Analysis: Michigan primary is a cautionary tale for November

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The Michigan primary promised a test for President Joe Biden and for Nikki Haley and it delivered. But the cautionary tale pundits predicted depends entirely on who is reading the results and through what prism.

The final results were unsurprising: Biden and Donald Trump both won. Yet while the mainstream media pronounced Biden in trouble and Trump sailing to victory, the real story is more nuanced. As an incumbent with no real challengers, Biden has been scoring in the 90% range through the short primary season of just a handful of states. Millionaire Wisconsin congressman Dean Phillips is running against Biden, but has been unable to push past one or two percent of the vote. Michigan was no exception, where Phillips came in dead last at 2.7%, even behind self-help guru Marianne Williamson who was still on the ballot, but dropped out several weeks ago, yet garnered 3%. 

Michigan has an “uncommitted” vote in primaries and it was this that proved the first shift in Biden’s overwhelming win in previous states. Led by Palestinian-American congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, there was a call for Arab, Muslim and Palestinian American voters and others with similar concerns, to protest the Biden administration’s stance on the Israel-Hamas war by voting “uncommitted.” The goal was purportedly to send a message to Biden that he could not depend on these voters in the critical swing state without a change that signaled to these voters that Palestinian lives in Gaza matter.

The initial goal was to have 10,000 voters choose that uncommitted vote over Biden. That was the number by which Hillary Clinton lost Michigan in 2016. On Wednesday, with 95% of the Democratic votes counted, there were 101,100 uncommitted votes — 13.3% of the 762,697 votes cast. Biden received 81.1% of the vote — 618,426 votes.

The number of voters choosing uncommitted was significantly higher than it was in the 2012, 2016 and 2020 Michigan primaries, when around 20,000 people picked “uncommitted” each time. Yet the actual percentage of the vote was only marginally higher than it was in the last Michigan primary with an incumbent president. In 2012, “uncommitted” got about 11% against Barack Obama. And that primary had a much lower turnout. There are several other states coming up that also offer the uncommitted choice: Kentucky, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Maryland and Massachusetts.

How those numbers are read depends on who’s doing the reading. Certainly Tlaib and her coterie of protest voters can claim a victory for their protest. Yet in his long statement on the primary, delivered on Twitter/X, Biden only alluded to the protest — he did not cite it or that demographic. “I want to thank every Michigander who made their voice heard today. Exercising the right to vote and participating in our democracy is what makes America great.”

Biden also referenced what he’s delivered to Michiganders — and he did make history there as the first president to ever walk a picket line when he joined the UAW strike in September.

And Biden continues to be staunchly pro-LGBTQ+ and pro-abortion rights, which Trump is not

For her part, Tlaib did not comment on either of her Twitter/X accounts, but had been speaking publicly in Michigan for the past week. On Tuesday, Tlaib said in a video shared on Twitter/X by the Listen to Michigan campaign, “I was proud today to walk in and pull a Democratic ballot and vote uncommitted. We must protect our democracy. We must make sure that our government is about us, about the people.”

She said, “When 74% of Democrats in Michigan support a cease-fire, yet President Biden is not hearing us, this is the way we can use our democracy to say ‘listen.’ Listen to Michigan.” 

Listen to Michigan had called on Michiganders to “Vote Uncommitted in the Feb 27 Michigan Democratic primary. Tell President Biden, count me out for war and genocide in Gaza.” The campaign’s goal was to “demonstrate our political power and discontent” through the primary protest votes and to alert Biden that these votes were not guaranteed. The aim was also to — according to the group’s website — make him “feel more at risk of losing Michigan in the general election, prompting a potential reassessment of his financing and backing of Israel’s war in Gaza.”

That mission, it would seem, was accomplished. Tlaib garnered headlines from Fox News to the Jerusalem Post. Other headlines called Biden the loser in the Michigan primary. The Daily Beast said “‘Uncommitted’ Campaign in Michigan Shatters Expectations Against Biden.”

Business Insider ran the ungainly headline “Rashida Tlaib and ‘uncommitted’ voters delivered a major rebuke to Biden over Israel — and it could make him lose Michigan to Trump in 2024.”

But the bottom line comes down to numbers: Polling averages from Decision Desk HQ/The Hill show former President Trump with a 2.5-point lead in a hypothetical general election head-to-head against Biden in Michigan.

A significant number of people interviewed on national news broadcasts said their protest will extend to November. Khalid Turaani, co-chair of Abandon Biden, who are urging voters not to vote for Biden in November, said news of a possible ceasefire this weekend is “too little too late.”

As one Gen Z Arab-American woman told ABC’s Mary Bruce that not voting for Biden is “short-term pain with Trump in office for long-term gain,” and will ultimately make the Democratic party responsive to voters.

The mainstream press messaging on Trump was that he won “in a landslide” and “dominated and crushed” his opponent, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. But Trump has actually been underperforming in every primary. And while he continues to best Haley, she continues to win a significant segment of GOP and Independent voters that Trump cannot lose in November — but to whom he has made no outreach.

If that 13% of uncommitted voters is worrying for Biden — and it would be a mistake to ignore those votes — this is what Trump’s primary losses look like: Trump lost 49%, 46%, 40% and 34% of voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Michigan, respectively. 

About 400,000 more Republicans voted in the Michigan primary than Democrats, but of those votes, Trump lost 294,884 to Haley, only getting 68.2% of the vote to Biden’s 81.1%. The difference is, stunningly, exactly that of the uncommitted Democratic voters.

The final message of the Michigan primary is mixed. The state is not comparable to other states demographically in terms of its large Arab/Muslim/Palestinian community, but it’s crucial that the administration remember that it’s not just that demographic that has conflict with the president over the Israel-Hamas war. Younger voters and progressive voters especially have been vocal in their opposition to the U.S. stance. 

Nevertheless, as several pundits noted on both MSNBC and CNN in their election commentary, Biden is limited by the far-right, extremist Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, who has consistently rejected Biden’s efforts to obtain a ceasefire, humanitarian aid to Gaza and release of the remaining 100 or so hostages.

The bottom line message from Michigan remains one of caution — but not just for Biden. The options have not changed for November: Biden or Trump. There will be nothing uncommitted then.

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