Attendees dance the Dabke during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan primary presidential election, in Dearborn, Michigan, on February 27, 2024. Image Credit: REUTERS

DEARBORN: Joe Biden scored an easy win in Michigan’s presidential primary Tuesday but was dealt a stinging rebuke over the war in Gaza in an Arab American-led protest that raised concerns over his bid to win the swing state in November’s election.

There was little suspense over the outcome for both parties, with the president almost unopposed in the Democratic nominating contest and his predecessor Donald Trump declared the victor the Republican vote as polls were closing.

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But tens of thousands of Democrats in a swing state crucial to Biden’s reelection hopes ticked the “uncommitted” box as part of a push by the “Listen to Michigan” campaign to jolt the president into backing off from his support of Israel.

About 13.2% of Michigan Democrats cast a ballot for “uncommitted” in the primary, following a weeks-long push by activists, an Edison Research tally showed early Wednesday morning.

What’s an uncommitted vote?
On Michigan’s ballot, voters may vote for one of the candidates listed or fill in the ‘uncommitted’ option.
According to the Michigan Department of State, selecting ‘uncommitted’ implies that the voter is exercising a party vote but not committed to the candidates on the ballot.
Are ‘uncommitted’ votes counted?
“Uncommitted votes” are counted just like candidate votes. If enough people vote ‘uncommitted,’ the party can send delegates to the national nominating convention who are not committed to a specific candidate.

With about 85% of all votes counted, the uncommitted vote was already over 100,000 votes, far higher than expectations.

Turnout for the Democratic primary was also high, at some 900,000 voters overall; about 81% of those votes backed Biden.

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Biden’s campaign will continue to “make our case in the state - to both uncommitted voters and the entire Michigan constituency,” a senior campaign official said as the results were tallied. “The President will continue to work for peace in the Middle East.”

Biden’s staunch support for Israel’s during its five-month war with Hamas that has decimated Gaza has sparked outrage and a well-organized backlash among progressive Democrats and Arab Americans, with Michigan as their epicenter.

They asked Biden to push for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, and for sympathetic Democrats to vote “uncommitted” in the primary to signal Biden could lose their support in the November general election, aiming for 10,000 votes, a low figure historically. About 20,000 uncommitted votes were cast in Michigan’s 2012 Democratic primary, the last time a Democratic president was up for reelection in Michigan.

Biden won Michigan by a less than 3% margin in 2020, and some polls show likely Republican candidate Donald Trump ahead in a head-to-head match-up this time.

Biden released a statement thanking voters, touting his record on working for Michigan’s middle class and acknowledging that there was “much left to do” - but made no mention of the Gaza conflict and ignored the protest vote.

“Listen to Michigan” had set a modest goal of rallying 10,000 uncommitted voters in its aim to censure the president over US military funding for Israel, and to pressure him to call for an immediate ceasefire.

“President Biden has funded the bombs falling on the family members of people who live right here in Michigan - people who voted for him, who now feel completely betrayed,” the campaign said in a statement claiming victory.

‘Completely betrayed’

The Gaza war started when Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, resulting in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official Israeli figures.

But concern has mounted amid the high civilian death toll in Israel’s retaliatory campaign, now at almost 30,000, according to the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza.

The bloodshed has weakened Biden’s standing among Muslims and Arab Americans, a bloc crucial to his 2020 victory in Michigan over Trump.

The Midwestern state has the largest proportion of residents who identify as being of Middle Eastern or North African descent in the country, with most of the population concentrated around Detroit.

The protest never threatened Biden’s easy march to the nomination, and his sole challenger, Minnesota congressman Dean Phillips, was trailing with under three percent support late Tuesday.

Uncommitted” votes could set off alarm bells

The significant number of “uncommitted” votes could set off alarm bells ahead of the November general election, when Biden cannot afford to see his coalition eroded in the swing state.

The US Census Bureau estimates the statewide population claiming Middle Eastern or North African descent at 310,000, although the Arab American Institute says that figure is likely a significant undercount.

The organization estimates a nationwide Arab American population of 3.7 million and says the vast majority - more than 80 percent - are US citizens with the right to vote.

On the Republican side, US news networks projected Trump’s victory within seconds of the polls closing, although he has to wait until the weekend for confirmation under a complex system splitting the contest over several voting days.

The former president has swept the early voting states and Michigan was never expected to interrupt his march to the nomination.

His sole remaining challenger, former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, lost her home state of South Carolina to Trump over the weekend but has refused to quit, saying she doesn’t believe the former president can defeat Biden.

Organizers of the uncommitted campaign said they’d continue to challenge Democrats.

“Our delegation plans to hold the Democratic nominee accountable to our community’s anti-war agenda at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago,” said Listen to Michigan, one of the groups behind the campaign. “See you there.”

Biden, 81, faces low general approval ratings and concern about his age, as does former President Donald Trump, 77. Trump was formally ordered to pay about $450 million for fraudulently manipulating his net worth by a New York judge this month and faces four unrelated criminal prosecutions, in which he has pleaded not guilty.

Some 35% of Republicans backed former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley in the Michigan primary, a potential sign of weakness for Trump as well. Some of her voters have said they won’t back Trump in a general election.

A Reuters/IPSOS poll published Tuesday found “extremism” is the top worry for American voters going into the 2024 election, besting the economy or immigration, and that most judge Biden better equipped to deal with the issue.