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Biden wins Michigan primary, defeats anti-Israel ‘uncommitted’ campaign

The U.S. president has bigger worries than the Arab-American vote, experts told JNS.

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on his Build Back Better agenda on Oct. 5, 2021 at the Operating Engineers Training Facility in Howell, Mich. Credit: White House.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on his Build Back Better agenda on Oct. 5, 2021 at the Operating Engineers Training Facility in Howell, Mich. Credit: White House.

U.S. President Joe Biden won the Michigan Democratic primary on Tuesday night, defeating a campaign promoted by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and anti-Israel activists for voters to cast “uncommitted” ballots in protest of Biden’s support for Israel.

Democratic voters in the Michigan primary can mark their ballots “uncommitted,” allowing them to send delegates to the Democratic National Convention who are not pledged to a particular candidate.

With 99% of precincts reporting, Biden won 81.1% of the vote, compared with 13.2% that was “uncommitted.” The self-help author Marianne Williamson and Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) rounded out the field. garnering 3% and 2.7% of the vote, respectively. (Williamson has since “un-suspended” her campaign.)

The “uncommitted” campaign aimed to demonstrate the power of Arab, Muslim and progressive voters in the key swing state. But election watchers told JNS that its 13.2% showing may have achieved the opposite when compared to former president Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection effort when there were about 10.7% “uncommitted” votes in Michigan.

“After a big campaign, ‘uncommitted’ got about two-and-a-half more percentage points than they did with no campaign against Barack Obama,” said Mark Mellman, president of Democratic Majority for Israel and a longtime political strategist. 

“I would say that is, for them, a pretty disappointing showing,” Mellman told JNS.

The group that organized the “uncommitted” campaign, Listen to Michigan, nonetheless claimed a moral victory Tuesday night. 

“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” it wrote. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”

J. Miles Coleman, a political cartographer at the University of Virginia and associate editor of the newsletter “Sabato’s Crystal Ball” at the university’s Center for Politics, told JNS that he thinks the campaign was “overblown.” 

He also noticed a shift in how supporters were trying to shape expectations on election night. “From the early returns, it was looking like the ‘uncommitted’ vote was going to get maybe 15% to 20% of the vote,” Coleman said. 

“When more votes started to come in and it fell and fell, and ended up at 12% or 13%, the conversation from the proponents of it shifted from, ‘Look at what our statewide percentages are,’ to ‘Look how many raw votes we have.’ To me, that was telling.”

Listen to Michigan’s claims that it is entitled to two of Michigan’s 117 delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago under Democratic Party rules. That’s because “uncommitted” won slightly more than 15% of the vote in Michigan’s 12th and 6th congressional districts, the group said. 

Mellman said that it’s impossible to know how many of those voters were taking part in the anti-Israel pressure campaign against Biden.

“In the Arab-American community, it probably had something to do with Israel and Gaza,” he said. “But how many people were just saying Biden’s too old? How many people were moved by the Armenian community saying vote ‘uncommitted’ to protest Azerbaijan? Or people protesting what they think was Biden’s inadequate effort on student loan forgiveness or on climate change?”

“We just haven’t the slightest idea why they voted ‘uncommitted,’” Mellman said.

Dearborn, Mich. Credit: James R. Martin/Shutterstock.

The two “uncommitted” delegates will ultimately be chosen at the Democratic Party congressional district conventions on March 11. Those delegates may turn out to be pro-Israel Biden supporters.

The 101,436 “uncommitted” votes might look concerning to Biden supporters, given how narrowly he won the state in 2020 and how narrowly Hillary Clinton lost the state in 2016. And while “uncommitted” might have won just 13.2% of the vote statewide, it won a majority in the heavily Arab-American city of Dearborn, signaling that opposition to Israel might have real influence there.

But Coleman pointed to bigger problems for the Biden campaign than Dearborn, Mich.

“If the city of Dearborn had not cast any votes in the 2020 general election, Biden’s margin would have fallen to two-and-a-half points,” he said. “If Biden ends up losing the State of Michigan, it would probably be because of his broader struggles with white working-class voters in the rural areas.”

Biden’s critics have suggested that despite his support for Israel in the war against Hamas, some of his recent statements and actions towards Israel, including sanctioning four Israelis for purported “settler violence,” have been an attempt to court Michigan voters at Israel’s expense.

“This executive order is about cold, calculated politics—plain and simple,” the Republican Jewish Coalition stated on Feb. 1 of the sanctions. “Joe Biden and his team are watching his poll numbers crater.”

Mellman believes that Biden is committed to a pro-Israel position “come hell or high water,” and that the “uncommitted” campaign was proof of that.

“The Arab-American community that was organizing the ‘uncommitted’ campaign was not saying to themselves and to each other, ‘Well, the administration is both-sides-ing it.’ They’re saying, ‘They’re just too pro-Israel,’” Mellman said.

Nonetheless, Mellman thinks there’s reason for Biden supporters to worry about November.

“As a Democrat, I’ve had concerns about the general [election] for the last three years,” he said. “Anybody who hasn’t had concerns about the general for the last three years is foolish.”

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