A resounding victory in Michigan rings alarm bells for Biden campaign

President Joe Biden's staunch support for Israel has sparked outrage and a unified backlash among Arab Americans

Activist Natalia Latif tapes a sign on the speaker's podium in Dearborn, Michigan. Reuters
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President Joe Biden easily won Michigan's primary election this week, gaining 81 per cent of the votes. It might sound like a good number, but there was little for his campaign to celebrate.

The victory was accompanied by a message of condemnation from the state's Muslim and Arab-American communities over Mr Biden's handling of the Israel-Gaza war.

More than 100,000 voters – 13.2 per cent – cast an “uncommitted” Democratic ballot, heeding the Listen to Michigan campaign that is demanding Mr Biden call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza and end military aid to Israel.

The results far exceeded the organisers' goal of 10,000 votes.

If that many Democrats vote against Mr Biden or stay home for the presidential election on November 5, it could cost him the crucial swing state in a race that polls show him lagging behind Donald Trump.

A loss in Michigan could spell disaster for Mr Biden as he seeks a second term.

Mr Trump won the Midwestern state in 2016 and Mr Biden won by 154,000 votes in 2020, a year of record high turnout.

“We feel very strongly that the message to President Biden is crystal clear: Before coming to Michigan and asking for our votes here, Gaza is a top issue,” Abbas Alawieh, spokesman for the Listen to Michigan campaign, told The National.

“Now it's time for President Biden to make a decision. Will he continue the path of embracing [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu's war crimes, or will he embrace the Democratic base that widely supports a permanent ceasefire?”

Listen to Michigan will hold an organising call with supporters in Washington and Minnesota, two states that have expressed interest in running similar campaigns and are holding their primaries in March.

Listen to Michigan had aimed at getting at least 10,000 uncommitted votes – the margin that former Republican President Donald Trump won in the state in 2016, beating Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

The protest vote on Tuesday, political strategists say, sends a strong signal to Mr Biden, who cannot afford to lose Michigan – one of about a half dozen key swing states up for grabs in November.

“It's pretty significant and kind of serves as a wake-up call to the Biden campaign that the tides of public opinion are turning and it's not just something that is happening online, it is going to translate to real votes and into real consequences,” Alyssa Batchelor-Causey, a Democratic strategist, told The National.

“If Arab Americans are really put off by this and are saying, no, we're not going to vote – up on 100,000 votes could swing an election. It leaves him very vulnerable to losing in 2024.”

Four years ago, Arab Americans in Michigan came out overwhelmingly in support of Mr Biden, helping him to clinch victory and denying Mr Trump a second term in office.

But residents of Michigan, home to about 500,000 Arab Americans, say they feel betrayed by Mr Biden over his support for Israel since October 7.

That day, Israel launched a punishing military campaign on Gaza in response to a Hamas attack that killed about 1,200 people, according to Israeli authorities.

And anger has been rising as Mr Biden continues to oppose a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, even as the Palestinian death toll – now more 29,900, most of them civilians, according to local health authorities – continues to rise.

Analysts say while no other swing states have Arab-American populations the size of Michigan’s, many are home to large numbers of young and progressive voters who are also unhappy with Mr Biden's support for Israel.

A survey released on Tuesday by Data for Progress found that 67 per cent of voters support the US calling for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza. Among Democrats, the figure was 77 per cent.

“The President is appreciative of the people of Michigan coming out last night to make sure that their voices were heard,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Wednesday.

“We understand how personal this is, how this moment is incredibly painful, and we're going to continue to have those conversations and we're gonna make sure that we continue to listen and continue to engage."

The Michigan vote came after Mr Biden announced on Monday that a temporary ceasefire in Gaza could happen within a week, which other world leaders say is overly optimistic.

Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist, said it is unlikely the Biden administration will shift its stance on Israel in response to uncommitted campaigns.

“I don't think that it's going to cause a fundamental shift, in that he is pushing the Israelis to the extent we can,” Mr Manley said.

Voters head to primaries in Arab capital of America

Voters head to primaries in Arab capital of America

Mr Biden has expressed his staunch support for Israel since October 7, and has bypassed Congress twice to approve emergency weapons sales to the country.

He has also questioned the number of Palestinian civilian casualties in Gaza and his administration has vetoed three resolutions at the UN Security Council calling for an immediate ceasefire.

For most Arab Americans, voting for Mr Trump, the Republican front-runner, is not an option, as he has promised to reintroduce and expand a ban on the entry of citizens from several Muslim-majority countries, and increase surveillance of Muslim Americans.

The Biden administration says it is working hard to forge a temporary ceasefire in the five-month war, during which hostages still being held by Hamas could be released, and more humanitarian aid could enter Gaza.

In an effort to win back support from the community, this month Mr Biden sent a delegation of senior White House officials to Dearborn, the capital of Arab America, to speak to local and elected officials in the city.

“The problem is that neither Trump or Biden can afford to lose very many votes around the margin,” Mr Manley said.

“How much of a problem this is going to be remains to be seen, but he needs to be building up his votes, not lose them.”

Updated: March 06, 2024, 11:28 AM