What to watch for in the Michigan presidential primaries

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The Michigan primary on Tuesday will not only assess President Joe Biden’s strength in a key battleground state, but also serve as a litmus test on the president’s refusal to call for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Biden’s ardent support for Israel – whose ongoing military campaign has killed roughly 30,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run Ministry of Health – has enraged a large bloc of American progressives, many of them Jewish, and Arab Americans, most notably in and around the Michigan city of Dearborn, home to one of the largest Arab American communities in the US.

That anger is fueling a statewide movement among Democratic critics of Israel for voters to mark “uncommitted” on their ballots. Though Biden won the state in 2020 by about 150,000 votes, the victory margin was much narrower in 2016, when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by nearly 11,000. The group leading the protest campaign has said it hopes to garner at least that many “uncommitted” votes on Tuesday. The goal: Send a message to the Biden campaign about the domestic political costs of his stance on a conflict increasingly referred to by critics as a genocide.

“This is not an anti-Biden campaign,” Layla Elabed, a leader of the Listen to Michigan campaign, told CNN. “It’s a humanitarian vote. It’s a protest vote. It is a vote that tells Biden and his administration that we believe in saving lives.”

On the Republican side, Trump and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley will again go head-to-head in the first part of the state GOP’s nomination process, which begins with Tuesday’s vote and continues, with 39 of the state Republicans’ 55 delegates up for grabs, at a state convention this weekend. It is the first GOP primary vote in a state that Biden flipped in 2020.

Biden and Trump are expected to win handily in their respective contests, but there will be lessons to learn for both. The president’s decision not to call for a ceasefire in Gaza has alienated many of the young and progressive voters who contributed to his winning coalition in 2020 – though Biden said on Monday that a long-hoped for ceasefire could be in sight. The election results could provide an important, real-world measure of the depths of his political troubles.

For Trump, margin of victory is a bigger question than whether he’ll win at all, though a sizable turnout for Haley will amplify the warning signs that came out of South Carolina, where about 40% of GOP primary voters chose Haley over the former president.

Here’s what to watch for in Michigan:

The first ballot test of Biden’s Israel strategy

Just how committed are Michigan Democrats to Biden? Tuesday will tell.

Israel has been blitzing Gaza for nearly five months in response to Hamas’ deadly raid into Israel on October 7, which the Israeli government says killed about 1,200 people. Israel’s ongoing military campaign, which has killed roughly 30,000 Palestinians, which includes thousands of children, according to Gaza’s Ministry of Health, has been met with harsh rebukes from some Western nations and the United Nations – but not the United States government.

Biden has been steadfast in his support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government, rarely making any public criticisms of its tactics, even as White House officials tell reporters the president has become frustrated with Netanyahu.

To activists demanding an immediate ceasefire, Biden’s unwillingness to do the same – layered on top of the horrendous images coming out of Gaza every day – is creating a political impasse that now threatens his reelection prospects. As Listen to Michigan advocates note, the state could be decided by the narrowest of margins in November and the president’s Israel policy could cost him thousands of votes.

Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud, a Democrat, wrote last week in The New York Times that he believes Israel is committing genocide in Gaza and accused Biden and the US government of ignoring Americans’ desire for a stronger peace push.

“Until just a few months ago, I firmly believed that Joe Biden was one of the most consequential and transformative presidents that our nation had seen since Franklin Delano Roosevelt,” Hammoud wrote. “But no amount of landmark legislation can outweigh the more than 100,000 people killed, wounded or missing in Gaza. The scales of justice will not allow it.”

Movement leaders have been careful to stress they are not supporting Trump, but are intent on using what leverage they have with Biden – whose success in office is largely based in his unique ability to unify Democrats – to highlight the domestic downside of his current approach.

There is, however, one late wild card: Biden said on Monday that he hopes a ceasefire is agreed to by Israel and Hamas by “next Monday.”

“My national security adviser tells me that we’re close,” Biden said during an appearance at an ice cream shop with comedian Seth Meyers. “We’re close, it’s not done yet. And my hope is that by next Monday we’ll have a ceasefire.”

CNN reported Hamas has backed off some key demands in the negotiations for a hostage deal and pause in the fighting in Gaza following Israeli accusations that its position was “delusional,” bringing the negotiating parties closer to an initial agreement that could halt the fighting and see a group of Israeli hostages released, according to two sources familiar with the discussions.

What’s Haley’s magic number?

Haley acknowledged after losing by about 20 points in South Carolina on Saturday that 40% of the vote – roughly what she received in her home state – is not the necessary 50%, or more, she needs to upend the Republican presidential primary.

But as she also noted, 4 out of 10 is no “tiny group,” and “there are huge numbers of voters in our Republican primaries who are saying they want an alternative” to Trump.

Whether it’s a “huge” number or simply a well-funded but effectively defeated minority, is the question going forward. So far, it appears to be the latter. But an expectations-defining performance by Haley in Michigan, a state at the center of the former president’s path back to the White House, could nudge the narrative back in her direction ahead of Super Tuesday on March 5.

Those contests will dole out more than a third of the delegates in a GOP primary that Trump has so far dominated, sweeping the early voting states. Haley is unlikely, no matter how she does, to pick up many in Michigan, where most will be won at a caucus-style state convention this weekend.

A fractured and confusing GOP process

The split process of awarding delegates between a Michigan Republican primary on Tuesday and a state party convention on Saturday is the result of Republicans’ reaction to Democrats’ decision to shake up the party’s presidential nominating calendar after the 2020 election — demoting Iowa and New Hampshire, moving South Carolina and Nevada to the forefront and placing Michigan third in its new lineup.

Republicans opposed an earlier Michigan primary, and it violated Republican National Committee rules limiting which states can hold contests before March 1. After Democrats who control the legislature and the governor’s office moved the Michigan primary to February 27 despite GOP opposition, the RNC and Michigan GOP came up with the hybrid model.

Further complicating matters: The Michigan GOP is in the middle of a battle over who actually leads the party, with two people who claim to be party chairs holding dueling conventions Saturday.

The RNC and Trump have recognized Pete Hoekstra, a former ambassador and congressman, as chair. However, Kristina Karamo, the election conspiracy theorist who the state party voted to oust in January, has refused to relinquish control, arguing that she was unlawfully removed.

Hoekstra has scheduled a Saturday convention in Grand Rapids. But Karamo is also holding a convention in Detroit. The RNC’s decision to recognize Hoekstra signaled that the party would accept delegates from the convention he will oversee.

Tests for Biden, Trump in key state

The drama within both the Democratic and Republican contests is playing out in one of the nation’s most important presidential swing states.

Biden is banking on an endorsement from the United Auto Workers union, support from Black voters and a stronger Democratic infrastructure — with an electorate energized by an abortion rights battle delivering Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her party victories up and down the ballot in 2022.

But the “uncommitted” campaign could serve as a gauge of whether his support for Israel’s war with Hamas poses a serious problem. In 2020, nearly 146,000 Muslim Americans voted in the general election in Michigan, according to an analysis by Emgage, a group working to grow Muslim Americans’ political power.

Trump, meanwhile, is hoping to reengineer the White working class coalition that helped him break down the “blue wall” of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin in 2016.

But amid a Democratic resurgence, Michigan’s GOP has been led by Trump allies insistent on promoting false claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election. The former president and his supporters have continued to undermine mail-in voting — a potentially huge problem in a state where voters in 2022 approved a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right of all registered voters to cast their ballots by mail.

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