Thursday briefing: Could the ‘uncommitted vote’ over Gaza cost Joe Biden at the polls?

<span>Supporters of the campaign to vote ‘uncommitted’ hold a rally ahead of Michigan's Democratic presidential primary election.</span><span>Photograph: Rebecca Cook/Reuters</span>
Supporters of the campaign to vote ‘uncommitted’ hold a rally ahead of Michigan's Democratic presidential primary election.Photograph: Rebecca Cook/Reuters

Good morning.

Over the next two newsletters I’ll look at very two different elections that are thousands of miles apart but similarly fractured by the war in Gaza. Today we will be in a midwestern state in the US, and tomorrow we’ll be in a small town in the north of England. Stay tuned.

Normally, an uncontested Democratic primary race with an incumbent president running is not big news. But in Michigan a group of relentless grassroots activists turned what was supposed to be an uneventful election into a symbol of the dissatisfaction and anger at Joe Biden over his continued support of Israel in the war in Gaza.

Though the president has sharpened his criticism of Israel’s military response, the damage, in the minds of many voters, has been done. Vetoing the latest UN security council resolution that called for an immediate ceasefire and supplying military aid to Israel has earned Biden the stark moniker of “genocide Joe”, a reference to the allegations made by South Africa that Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza, which Israel has strongly denied.

The campaign, Listen to Michigan, started just a few weeks before the primary election, urging the public not to vote for Biden and instead vote uncommitted, to pressure the president to support an immediate and permanent ceasefire. They were more effective than even they had hoped, with the uncommitted movement receiving more than 100,000 votes. Though Biden still won by 80%, the uncommitted movement has rattled the White House, as they wonder if this is a sign of what is to come in the run up to the November general elections.

For today’s newsletter, I spoke with the Guardian’s US southern bureau chief, Oliver Laughland, about the results in Michigan and what they mean for the Democratic party’s prospects in an election year. That’s right after the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Health | Ultra-processed food (UPF) is directly linked to 32 harmful effects including a higher risk of heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, adverse mental health and early death, according to the world’s largest review of its kind.

  2. Conservatives | More than half of party members believe Islam is a threat to the British way of life, according to a poll that sheds light on the hostility with which large parts of the party view the country’s second-biggest religion.

  3. Education | Taking an unauthorised family holiday is about to get more expensive, with the government announcing that fines for children in England missing school are to rise by 33%. Under the new rules, the initial penalty notices will be raised from £60 to £80, if paid within 21 days. Those who delay payment will have fines raised from £120 to £160.

  4. Israel-Gaza war | Israel has stopped issuing visas for international staff of humanitarian organisations that work in occupied Palestinian territories, hampering efforts to get food and other vital supplies into Gaza, forcing dozens of foreign aid works to leave or risk deportation.

  5. Budget | Jeremy Hunt is considering scrapping Britain’s non-domiciled tax rules in next week’s budget, it has been reported, in a move that would see him poach one of Labour’s key fiscal policies that he has previously criticised. Abolishing the non-dom tax regime would raise an estimated £3.6bn a year.

In depth: ‘If this movement balloons, the Democrats would not fare well come November’

Uncommitted votes give the public the opportunity to still take part in the democratic process and place a party vote without putting their support behind any candidate. It counts just as much as a vote for a specific person, and is an effective way to put pressure on politicians. And that is what happened in Michigan.


The campaign for the uncommitted vote

In Michigan, the US state with the highest Arab American population, organisers directed the growing and palpable discontent with the US straight at Biden. They were initially hoping for 10,000 votes, which is just under the margin that Trump won in the state in 2016. In just over three weeks and with limited resources, activists went to mosques, college campuses and schools; they hosted rallies, phone banked and knocked on doors. Their efforts worked: 100,0000 people joined the “uncommitted movement”.

“People were genuinely quite shocked to see just how many people turned out for it,” Oliver says. “What it has done, ultimately, is tap into a broader critique that exists not just among Arab American or Muslim populations in Michigan, but among progressive voters and the Democratic party more broadly.” Oliver went all over the state to communities outside of large cities like Detroit, to get a sense of what the mood was like there. He says these conversations were already happening in smaller cities and more rural areas, and they seem to be independent of the formal campaign in the state capital.

“Members of the Democratic party we talked to were well aware [that voting uncommitted] was an option available to them, and many were going to do it having not received a phone call or any literature from the campaign,” Oliver says. It is this combination of well-coordinated and dedicated grassroots mobilisation, alongside word-of-mouth dissemination and broader frustration at the party, that has allowed this movement to gain momentum.


