Michigan’s voters have spoken and Biden needs to read the room

The more than 101,000 'uncommitted' protest votes – one of the largest ever recorded – are enough to make a difference in November

A Democratic voter uncommitted to President Joe Biden in Dearborn, Michigan. Getty Images via AFP
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The message sent last week in the US by more than one hundred thousand Michigan Democrats who cast their ballots for “uncommitted” was crystal clear. They were telling US President Joe Biden to call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza and make dramatic changes in policy because they were having a problem voting for him or encouraging others to do so.

This was a big deal. In the first place, it’s always hard to mobilise people to vote “uncommitted” as a protest. It’s much easier to win votes for an alternative candidate like Jesse Jackson or Bernie Sanders because supporters want to help them win. Getting voters to turn out for “uncommitted” is more difficult because the inclination of those in this camp is to not vote at all.

It should be recognised that turning out over 101,000 “uncommitted” votes was a massive undertaking that far exceeded expectations. The Michigan-based organisers had set a low goal of 10,000 (the vote margin that gave former president Donald Trump a victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016). I was hoping for uncommitted to receive 5 per cent of the total – a percentage that would represent the percentage of the Arab-American vote in Michigan plus some allies.

When the final tally showed that 13.3 per cent of the total vote went to uncommitted, it was clear that it wasn’t just a substantial portion of the Arab community turned out in large numbers. To get to 13.3 per cent other groups – including young, black, Muslim, and progressive voters – turned out as well.

The 13.3 per cent of Michigan Democrats who voted uncommitted, therefore, sent a strong message to Biden

To appreciate why Democrats place such emphasis on Michigan, it’s important to understand that US presidents aren’t elected by the number of overall votes they receive in the national tally, but by the collection of states they win. Each state is given a number of electoral votes equal to the number of members of Congress apportioned to each state (based on its population) plus two (for its number of senators). A state’s electoral votes go to the candidate who wins that state’s popular vote.

In recent years, states like New York and California have predictably voted for Democrats, while others such as Texas, Alabama and Mississippi have been locked in as Republican. As a result, the candidates won’t expend campaign resources to compete in these states. States like Michigan can go either way so they are heavily contested. Because it’s difficult for Democrats to create a configuration of states giving them a winning majority that doesn’t include Michigan, that state has greater importance than states that are predictably Democratic or Republican. It also gives Arab Americans, who comprise at least 3.5 per cent of Michigan’s voters, an opportunity to play a greater role in shaping the outcome of national elections.

The 13.3 per cent of Michigan Democrats who voted uncommitted, therefore, sent a strong message to Mr Biden: “Listen to us and give us a reason to vote for you, or you’re putting your re-election at risk.”

One would think that the message is clear enough to be understood. But, to date, the Biden campaign hasn’t appeared to get it. Their approach to the Arab community before the vote was, at best, ham-fisted. They had no meetings with national Arab American leaders to discuss policy, making do instead with failed attempts to meet with Michigan Arab Americans trying to secure their votes. Most community leaders refused to participate in these meetings absent real changes in policy.

Biden representatives tried to assuage Michigan’s Arab community anger by offering some half measures. One Biden official apologised for the White House not being more sympathetic to Palestinian suffering. But when asked when the President would back a ceasefire, another official chimed in that wasn’t going to happen.

There were other administration gestures in the lead up to the Michigan vote: sanctioning of a handful of Israeli settlers for their role in anti-Palestinian violence; hints that they might offer a plan for a “pathway to an eventual Palestinian state”; pressing the Israelis not to invade Rafah; and, a day before the vote, Mr Biden off-handedly remarked that he believed there’d be a temporary ceasefire in a week or so. These lures were unconvincing to members of the Arab community.

Simultaneous with these transparent gestures, Democratic operatives were spreading counter-messaging: the uncommitted vote would be too small to matter, and no matter how many were upset with Mr Biden now, in November when Arab Americans were faced with the choice of Donald Trump versus Joe Biden, they’d choose Mr Biden. Finally, there were those who argued that what Arab Americans want the President to do to win their votes would be difficult because pressuring Israel might alienate Jewish voters.

These arguments are hollow and easily dismissed. First, the uncommitted protest vote was one of the largest ever recorded and clearly enough to make a difference in November. Second, it’s dangerous and shortsighted to dismiss any groups of voters when we know from current polls and the 2020 election that a combined total of 70,000 votes in key toss-up states could shift the election’s outcome. And finally, it’s deeply insulting for the Biden campaign to ask Arab Americans to swallow their feelings of pain and anger in order to spare the feelings of another group from which nothing is being asked at all.

What Michigan’s “uncommitted” voters have done is put down a marker – "Read the room. We want you to change policy to save lives. If you don’t, you risk losing our votes and key groups who support a ceasefire and justice for Palestinians.”

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Published: March 04, 2024, 2:00 PM