arab American population here, heavy Muslim population — what is Biden going to do to get them back?”

What’s the GOP race margin?

After months of speculation over how Haley might fare in her home state, Trump easily bested her in South Carolina over the weekend — extending his winning streak in the GOP race as he continues to lead Haley in Super Tuesday polling.

But the former United Nations ambassador has promised to “keep fighting” despite her Palmetto State loss.

“I’m not giving up this fight when a majority of Americans disapprove of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden,” Haley said in remarks Saturday.

But the Great Lakes State appears “predetermined” for Trump, said Michigan-based Republican strategist Jason Cabel Roe, who argued “there’s no math” that shows Haley surging to take the state.

The Hill/Decision Desk HQ’s polling average for the primary shows Trump up a whopping 48 points over Haley.

“This is not about who’s going to win this primary,” Dulio said, arguing Haley is “nowhere near the conversation” for the GOP race. Instead, it’s about what hints the primary might give about a potential Trump-Biden head-to-head in November.

In 2016, Trump was the first Republican White House contender in two decades to take the Great Lakes State — but Biden flipped it back in 2020.

“The results are just playing second fiddle to the other stuff surrounding these contests,” Dulio said, pointing to the “uncommitted” effort — as well as ongoing discord in the state Republican party.

How does Michigan GOP chaos play in? 

The Michigan state Republican Party has been fraught with turmoil in recent weeks after Kristina Karamo was ousted as chair of the group last month, only to insist she’s still in control.

The Republican National Committee (RNC) officially weighed in on the discord earlier this month to recognize former Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) as the new state party leader. Trump, too, threw his backing behind Hoekstra, though he’d previously endorsed Karamo in her midterm bid for Michigan secretary of state.

But Karamo has continued to resist her ouster, throwing the state party into a power struggle.

Michigan is hosting its presidential preference primaries Tuesday — but on Saturday, both the Hoekstra and Karamo factions of the state GOP are planning to host dueling conventions.

Hoekstra will hold his in Grand Rapids, while Karamo is planning her own across the state in Detroit, according to the Detroit Free Press.

“Michigan GOP ready to turn the page and move towards November. That’s good news. Remember to vote for your presidential preference tomorrow, Tuesday. See you in GRR on Saturday where your votes do count,” Hoekstra wrote in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

Karamo’s team, meanwhile, is calling the Grand Rapids convention “fake” and “lawless,” according to a release under the Michigan GOP name.

But even with the convention confusion, Michigan’s Republican race seems set for the former president, Roe said.

“Even if they have two conventions, both of them are going to overwhelmingly approve Trump,” he said.

The state’s convention is aimed at allocating 39 of Michigan’s 55 presidential delegates, the rest of which will be allocated based on the results of the Feb. 27 primary.

The matter of the warring state GOP factions is now before the courts, and it’s possible that a judge could weigh in before the March 2 convention date. The Detroit Free Press reported last week that a ruling could come as soon as Tuesday.

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