Biden has lost Arab American voters. So what's the point of 'uncommitted'? | Opinion

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If you believe that an American president has the blood of children who look like yours on his hands, how could you vote for him?

Organized by Arab American political activists, the group Listen to Michigan is asking voters who object to President Joe Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war — who view Biden as culpable in the deaths of nearly 30,000 people in Gaza, according to the territory's health ministry — to choose “uncommitted” on the Feb. 27 Democratic presidential primary ballot.

Among Arab American voters I’ve talked to, there’s pain and betrayal, white-hot rage, and a powerful aversion to casting a ballot for Biden, even if that hastens a second Donald Trump presidency, even though no one I talked to believes that would be better for Arab Americans, or for Gaza.

And that’s the problem with the vote uncommitted strategy. If it works, it’s a demonstration of electoral power. But what happens next?

A cease-fire in Palestine protest unfolds near the parking lot of The Henry Hotel in Dearborn as government officials with the Biden administration plan to meet with community leaders in Dearborn on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024.
A cease-fire in Palestine protest unfolds near the parking lot of The Henry Hotel in Dearborn as government officials with the Biden administration plan to meet with community leaders in Dearborn on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024.

The thin margin of victory

If you didn’t know voting uncommitted was an option, that’s OK. I’ve covered politics for 20 years and voted in every presidential election since 1996, and I didn’t realize uncommitted was a thing until this month.

And yet around 20,000 voters in each party have chosen “uncommitted” in most recent Michigan presidential primaries, in which voters are casting ballots not to elect a candidate, but to apportion delegates.

Abbas Alawieh, spokesman for Listen to Michigan, is hoping at least 11,000 additional voters will check the uncommitted box, the margin by which Donald Trump won the state in 2016.

Mark Grebner of Practical Political Consulting, the authority on voter data in Michigan, estimates there are roughly 70,000 Arab American voters in Michigan.

As of last week, around 400 Arab American voters had requested absentee ballots — a gauge of voter enthusiasm and anticipated turnout — Grebner says. For a presidential primary, it’s normally closer to 1,600. Arab American voters are asking for Republican primary ballots at a higher rate, up by about 7 percentage points.

That’s the other risk, of course — that the strategy won’t pay off at all if the number of voters who choose uncommitted send the message that this is a bloc too small to court.

Alawieh says Listen to Michigan is appealing not just to Arab Americans, but the broader antiwar community, with a boost from prominent progressive politicians like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Michigan's own U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian-American serving in the U.S. Congress.

“It feels to those of us organizing for a cease fire and ignored by the president, that maybe he hasn’t heard us yet,” Alawieh told me last week. “Maybe by raising our voices with our votes, he’ll hear us.”

Then what?

President Joe Biden.
President Joe Biden.

Politics not as usual

In a normal political horse trade, the terms are clear: Do this for me, and I’ll do that for you.

And that would seem to be the point of voting uncommitted — to delineate for Biden the number of votes in an important swing state alienated by his Gaza policy.

But the second part? That’s not going to happen.

A month after Israel began its bombardment of Gaza, pollster James Zogby of the Arab American Institute found that just 17% of Arab Americans planned to vote for Biden this year, down from 59% in 2020. The president’s approval rating among Arab Americans also cratered, dropping from 74% in 2020 to 29% last November.

Some activists have taken to calling Biden “Genocide Joe," an epithet it seems nearly impossible to walk back.

Even Listen to Michigan can’t promise that a shift on Gaza will result in Arab American votes for Biden this November, and Alawieh seems to resent the calculation.

“It's odd to be in the middle of a trauma and talking about votes,” Alawieh said.

I point out that Listen to Michigan is framing this conversation around an electoral strategy.

“We are making our demands clear: Publicly call for an immediate permanent cease fire and implement some level of accountability, stop military funding or make military funding conditional, and then we can talk about the November election,” he says. “But we’re not living in normal times, we’re living in times when a genocide is being perpetuated, so stop the genocide, and then we can talk about November.”

What happens next?

I am worried about uncommitted.

It slots neatly into the general malaise about a second Biden term, which started when American voters discovered that he’s old, and that when he opens his mouth, it’s a roll of the dice, something we've all known about Joe Biden for oh, say, the last 40 years. Americans have also decided that the economy — at full employment, with inflation on the decline and real wage growth for the first time in decades — is actually terrible.

Now there's Gaza.

Back in 2016, there were abundant signs that voters were disenchanted with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. But the prevailing wisdom was that they'd just get over it. And a lot of them did (Clinton won the popular vote). But she lost the presidency, in part because she didn't win voters in important swing states. Like Michigan.

Arab American voters I've talked to say that if Trump wins, that's not on them, it's on Biden. His policies, not Michigan voters, would have enabled a Trump victory.

That's semantics.

I believe in voting your conscience. And I respect that Listen to Michigan isn't advising voters to stay home. Voting is our right and responsibility as Americans, and to choose not to vote is to disrespect the sacrifices that bought us this privilege.

But presidential elections offer binary choices, and a vote not cast is a vote for the other guy, whose second presidency would be unlikely to benefit Americans of any stripe, Gazans or democracy.

There's a lot riding on uncommitted. There's a lot riding on this election. For Biden, and for the rest of us.

Nancy Kaffer is the editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press. Contact her at Submit a letter to the editor at

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan primary's 'uncommitted' votes could doom Biden