Biden wins Michigan Democratic primary but is hit with protest vote over Gaza policy

Donald Trump has comfortably won the Republican battle in the key swing state, but Nikki Haley has vowed to stay in the race

Primarias de Míchigan 2024: Joe Biden y Donald Trump en las elecciones de Estados Unidos
Joe Biden and Donald Trump.AP / Reuters
Macarena Vidal Liy

U.S. President Joe Biden has won the Democratic primaries in Michigan and Donald Trump, the Republican ones. It was a foreseeable outcome. But as the count progressed, it became clear that there was a strong protest vote against Biden for his pro-Israeli policy in the war on Gaza. A significant percentage of Democrat voters checked the “uncommitted” box, equivalent to a blank vote. The “Listen to Michigan” campaign launched by the Arab-American community — which has a significant population in Michigan — and progressive groups believes it has achieved its objective: to warn Biden that his refusal to support a permanent cease-fire in Gaza could cost him the White House.

In the first hours of the count, the “uncommitted” option was already on track to exceed 11,000 votes — the margin by which Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016 in the state. That was the goal campaign organizers had set for themselves. It was also set to exceed the 20,000 “uncommitted” votes from the last three Democratic presidential primaries in the state. With 58% of the vote counted, the protest vote exceeded 66,000 ballots, or 13%. Biden won Michigan in 2020 by 150,000 votes.

“We have put human lives before the party. We have put human lives before the president,” said the mayor of Dearborn, Abdullah Mahmmoud, one of the Democratic politicians who supported the campaign, during the counting of the results. Dearborn, a city on the outskirts of Detroit where 55% of the population is of North African or Middle Eastern origin, was the birthplace of the “Listen to Michigan” initiative. The goal was to show Biden that to win Michigan — a key state on his path to re-election — he needs the support of voters who want him to back a permanent cease-fire in Gaza. In Wayne County, where Dearborn is located, the “uncommitted” vote reached 75%.

In a statement on the primary results, Biden did not mention the “Listen to Michigan” campaign or the uncommitted votes. Neither did his campaign, in its separate statement. The president chose instead to criticize the policies of Donald Trump, the front-runner to win the Republican nomination. “This fight for our freedoms, for working families, and for Democracy is going to take all of us coming together. I know that we will,” he said.

Polling stations closed at 8 p.m. after being open for 12 hours. In Dearborn, what was a mere trickle of people early in the morning picked up pace in the afternoon. More than a million people voted early, in a state of 10 million people. In Dearborn, election officials commented that turnout was higher than expected. “We’re running out of voter registration forms,” they said in Precinct 2, with an hour and a half left to go before polls closed.

“We want to show that we are a voting bloc to be reckoned with,” Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud said at one of the polling stations during the day. “These are our family members, our friends, our ancestral villages, where our parents came from, that are being bombed each and every single day... We are using this opportunity as a means of sending a message that course correction needs to happen, or else he risks not only the presidency, but ultimately the American democracy with the reelection of president Trump,” he said to reporters. “For many members in the city of Dearborn, and across the state, people are using the word ‘betrayal.’ We were promised a president to bring back decency, to lead with humanity, to lead with empathy as someone who has suffered loss, and we have found anything but.”

The U.S. president, who at the beginning of the war in Gaza was decidedly on the Israeli side, has gradually modulated his position, although he maintains he refuses to support a permanent ceasefire and continues to send arms to Israel. In recent weeks, he called the Israeli government’s response in Gaza “over the top;” imposed sanctions against four Jewish settlers who have attacked Palestinians in the West Bank; and warned against an offensive on Rafah. And on Monday, while visiting an ice cream shop in New York City, he announced that a temporary ceasefire could be underway in less than a week.

But this was not enough to appease Dearborn voters. “Too little, too late,” was the opinion of Khalid Turaani, of the Michigan Task Force of Palestine and one of the organizers of the “Abandon Biden” movement, which wants the U.S. president to lose in next November’s elections. Mayor Hammoud was also skeptical. “I find it strange that they’re eating ice cream at a parlor and that is the moment that they talk about a cease-fire coming forward,” he said, adding that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made statements indicating otherwise. “I don’t look to lip service or to words. I’m looking for action. We want a long-lasting, permanent and just cease-fire.”

Michigan is a key state for both the Democrats and the Republicans. Trump won this state in 2016 by just over 10,000 votes. Biden snatched it from him in 2020 by 150,000 ballots. On top of this, the state has a population of 300,000 residents of Arab origin, which four years ago leaned overwhelmingly (64%) in favor of Biden.

“Four years ago I voted for Biden. This time I’m voting for Trump,” Emad Said, 48, an unemployed man, said outside his polling station in Dearborn. His motivation, he claimed, was not solely the events in Gaza. “Crime has increased, a lot of money is being sent to Ukraine and there is no money here... America first,” he said, repeating Trump’s famous slogan.

If the “uncommitted” vote secured more than 10% of the vote, it would be an important warning for Biden in a state that, in addition to supporting him in 2020, has a Democratic majority in its local parliament and in the state governorship. The president has received the support of the UAW, the influential autoworkers’ union, which carries great political weight in a state that accounts for 20% of the nation’s vehicle production.

“We are going to keep highlighting the contrast between Biden and Trump and once that becomes clear, we fully expect these voters, who have walked away from Biden, to come back,” LaShawn English, the union’s regional director, told Reuters.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, co-chair of Biden’s campaign, warned that a protest vote now against the president could translate into a win for Trump in November. She also told MSNBC that it will be important for the Biden administration to continue to reach out to leaders and individuals in the Palestinian, Muslim, Arab American, as well as Jewish communities.

On the Republican side, how many votes Haley gets will provide an indication of the extent to which Michigan Republicans have doubts about a second term for Trump, who polls tipped to win 57% of the vote. With 62% of the votes counted, the former president received half a million votes, 67.8%, while the former governor of South Carolina was at 27%, with 199,075 ballots. Although the importance of the wine was relative: only 30% of the Michigan delegates for the Republican convention in Milwaukee will be awarded now. The remaining 70 will be awarded on Saturday, when the party will hold its state convention. Or, rather, conventions: internal divisions have created two factions that have called separate meetings in two different cities.

Before the count began, immediately after the polls closed, Haley told CNN that she would continue her battle: “We’ve only seen a handful of states vote,” she said. “We’re taking this one state, one day at a time.”

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