Uncommitted flexed in Democratic presidential primary. What's next for Biden? | Opinion

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I spent the hours before Michigan’s polls closed Tuesday night staring at a nifty little map on the website 270towin.com that allows the user to visualize various election outcomes, turning key states red or blue to amass the electoral votes required to secure the presidency.

It’s a grim depiction of just how narrow the path to the White House is, particularly right now, and particularly if your first name is Joe and your last name is Biden.

This election will be decided on the margins; the outcome in most states is a foregone conclusion, because those states have a long history of going red or blue; barring unforeseen disasters, the 270towin.com map predicts, Democrats start the November count with 226 electoral votes, Republicans with 235.

The winners of Michigan’s Feb. 27 presidential primary were also a foregone conclusion: By 9:30 p.m., every major news organization in the state had called the the Democratic primary for Biden, with 81% of the vote, and the GOP contest for former President Donald Trump — who faced nominal opposition from former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley — with 67.6%, each man one step closer to becoming his party’s nominee.

There are nine long months between now and November, but as the 270towin.com map makes abundantly clear, the presidential election will be decided in that handful of key states I couldn't stop clicking on last night, places like Arizona and Georgia and Pennsylvania and, of course, Michigan, all states where former President Donald Trump is consistently polling ahead of Biden.

So it’s worth understanding what Michiganders told the candidates on Tuesday night.

Eric Suter-Bull of Washington, D.C., left, holds a "Vote Uncommited" as a protest vote against Joe Biden as Mohamed Fateeh, 18, holds a AMPAC sign for potential voters to see as they enter Salina Intermediate School in Dearborn to cast their votes in the presidential primary onTuesday, Feb. 27, 2024.
Eric Suter-Bull of Washington, D.C., left, holds a "Vote Uncommited" as a protest vote against Joe Biden as Mohamed Fateeh, 18, holds a AMPAC sign for potential voters to see as they enter Salina Intermediate School in Dearborn to cast their votes in the presidential primary onTuesday, Feb. 27, 2024.

'Uncommitted' probably worked?

Biden, with no credible opponent, took 81% of the vote. But if his path to victory runs through Michigan, the president has some precise calculations to make.

Tuesday's "uncommitted" vote was driven by Arab American and antiwar activists who object to Biden's handling of the Israel-Hamas war. Listen to Michigan and Our Revolution asked voters to select "uncommitted" on the primary ballot. (Presidential primaries are about apportioning delegates, not electing a candidate, and "uncommitted" means choosing delegates not pledged to a candidate.)

In most presidential primaries, about 20,000 voters choose "uncommitted."

Listen to Michigan hoped to get an additional 10,000 "uncommitted" votes — Trump's margin of victory in 2016 — a number organizers hoped would suggest this bloc can sway the outcome of an election in this state.

With 98% of votes counted Wednesday morning, 100,960 ballots had been cast for "uncommitted," around 13% of the vote.

There are a lot of ways to parse this.

Fifteen percent is an important number in delegate math; cracking that threshold in two congressional districts entitled "uncommitted" to one delegate in each.

As a percentage of vote share, "uncommitted" barely registered. Pundits far smarter than I have said "uncommitted" needed to snare 20% of the vote total to make waves.

But I believe that three things give the protest vote's 13% more weight: The slim margins by which Trump won Michigan in 2016, and lost it in 2020, Biden's consistently poor polling here, and the resonance of "uncommitted" beyond Michigan's Arab American communities.

In Dearborn, the state's most densely populated Arab American community, voters cast 6,432 ballots for "uncommitted," far exceeding Biden’s 4,526. There are only about 70,000 Arab American voters in Michigan. Tuesday's vote totals, in Washtenaw and Ingham counties, where University of Michigan and Michigan State University are located, showed the anti-Biden protest vote is broader than the Arab American community — voters who simply don't like Biden's presidency, outside of his support for Israel, or who believe he is too old to serve another four years.

But it's hard to call "uncommitted" a success, because the campaign's desired outcome is not particularly clear.

More from opinion: Biden has lost Arab American voters. So what's the point of 'uncommitted'?

A horsetrade without a trade

In regular electoral politics, a horsetrade is simple. A voting bloc flexes its muscles, and members ask a candidate to shift policy or deliver some benefit to win back their support. But members of the Arab American and antiwar communities view Biden as complicit in what they say is genocide in Gaza, where the territory's health ministry reports that almost 30,000 people have been killed.

Listen to Michigan and Our Revolution say Biden must call for an unconditional cease-fire. Earlier this week, Biden said he believed a cease-fire was close, but news broke yesterday that Hamas had rejected the proposed agreement. But if Biden does effect a cease-fire, can the groups deliver Arab American and antiwar votes for Biden, whom some activists have dubbed "Genocide Joe"?

I'm not sure they want to.

A memo sent by a Listen To Michigan campaign manager Tuesday night said the group planned to hold the Democratic nominee "accountable" at the party's nominating convention in August, the New York Times reported. I don't know what that means. It doesn't sound like support.

If the group's intent is to persuade Biden that changing his stance on Israel, and Gaza =, will result in their general election votes, that may be a hard sell. If the goal is to show Biden that Michigan could derail his re-election, mission accomplished.

1 thing about the GOP primary

Nikki Haley won 296,238 votes statewide, 26% of ballot casts. Kent, Oakland and Ottawa counties were crucial to Trump's 2020 defeat. He won all three handily in this primary, but Haley took more than 30% of the vote in each. "Trump can’t win Michigan without doing better in Oakland and Kent counties, and if Nikki Haley is pulling big numbers there, that’s something he should worry about," pollster Richard Czuba of the Glengariff Group said.

All told, Czuba said, 90,000 Republicans in Oakland, Kent and Ottawa counties voted against Trump, an outcome that ought to concern the former president.

Michigan Republicans have a split system this year, and will hold a nominating convention this weekend to award more delegates.

More from opinion: Whitmer, Michigan Democrats have to fix what Betsy DeVos did

Deja vu all over again

It'd be easy to look at Tuesday's primary results and assume that Biden’s decisive victory is the whole story, or that a policy shift on Gaza would be sufficient to resolve the concerns of uncommitted voters.

It would also be a mistake.

Trump is polling ahead of Biden here. Some Michiganders have reported to pollsters they'd be more likely to vote for Trump if he were convicted of the criminal charges against him. A large enough number of voters to impact a close contest opted for a protest vote, even when the alternative to Biden is the re-election of Trump, whom those voters generally do not favor.

It's all reminding me of 2016, when U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, then a presidential candidate, won Michigan's primary. Sanders' voters were angry with the status quo. They wanted a revolution, and they didn't want Hillary Clinton, an establishment candidate with decades of political baggage whose policy proposals promised meaningful but incremental change. There weren't enough of them to win, but there were plenty to make sure another candidate lost. It was the midpoint of a brutal campaign that ended with the election of Trump, and what’s happening now feels awfully familiar.

Nancy Kaffer is the editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press. Contact her at nkaffer@freepress.com. Submit a letter to the editor at freep.com/letters.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan presidential primary cautionary for Joe Biden, Donald Trump