"Uncommitted" Michigan Dems want to stop Biden from "handing" presidency to Trump with Gaza policies

Rashida Tlaib SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images
Rashida Tlaib SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images
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A progressive-led campaign encouraging voters to check "uncommitted" in Michigan's upcoming Democratic primary in protest of President Joe Biden's response to Israel's war in Gaza has received a flurry of support since its launch earlier this month — and that has Democrats worried.

Biden's staunch military backing of the Israeli government and its retaliatory attacks in the Gaza Strip, which have killed tens of thousands of Palestinians, has left a massive divide on the political left across the United States, sparking threats from progressives since early October that he'll lose their vote in 2024's presidential contest if he doesn't change course.

"It seems that the President has been ignoring us thus far," Abbas Alawieh, a Democratic strategist involved with the "uncommitted" effort, told Salon before referring to the primary protest. "I think it'd be harder for him to ignore us when we lean into our own political power as civically engaged people."

In key battleground state Michigan, where Biden won by around 150,000 votes in 2020, some Democrats have expressed concerns that the president's campaign is overlooking the extent that Arab American, Muslim American and young voters in the state feel alienated from the party over his Israel policy, Politico reports. They also fear that next week's protest vote won't be enough to push Biden's campaign to pay better attention.

“I’m still surprised that they’re not taking this more seriously,” state Sen. Darrin Camilleri, who supports a permanent ceasefire, told Politico, declining to state how he’ll vote in Tuesday’s primary.

“I feel like this is 2016 all over again,” Camilleri continued, referring to former President Donald Trump's win in Michigan that year. “It feels like our national party is not listening to our issues on the ground. If the president doesn’t change course, I would not be surprised if Biden loses the state [in November].”

A Michigan Democratic strategist and supporter of Biden echoed those concerns, telling Politico that the party is "in trouble" because “every day, as violence in Gaza continues, getting those voters back becomes more of a challenge for Biden.”

Anti-war activists in Michigan are hoping to rouse enough disaffected constituents to check the "uncommitted" box on the primary ballot and send Biden a daunting message in Tuesday's Democratic primary: pressure the Israeli government to call for a permanent ceasefire and change your approach, or risk losing our support.

The "Listen to Michigan" campaign is spearheading the election protest, aiming to draw thousands of registered voters to the cause. Layla Elabed, the campaign's manager, told Politico the group wants to see "20,000 or more votes" on Tuesday to put "pressure on the Biden administration."

Alawieh, a campaign spokesperson and ex-top staffer of Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., told Salon that many Michigan residents are "extremely frustrated" and feel "fundamentally betrayed by a president who they helped put into office" because he "seems to be taking a policy approach to Israel and Palestine that is virtually indistinguishable from Netanyahu's genocidal campaign."

A failure to make strides toward the policy changes discontented Americans seek puts fault for a potential November 2024 defeat squarely on Biden's shoulders, Alawieh argued.

"What we know here in Michigan is that President Biden has lost significant support precisely because of his support for the genocide of Palestinian people and that, unless he takes a radically different approach, then not only will more Palestinians be killed shamefully, but also, he would be handing the Oval Office back to Donald Trump and his white supremacist buddies," Alawieh said. "Both of those things are horrifying prospects."

In addition to demanding the president publicly call for a ceasefire, the campaign wants the Biden administration to stop vetoing United Nations ceasefire resolutions and cut military funding to the Israeli government or, at minimum, implement conditions on that military aid. Only in accomplishing that "bare minimum" will Biden be able to "restart the conversation" to win back disillusioned Michigan voters, Alawieh said.

Broader American support for Biden's handling of the latest outbreak of violence in Gaza has also been on a decline. Just 31 percent of respondents to a Wednesday Quinnipiac poll indicated approval of Biden's approach, while 62 percent disapproved. By comparison, a November Quinnipiac poll saw 42 percent of respondents stating approval, 46 percent saying they disapprove and 12 percent opting against offering an opinion.

Though Michigan's uncommitted vote campaign is unlikely to pull enough votes to siphon a win from the president in the state's primary, the traction it gains will be the first litmus test of how much pressure disaffected voters in battleground states could apply on Biden's reelection bid in what is expected to be another close presidential contest in November.

Who ultimately wins the race will be decided by "thin margins," coming down to a few key areas within a few battleground states, according to Hahrie Han, the director of Johns Hopkins University's SNF Agora Institute, an academic and public forum on global democracy, civic engagement and inclusive dialogue.

While it's not uncommon for an incumbent candidate to face this form of internal partisan pushback for his record, Han told Salon, the voter protest effort exposes a "vulnerability" in Biden's campaign strategy.

The president's "sparse" ground operation in battleground states — leaving most field outreach to third-party groups, as previously reported by Axios — makes his campaign more susceptible to these kinds of "attacks" because it lacks a designated set of organizers dedicated to building relationships with voters and reinterpreting the oppositional narratives, she said.

