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Critics of Biden's handling of Israel-Hamas war push for protest vote in Michigan primary

Displeased Democratic voters plan to cast ballots for "uncommitted," with the goal of getting to 15% to deny him a delegate.
President Joe Biden delivers remarks
President Joe Biden speaks in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House on Feb. 8.Nathan Howard / Getty Images file

KALAMAZOO, Mich. — President Joe Biden’s most serious opponent in Michigan’s Democratic primary isn’t Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota, his nominal rival for the party nomination.

It’s “Uncommitted.”

Angered by Biden’s refusal to force an enduring cease-fire in Gaza, unhappy Democrats in Michigan are pushing others to cast protest votes in Tuesday’s primary by checking the “uncommitted” box rather than vote for the president from their own party.

Organizers don’t expect the gambit to deprive Biden of victory, but they’re hopeful the “uncommitted” vote will be sizable enough that he gets the message and uses his leverage to rein in the Israeli military. A strong “uncommitted” showing would be a blow to Biden, revealing how the war has strained a Democratic coalition he needs to keep intact, particularly in the key swing state of Michigan.

“You’re seeing just horrifying images and reports of civilians being murdered” in Gaza, Marshall Clabeaux, 30, said after a meeting of the Ingham County Democratic Party last week at a Mexican restaurant in Lansing. “I’m broken.”

“President Biden needs to change course on Gaza,” added Clabeaux, who put forward a resolution calling for a cease-fire that passed the county committee unanimously. “You’re going to lose a large part of the electorate in Michigan without a change in course and action.”

The rise of the “uncommitted” movement in Michigan has created an unusual spectacle in a state that Biden needs to carry in November if he’s to stay in office. Ahead of the primary, dueling campaigns have emerged, using different means and methods to reach Democratic voters.

The Biden campaign is the more conventional and low-key of the two, relying on visits from high-profile surrogates, canvassing and phone banks to ensure a solid victory.

Biden has been piggybacking off Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s operation: Her Fight Like Hell political action committee has held about two dozen campaign events this month, including a get-out-the-vote effort in Lansing on Saturday.

Asked whether Biden has a state campaign office in Michigan, an aide said he does, in Detroit. The aide declined to give the address, citing security reasons.

“Something that I’ve been really trying to wrap my arms around is, you know, are we seeing huge rallies right now? No," said state Sen. Mallory McMorrow, a Democrat. "But I am getting a sense that people are plugged in a lot earlier than it would have been."

The “uncommitted” forces are more freewheeling, using grassroots tactics to give voters an outlet for the festering discontent inside the party as the death toll in Gaza nears 30,000.

A group called Listen to Michigan has run phone banks, with volunteers speaking in English, Arabic, Hindi, French and other languages, in hope of reaching the widest possible swath of the electorate.

On Saturday afternoon, about 20 students gathered at Kalamazoo College to march to the local polling place and cast “uncommitted” votes. Dima Alhesan, the field director for Listen to Michigan, held a bullhorn and led them in chants as they marched.

“Genocide Joe, what do you say? How many kids have you killed today?” they chanted, evoking the 1960s-era protesters who opposed President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam War policies.

If the “uncommitted” vote clears the 15% threshold in Michigan's congressional districts Tuesday, at least some delegates at the national convention in Chicago in August wouldn’t be pledged to Biden. Depending on the size of the uncommitted bloc, those delegates could use their clout at the convention to demand changes in Middle East policy or throw their support behind a different candidate.

“The goal is to take away delegates from Biden,” said Suha Qashou, 21, the student leader of the march in Kalamazoo. “We think it’s important that we send Biden a message about the stance of the people and not just vote ‘blue no matter who.’ It doesn’t always work that way.”

Leaders of the “uncommitted” movement said a worthy goal would be 10,000 votes. That number is roughly the same as Donald Trump’s victory margin in Michigan in 2016.

For comparison purposes, when President Barack Obama ran for re-election in the 2012 Democratic primary, about 21,000 — or 11% of the total — voted uncommitted in Michigan.

The greater the uncommitted vote on Tuesday, the more worrying it would be for Biden. Polls indicate he’s in a close race against Trump and he’ll need a unified and motivated party behind him as he heads into the general election.

Whitmer told reporters Saturday she understood the passions of those promoting the “uncommitted” vote. But she cautioned that this isn’t the time for the party to fracture.

“I also understand that any vote that’s not for President Biden makes it more likely that we have another Trump term,” Whitmer said. “So I encourage people to make their voices heard, but also to recognize that any vote that is not cast or not cast for President Biden makes another Trump term a reality, and I think that’s very concerning.”

Biden has done little since the war in Gaza began in October that might reassure Michigan Democrats who are upset over the support he has given Israel in its offensive. Frustration is mounting.

The U.S. vetoed a resolution in the United Nations Security Council last week calling for a cease-fire, the only country to do so.

Earlier in the month, senior Biden administration leaders traveled to Michigan to meet with Arab American and Muslim American leaders and hear their concerns about the war.

One of the people at the meeting was the mayor of Dearborn, a city with a large Arab American community. That was the last meeting Mayor Abdullah Hammoud will attend with White House officials unless Biden changes course, a mayoral aide said.

Various surrogates have stepped forward to explain Biden's position and hear out his critics. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a progressive leader in Congress, met with a group of students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor last week to discuss the war. Police officers stood vigilant outside the meeting room in case of any heckling.

The conversation remained polite as Khanna explained the origins of Biden's pro-Israel position.

“He grew up in a different time," Khanna told the students. "There probably weren’t many Arab American voters who mattered in 1972 when he got elected to the Senate. He grew up in an era where the unconditional support of Israel was axiomatic in American politics at the height of the Cold War.”

Later, in an interview, Khanna said he told Biden directly about the unhappiness inside the Democratic coalition. On a rope line in South Carolina, “I said: ‘Mr. President, you've got a challenge with progressives. This is a real issue,’” Khanna said.

“‘Ro, I understand it,’ Biden replied. ‘I understand the pain, and I'm pushing [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. Believe me, I am.’”