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The Three Kinds of Biden Protest Voters

President Joe Biden waves to members of the media as he walks toward Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Friday, March 22, 2024, to travel to Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

So far this year, an average of 1 in 10 Democratic voters has voted for “uncommitted” in states where that has been an option on the presidential primary ballot. Where “uncommitted” hasn’t been on the ballot, around 12% percent have voted for a named candidate other than President Joe Biden.

All together, the average Biden protest vote — the percent of the Democratic primary vote going to “uncommitted” or to minor candidates — stands at 13%.

Once all ballots for Tuesday’s primaries are counted, the results could offer an opportunity to assess Biden’s appeal in a key state, Arizona, where Hispanic voters make up about one-quarter of voters overall and an even greater share in parts of Phoenix and Tucson. Arizona, where “uncommitted” is not an option, is also home to a campaign to encourage primary voters to protest Biden’s Middle East policies by casting their votes for Marianne Williamson.

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In Illinois, pro-Palestinian groups are pushing voters to write in “Gaza.” There will also be Democratic primaries in Ohio and Kansas. (The Democratic primary in Florida was canceled after the state party certified only Biden for the ballot.)

The results of Tuesday’s elections will also offer some of the first opportunities to assess the protest vote against former President Donald Trump now that his last major challenger, Nikki Haley, has dropped out. (Much of the voting in last week’s primaries in Georgia and Washington happened before Haley’s announcement.)

The Democratic protest vote so far this year is slightly higher than the historical norm. In uncompetitive Democratic and Republican presidential primaries in 2004, 2012 and 2020, the typical protest vote was about 7%.

Those who have voted against Biden so far fall into three rough groups that highlight the challenge he faces as he looks toward the November general election.

Group 1: Young voters and Muslim American communities

In Michigan, Minnesota, Washington and Massachusetts — four of the five states where “uncommitted” has done best so far — there was a clear and consistent trend. Areas with higher shares of younger voters were much more likely to vote against Biden in the primary. In Seattle, two of the areas with the highest share of “uncommitted” voters were Capitol Hill, a popular neighborhood among young professionals, and the University District, home to the University of Washington.

Biden’s relatively poor performance in these areas suggests a continuing weakness among younger voters. That is a trend that has also shown up in surveys, including New York Times/Siena College national and battleground state polls, which show Trump gaining ground among voters 18 to 29.

Precinct-level results also indicate that the protest vote is strong in Muslim American communities. This was most noticeable in Michigan, where, in majority-Arab areas, 79% of the vote went to “uncommitted,” most likely representing a protest against Biden’s Gaza Strip policy.

Younger voters and Muslim Americans are a small share of the electorate, and it is unclear how their protest in the primary will affect the general.

In places such as Michigan, however, where the margins tend to be razor-thin, their votes — or decision to stay home — could prove decisive.

Group 2: Democrats in name only

North Carolina, where “no preference” received 12.7% of the vote, does not follow the same trend. There, areas with a higher share of younger voters were not necessarily more likely to vote against Biden.

There is another, older phenomenon at play.

North Carolina, like many Southern states, is home to a large number of voters who long ago registered as Democrats but who now vote for Republicans in presidential elections — voters who are effectively Democrats in name only (DINOs).

It is also a semi-closed primary state, meaning these conservative voters who are registered as Democrats can participate only in the Democratic primary. When stuck with a Democratic primary ballot, they may be more inclined to cast a protest vote than to support the incumbent.

Party registration patterns can help highlight where DINOs are concentrated.

Robeson County, where Biden performed worst in North Carolina in the primary, is a prime example. In Robeson, which is just outside Fayetteville and borders South Carolina, there are more than twice as many registered Democrats as registered Republicans.

Yet in the 2020 general election, Trump won the county handily with about 59% of the vote. The disparity between party registration and presidential election results suggests Robeson has a substantial population of registered Democrats who voted for Trump in 2020.

This trend holds true across the state. The protest vote against Biden was highest in counties where the share of voters who are registered Democrats is much greater than the share of voters who voted Democratic in the last presidential election.

A similar pattern played out in Oklahoma, where Biden received just 73% of the vote, with the remaining 27% going to candidates including like Dean Phillips and Williamson. (“Uncommitted” was not an option on the ballot.)

Small, rural counties such as Cimarron and Coal, where protest votes did best, are also places where Biden fared worse in 2020 than registration patterns would have suggested — in other words, places where the DINO contingent is strong.

DINOs are not a new phenomenon. In the 2012 presidential primary, President Barack Obama won just 22% of the vote in Coal County.

In future elections, however, they may be less common. Many DINOs of 2012 have since become registered Republicans. For example, in 2012, 80% of voters in Coal County were registered Democrats. Now, only 43% are.

Unlike younger voters or Arab Americans, DINOs probably did not vote for Biden in 2020, nor are they likely to vote for him in November. Thus, their lack of support for him in the primaries has less significance for the general.

Group 3: Latino communities

In 2020, majority-Latino precincts in key states including Arizona, Florida and Texas swung to the right. And polls have consistently shown an erosion in support for Biden among nonwhite voters, including Latinos, over the past four years.

Primary results in Texas add more evidence of this shift: In the heavily Latino counties of the lower Rio Grande Valley, Biden averaged less than 65% of the vote in the Democratic primary this month. In 2012, Obama, who was similarly running for reelection with only token opposition in the primary, won these counties with more than 85% of the primary vote.

The results in Hispanic communities contain elements of both the previous groups: The Hispanic voting population is relatively young, and as Latino voters have become less reliably Democratic, more of them have become DINOs.

In Texas, unlike in states where voters are limited by their party registration, voters can choose to vote in the party primary of their choice, suggesting Democratic primary voters there still actively identify with the party, even if they are casting a protest vote against Biden.

Methodology

County- and township-level election results are from The Associated Press, as of 10 a.m. Eastern on March 19. Caucuses, held in Hawaii and Iowa, are not included in the analysis because of their different voting systems. New Hampshire and Mississippi are also not included. In New Hampshire, Biden was not on the ballot; in Mississippi, he was the only option on the ballot. Precinct-level results are from various state and county election night reporting websites. Demographic data is calculated from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Voter registration statistics are from L2, a nonpartisan voter data vendor. In the analysis, “uncommitted” refers to a named option on the Democratic primary ballot labeled “uncommitted” or a similar option such as “no preference,” “noncommitted delegate,” or “none of these candidates.” In the bar charts showing the share of the “uncommitted” vote in areas with more younger and older voters, younger areas refer to precincts or townships where the share of voters ages 18 to 34 falls within the top 25% in each state, and older areas refer to precincts or townships where the share of voters ages 65 and above falls within the top 25% in each state. The chart for Michigan includes precinct-level data from 27 counties that represent 70% of the total votes cast. In Washington state, precinct-level data was immediately available only for King County and does not include a small share of late-arriving mail ballots.

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