The Biden campaign is sure to be paying attention to the volume of "uncommitted" voters generated from the protest "and trying to see how many people are they able to actually turn to make this choice," said Han, who is also a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins. "Even if it's not going to be a number that's going to be definitive enough to turn the election, it still is going to give them a sense of how strong their support is and where it's distributed across the state."

"From the perspective of the people who are running the uncommitted campaign, the more that they can show greater support across key districts across the state, the more it elevates their ability to influence the election overall," she added.

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Groups like "Listen to Michigan," however, face an uphill battle in actually exacting change in Biden's platform because "they feel captured by the party," according to Nicholas Valentino, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan.

"They can't vote for the other party because the other party is not going to do a better job — or at least, this is the argument," Valentino said. "And so their needs are not addressed by the in-party, because they know that the in-party knows that they can't actually vote for the other party. That would be even worse."

For his part, Biden has made strides to bridge the gap between his campaign and protesters. He has publicly criticized Israel's response in the Gaza Strip as "over the top" and cautioned against the government launching a ground invasion of the southeasternmost city, Rafah, according to Politico, where millions of Palestinians are sheltering after being told to evacuate to the area. The president also imposed sanctions on Israeli settlers to punish those who attacked Palestinians in the occupied areas of the West Bank and sent officials to meet with Arab American leaders in Dearborn, Michigan earlier this month.

The visiting senior aides spoke of "missteps" in the administration's handling of and messaging about Israel's attacks in Gaza, Alawieh, one of the invited leaders, told Salon. But the attempt at outreach and reconciliation, coming more than 120 days into the war, he felt rang "wholly inadequate."

In Michigan, losing a portion of the progressive vote raises the risk that Biden loses the state, Politico noted. The 200,000 Muslim registered voters in the state recorded by Muslim-American advocacy group Emgage eclipses the 150,000-vote margin Biden captured in 2020. Young voters in the state also mobilized in high numbers in 2022, assisting Democrats in winning control of Michigan's government and reelecting Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

But for Alawieh, Tuesday's protest vote is not about the primary or the general election. It's about "achieving a ceasefire," he said.

"Biden has lost people in Michigan, and we're trying to make sure that those people who feel betrayed by the president, who feel disillusioned by his support of genocide, register that disapproval at the ballot box," Alawieh said, noting later that many voters in the state have lost more than 10 family members as a result of the war.

The Israeli government's monthslong bombardment of Gaza — prompted by militant group Hamas' deadly Oct. 7 attack killing 1,200 Israelis and seizing 240 hostages — has killed nearly 30,000 Palestinians and injured nearly 70,000, including more than 10,000 children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Thousands more Palestinians are missing beneath the rubble Israeli Defense Force bombs have left behind, with most presumed dead.

While Alawieh is concerned with ensuring Trump doesn't reclaim the White House in November, right now he is more concerned with the lives of "Palestinian children who are being killed using our taxpayer funding," especially as a survivor of the 2006 war in Lebanon himself, he explained.

What balance the "Listen to Michigan" effort and uncommitted voters will strike in pressuring Biden while not offering windfall to Trump by the 2024 election is "the real question," Valentino said. "Can they protest and put pressure on Biden to change his posture on this conflict, but also then not fail to mobilize the community in the fall to vote for the candidate that is closer to them" on a host of issues?

Last weekend, the "Listen to Michigan" campaign received the endorsement of Rep. Tlaib, the only Palestinian American in Congress and the sister of the group's campaign manager.

"This is the way you can raise our voices. Don't make us even more invisible. Right now we feel completely neglected and unseen by our government. If you want us to be louder, then come here and vote uncommitted," said Tlaib, who was censured by her colleagues in Congress in November for supporting a controversial pro-Palestinian phrase.

The effort has also received support from more than 30 other current or former elected officials at the local, state and federal levels, including former U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich.

A community event in Detroit Tuesday night saw over a dozen volunteers with the group call Democratic voters to ask if they wanted to "send a message to President Biden" about advocating for a ceasefire, Politico reported, noting "Listen to Michigan" has made nearly 50,000 phone calls so far.

That outpouring of support makes Alawieh hopeful that the group can successfully apply pressure on Biden, taking it as a sign that there are more people than the president realizes willing to demand, through their political power, he change his policy.

"The Democratic Party and President Biden really ought to look in the mirror and ask themselves: Do they want to continue demeaning or ignoring this mass movement of people who [are] against the war, who [are] led by young people, who include key voters in states like Michigan, where Arab American, Muslim American voters helped deliver Biden the presidency?" he said. "Do they want to continue to alienate this movement?

"Or — and I think this will be the wiser choice — do they want to break away from their embrace of Netanyahu and his murderous policies, and engage with this movement productively," Alawieh added, "engage with us on a better policy that not only saves lives of children in Gaza, but also saves our democracy here at home?"