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'A clarion call': Democratic donors sound the alarm to Biden about strength of 'uncommitted'

While the president easily won the Michigan and Minnesota primaries, some Democrats say he needs to address the internal divisions they revealed.
People gather at an Uncommitted Minnesota watch party during the presidential primary in Minneapolis
People gather at an Uncommitted Minnesota watch party in Minneapolis during the presidential primary Tuesday. Stephen Maturen / AFP - Getty Images

A network of major Democratic donors is raising the alarm about Joe Biden’s performance in Michigan, calling the traction of “uncommitted” in last week’s Democratic presidential primary a “wake-up call” for the president in the critical battleground state.

In a memo to donors shared with NBC News by a recipient, Way to Win, the network of deep-pocketed progressives, urged members to “not try to argue ourselves out of the fact that Michigan is a major warning signal that something needs to change” 

“Michigan’s 100,000+ uncommitted voters in 2024 are a siren, and a clarion call,” wrote Way to Win’s co-founders, Tory Gavito and Jenifer Fernandez Ancona. “The energy behind ‘uncommitted’ is not something that should be ignored, taken lightly, or dismissed as isolated to Michigan. Michigan 2024 is not an anomaly, just as Michigan 2016 was not.”

While Biden won a resounding 81% of the vote in the Feb. 27 Democratic primary, about 13% voted “uncommitted,” largely over concerns about Biden’s support for Israel in its war in Gaza. 

On Super Tuesday, thousands more Democrats voted for either “uncommitted” or “no preference” in six other states. 

In Minnesota, “Uncommitted” received 19% of the overall vote, where activists mounted a last-minute campaign based on the Michigan blueprint and far surpassed their public goals. The “Listen to Minnesota” campaign noted that the strongest support for uncommitted came in areas with significant young voter turnout.

“Tonight, Minnesota proved to the country that the ‘Uncommitted’ movement is not going away nor is it slowing down,” said Listen to Michigan campaign manager Layla Elabed after Tuesday’s results.

Polls show former President Donald Trump leading Biden nationally and in many battleground states as the war in Gaza has heightened dissent for Biden among young people, Muslim and progressive voters inside the Democratic Party.

In a tight race — Trump won Michigan by fewer than 11,000 votes in 2016 — even a relatively small number of voters staying home or voting third party could be decisive.

Like some Michigan Democrats, Way to Win, which has moved more than $300 million in political contributions since its founding in response to Trump’s election, urged Biden to change course on Gaza, elevate Vice President Kamala Harris and do more to curb third-party candidates.

Super Tuesday voting in Minnesota
Voters cast their ballots Tuesday in Andover, Minn. Leila Navidi / Star Tribune via Getty Images

“Biden is the nominee and we are 100% behind the Biden-Harris ticket and are doing everything in our power to help inspire and mobilize the multiracial and multigenerational coalition we need to win,” Gavito said in a statement to NBC News when asked about the memo. “We wrote this memo because we need to unify our winning coalition, and that has to start now.”

Anxious Democrats note that 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton was caught off guard when Bernie Sanders beat her in Michigan’s primary that year, despite polls showing her ahead, but her team nonetheless headed into the general election thinking Michigan’s and other Great Lakes states were safe. 

The Biden campaign, however, has been working to reassure fellow Democrats that they are clear-eyed about their challenges and working to address them.

The campaign just opened its first field office in Michigan, and the president is expected to launch a campaign swing through battleground states after Thursday’s State of the Union address.

“We’ve got energy heading into November. But we also have work to do,” Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Mich., said at an office opening in Madison Heights. “We’re not going to deny that some people sat their vote out. We want to bring them back in the fold. Joe Biden was made for this moment of listening, bringing people in, leading with heart, compassion and grace.”

Michigan voters head to polls for primary as Biden faces protest for Gaza policy
A voting site in Dearborn, Mich., on Feb. 27.Mostafa Bassim / Anadolu via Getty Images

And Harris over the weekend notably went further than Biden, rhetorically at least, in calling for a cease-fire in Gaza, as she wages a behind-the-scenes push for other administration officials to speak more forcefully about the humanitarian situation there.

