Michigan primary a test for Biden as key voters turn away over Gaza war

<span>‘Uncommitted’ supporters hold a rally ahead of Michigan's Democratic presidential primary election in Hamtramck on Sunday.</span><span>Photograph: Rebecca Cook/Reuters</span>
‘Uncommitted’ supporters hold a rally ahead of Michigan's Democratic presidential primary election in Hamtramck on Sunday.Photograph: Rebecca Cook/Reuters

Polls began to close in Michigan on Tuesday, in a presidential primary that tested how much Joe Biden and Donald Trump should be worried about winning key groups of voters in the general election in the critical swing state.

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Though both were on track to win their races, Biden and Trump faced challenges within their respective parties. After underperforming in the polls and struggling with suburban and college-educated Republican voters in earlier primaries, Trump’s campaign in Michigan is dealing with a state Republican party whose local leaders have been embroiled in an ugly factional dispute, while Biden faces a campaign by anti-war activists to abandon him over the president’s continued support for Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.

In an interview with the Guardian, Layla Elabed, sister of the congresswoman Rashida Tlaib and campaign director for Listen to Michigan, said organizers were hoping for a showing of between 10,000 and 15,000 “uncommitted” votes, a mirror of the margin by which Hillary Clinton lost the state to Donald Trump in 2016. They passed 14,000 “uncommitted” votes by 8.30pm, according to an Associated Press count, which could be a significant rebuke of Biden.

As the sun began to set on Tuesday evening, a steady stream of voters made their way to polling stations in Dearborn, where the “uncommitted” campaign has concentrated much of its resources on election day.

Volunteers sat at intersections and outside the doors of the McDonald elementary school handing out campaign literature, but many of those arriving to vote had already decided to cast an uncommitted ballot.

“This is to send a message to the president,” said 41-year-old Khalifah Mahdi, a local business owner who said he was voting for the first time in a primary election. “He has lost a lot of strength and respect in this first term and he needs to win that back.”

Maria Ibarra, a volunteer with the Listen to Michigan campaign, said that one Dearborn precinct ran out of voter-registration applications around 7pm Eastern standard time. The voters waiting in line, Ibarra said, “want to make sure that there’s a clear message, that they want a permanent ceasefire”. By 8pm the precinct had obtained more applications.

The push by Democratic voters to vote “uncommitted” in today’s primary picked up steam since organizers launched it in early February, with dozens of local elected officials in greater Detroit publicly endorsing the push.

That effort has the support of the Dearborn mayor, Abdullah Hammoud, whose Detroit suburb has the largest percentage of Arab Americans of any city in the US. He wrote in a February op-ed in the New York Times that his constituents were “haunted by the images, videos and stories streaming out of Gaza” and felt “a visceral sense of betrayal” by Biden’s support for Israel.

The campaign also has support from the representative Tlaib, a Palestinian American who represents Dearborn in Congress. In a video posted on social media today, Tlaib announced that she “was proud today” to vote “uncommitted” in the Democratic primary. “President Biden is not hearing us,” she said, citing a recent poll that showed about 74% of Democrats in Michigan support a ceasefire in Gaza. “This is the way we can use our democracy to say ‘listen – listen to Michigan.’”

The campaign also earned the backing of the former congressman Andy Levin, who is Jewish and close to organized labor in the state, and the former 2020 presidential candidate and representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas.

“We can use uncommitted to send a clear and powerful message to Joe Biden if we get enough uncommitted votes for a margin of victory,” Elabed, who voted for Biden in 2020, said. “If we’re able to replicate those numbers we can really send a message that he’s at risk of losing Michigan in the general election come November.” The Listen to Michigan campaign on Tuesday evening said they believed they would win at least one delegate at the Democratic national convention. Delegates can be awarded to candidates who earn at least 15% of the vote in a congressional district.

Recent history offers some points of comparison for the ongoing “uncommitted” push in Michigan.

In 2008, when voters in Michigan, frustrated at Barack Obama’s absence from the Democratic primary ballot, launched a similar campaign, nearly 40% who cast their ballot did so for the “uncommitted” option. When Obama ran in 2012 – the last time a Democrat entered the Michigan primary as an incumbent – more than 10% of voters in the primary chose “uncommitted”.

On the Republican side, Trump was expected to win comfortably against the former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley – but weaknesses in his coalition that emerged in earlier primaries in South Carolina and New Hampshire could show up again in the key swing state.

If Trump struggles in Kent county in western Michigan, a former Republican bastion that includes Grand Rapids and which flipped to Biden in 2020, and in Oakland county, a more upscale area in suburban Detroit where voters have also shifted away from Trump, that could be particularly telling. Haley made campaign stops in both places in the days ahead of the primary, where she argued that Trump, who won the South Carolina primary by 60% to Haley’s 40%, would struggle to pick up support from those voters.

“He’s not gonna get the 40% if he’s going and calling out my supporters and saying they’re barred permanently from Maga,” Haley told a Michigan audience this weekend. “And why should the 40% have to cave to him?”

But Tuesday’s vote won’t be the end of things.

The Michigan GOP, to comply with national party rules on the timing of the primary, will only award 30% of its delegates to the national convention based on Tuesday’s vote. The rest will be awarded at a Saturday convention. The convention itself has been caught up in a chaotic power struggle over who the real Michigan GOP chair is – but the delegates are expected to be heavily pro-Trump.