Biden has bigger problems in Michigan than Gaza protest votes

President Biden is heading into the primary   (Getty Images)
President Biden is heading into the primary (Getty Images)

Ever since Israel began its campaign in Gaza after the October 7 Hamas attacks, there has been much speculation around how President Joe Biden’s support for Israel will affect his prospects in Michigan – a state with a sizeable Muslim population.

Some Muslim-Americans – including congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian-American lawmaker in Congress – have chosen to vote “uncommitted” in Tuesday’s primary as a mark of protest over his handling of the conflict. And this has left some Democrats fearing that a poor showing in February might hurt him in the Novemmber general election in a state that Donald Trump won in 2016, before Mr Biden turned it blue again in 2020.

Most of the focus has been on Dearborn, a town with an overwhelmingly Muslim population, and the abandonment its residents feel after backing Mr Biden to beat Mr Trump in 2020.

But, while this may be the biggest talking point as voters cast their ballots, the support of Muslim Americans might actually be the least of Mr Biden’s problems in Michigan.

This demographic makes up only roughly four per cent of all of Wayne County, the most populous county in the state. Similarly, Arab-Americans make up only 2.1 per cent of the population in Michigan. Plus, a virtually uncontested primary means it will inevitably have low turnout, which means that any result – regardless of protest – will fail to give a full and comprehensive picture of Mr Biden’s prospects in the state.

Instead, Mr Biden’s bigger problem in Michigan will be with two demographics that could be overlooked: younger voters and African-American voters.

In 2020, Black voters propelled Mr Biden to the Democratic nomination when he won the South Carolina primary. Similarly, enough Black voters who voted for Bernie Sanders in 2016 – along with other groups – broke for him. After he won the presidency, Mr Biden said: “The African American community stood up again for me... You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours.”

But in recent years, Democrats have lost ground with African-American voters. A Gallup poll from earlier this week showed that their lead against Republicans with Black voters has shrunk by nearly 20 points in the last three decades, though they still maintain a 47-point lead. But in a state like Michigan, where Mr Biden won by less than three per cent, that could make all the difference.

Democrats received a shock in 2020 when Mr Trump improved his margins with Latino voters. But Mr Trump also made gains with African-American voters, particularly with Black men. Since then, the Democratic party has come to realise it has a problem appealing to working-class voters without degrees.

In Wayne County, where Dearborn is located, almost 38 per cent of the population there is Black. So, how many people vote uncommitted in Tuesday’s primary won’t just be a sign of protest over Gaza.

In 2020, Mr Biden wallopped Mr Trump in Wayne and improved on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 margins. But Mr Trump also improved in Wayne County in 2020.

The same could be said for Oakland County, which also includes Detroit, where Mr Biden significantly improved on Ms Clinton’s margins while Mr Trump declined. If Biden either wins by a lower margin or there is generally lower than expected turnout, it could signal a lack of enthusiasm among Black voters.

The one group of voters that really could express their anger in a much larger force are younger college-educated voters or those in college towns. In 2016, Mr Sanders won Washtenaw County, home of reigning college football champions the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, and Mr Biden improved on Ms Clinton’s margins in the county in 2020. Given how younger voters are far more progressive and support Palestinians than older generations of Democrats, Mr Biden could see a sizeable uncommitted number in that county.

The same goes for Ingham County, where Michigan State University is located. In 2016, Mr Sanders beat Ms Clinton by 11 points in the primary and Mr Biden beat Mr Trump by an almost two-to-one margin. Angry Michigan State University students – to say nothing of faculty – could easily vote uncommitted and have a bigger show of force than if only Dearborn did.

But many of these counties could also reveal Mr Trump’s weakness. Counties like Wayne and Oakland also include suburbs of Detroit with the type of highly-educated voters that have voted for Nikki Haley, while Michigan is an open-primary state, meaning that independents can participate and express their dissatisfaction with Mr Trump.

Of course, Mr Trump has won the Republican primary in every state so far. But Ms Haley’s performances have shown that a not insignificant number of Republicans and a significant number of independents do not want to vote for him.

At the same time, this may serve as the last gas for Ms Haley with Super Tuesday looming next week, where many of the states hold closed primaries – preventing her from putting up the kind of numbers she has thanks to independent voters.