“The President believes making your voice heard and participating in our democracy is fundamental to who we are as Americans. He shares the goal for an end to the violence and a just, lasting peace in the Middle East. He’s working tirelessly to that end,” Biden campaign spokesperson Lauren Hitt told NBC News. 

Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., who has not been shy about voicing her concerns to Biden’s high command, said the November election will come down to which party can get more of their voters to the polls. 

“It’s going to be a turnout election,” she said on NBC News’ "Meet the Press."

Dingell, who lived in Dearborn, a Democratic city with a large Muslim population where “uncommitted” earned 57% of the primary vote, said that while overall turnout for “uncommitted” was not much higher than the norm, the war in Gaza is visceral for many. 

“It is one issue that needs to be paid attention to. I got a lot of people that are hurting in my district, and in the district that I used to represent,” she said. “ I have families that have lost 40 members of one family. ... They’re going to be an important group in November, but there’s a lot of other groups that we have to make sure turn out.”

By moving Michigan’s presidential primary up into its new early voting window, Biden advisers hoped to highlight his strength among key voting coalitions: Black voters, union workers and suburban women. 

The strength of the “uncommitted” protest vote there, though, instead highlighted the challenges Biden faces with other key groups whose turnout — or lack thereof — could be significant in November: young voters, progressives and Muslim and Arab Americans. 

On college campuses and downtowns, protests against the war in Gaza have been fierce and frequent, often portraying Biden as a villain and dubbing him “Genocide Joe.” 

A volunteer with Abandon Biden Campaign holds a sign near a voting site to encourage voters to vote 'uncommitted' in Dearborn, Mich.
A sign encourages voters to vote "uncommitted" in Dearborn, Mich., on Feb. 27.Mostafa Bassim / Anadolu via Getty Images

Kevin Tolbert, the chair of the 12th Congressional District Democrats, which includes part of Dearborn and Detroit, said there could be lasting damage from that kind of rhetoric.

“I don’t know if people can forget in November what they heard here in late February, and it takes a lot of work,” Tolbert said. “I’d love to see more of the Biden campaign here. This is ground zero.”

To be sure, Democrats note Trump faces his own challenges uniting his party and is unlikely to do the kind of conciliatory outreach that Biden’s team will.

Unite the Country, a pro-Biden super PAC, did intensive research on disaffected voters — those who disapprove of both Biden and Trump — in key states. In Michigan, that group was primarily female, independent and lived in the Detroit region or near Grand Rapids, where support for Trump challenger Nikki Haley was higher than the statewide margin.

“If just a handful of those Haley voters vote for Biden, which isn’t a stretch, Trump’s math in Michigan gets really tight,” said the super PAC’s leader, Steve Schale.  

The Biden campaign likewise pointed to what they called “soft” support for Trump in suburban areas, while they were buoyed by strong Black support in places like Southfield, just outside Detroit. Despite strong uncommitted support in some places, like Dearborn, the statewide turnout for “uncommitted” was only marginally higher than the historical norm for Democratic presidents running for re-election.

They also noted that Biden’s vote share in Michigan was three times the turnout for the last noncompetitive state primary, in 2012.

And there were six other states on Super Tuesday that had "uncommitted" or similar options, and they gained little traction outside Minnesota and Massachusetts.

Biden's team acknowledged, though, that the campaign has work to do to ensure the kind of strong support from young voters that they saw in 2020. An adviser noted that the campaign brought on a full-time Youth Engagement Director in January, which they said was the earliest for a major presidential campaign, and that team is already expanding.

And Biden allies note that he has dominated the primaries that have been held so far, earning 81% to 97% of the vote when his name was on the ballot and even getting 61% as a write-in in New Hampshire. 

“There has been senior officials that have gone to Michigan, as recently as earlier this month, to hear directly from the Muslim and Arab American community," said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. "And we understand how personal this is, how this moment is incredibly painful. And we’re going to continue to have those conversations.”