Could this happen elsewhere?

There is no real way to predict whether events in Michigan will be replicated successfully, and only a handful of other states have uncommitted as an option on the ballot. The Democrats also missed the mark a few times in the run up to this election, most notably when the state’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, said an uncommitted vote was essentially a vote for Trump. “That went down like a lead balloon,” Oliver says. “Many of the organisers that I spoke to found it deeply patronising, especially as these are clearly very engaged citizens who are mobilising on a single issue they care passionately about.”

The discontent towards Biden and his administration is widespread. Activists had flown in from all over the country to see what was happening in Michigan and there is already a campaign mounting in Minnesota. If what happened in Michigan is anything to go by, it shows that these movements can evolve rapidly and can accrue real power in a matter of weeks. “It shows more chances of expanding than contracting. But we just have to wait and see what happens,” Oliver says.


The reaction from the Democrats

Even though Joe Biden chose not to reference the uncommitted vote in his victory speech, there is concern from those in the party about the level and depth of anger about the war in Gaza and the government’s stance on it. A senior campaign adviser reportedly told Reuters that the Democrats “are getting hurt more than we anticipated” over the issue.

Many are saying it would be extremely unwise to ignore this groundswell, especially as the margins for electoral victory in November are likely to be slim. In 2020, Biden won Michigan by 150,000 votes – two-thirds of that vote opted to throw their support behind the uncommitted movement this time around.

“If this movement continues to balloon, it would not fare well for the Democrats come November,” Oliver says. He does not think that the movement is going to go away any time soon either. “These are extremely active, organised younger voters who turned out to vote for Biden in 2020 and if they’re not going to do that, again, in swing states, that’s going to have real consequences.”

What else we’ve been reading

  • In 1975, Glynn Simmons (above) was sentenced to die in the US for a murder that not only did he not commit – he wasn’t even in the same state at the time. His conversation with Simon Hattenstone about his 48 years in prison in which “my innocence was my burden” is astonishing, moving and enraging. Craille Maguire Gillies, production editor, newsletters

  • The Alabama supreme court judgment ruling that frozen embryos are considered children has caused panic and confusion about the future of fertility treatment in the state. For the Cut (£), Rae Nudson spoke to IVF patients scrambling to get their frozen embryos out of the state. Nimo

  • European ombudsman Emily O’Reilly’s comment piece about the EU’s responsibility to close the “chasm between rhetoric and reality” when dealing with migrant deaths in the Mediterranean is a bracing reminder of the scope of the humanitarian crisis. Craille

  • Whether or not you are a fan of Taylor Swift, you should definitely subscribe to Swift Notes, a new newsletter headed by the Guardian’s deputy music editor Laura Snapes. It will be less about Swift as a musician and more about her as someone with more capital and power than some small nations. (Subscribe here for your weekly dose). Nimo

  • As a Canadian not unfamiliar with Kraft Dinner, I am eager to follow Felicity Cloake’s dummy-proof masterclass on how to make macaroni cheese. Craille


FA Cup | Chelsea overcame second-tier Leeds United 3-2 to reach the quarter-finals thanks to Conor Gallagher’s 90th-minute winning goal. Brazilian Casemiro scored in the 89th minute to send Manchester United into a record 48th quarter-final with a 1-0 victory over Nottingham Forest. Mario Lemina fired Wolves into the quarter-final after a nervy 1-0 win over Brighton. Jurgen Klopp’s kids did him proud again as Lewis Koumas scored on debut and fellow 18-year-old Jayden Danns registered his first two goals as a depleted Liverpool side beat Southampton 3-0 at Anfield.

Formula One | Christian Horner has been exonerated of any wrongdoing by an independent investigation into allegations of inappropriate controlling behaviour made against him by a female member of staff.

Athletics | An Olympic coach who tried to force the sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya home from the Tokyo Games to Belarus, where she feared for her safety, was banned from the sport for five years on Tuesday.

The front pages

“Largest review of ultra-processed food warns of 32 damaging effects” – that’s the Guardian this morning while the Financial Times has “Leaked files reveal Russia’s low bar for use of tactical nuclear weapons”. The Metro leads with “You are not that special after a “bombshell ruling for Harry” that he is not entitled to police protection after quitting the royal family. “Never had it so bad” – that’s “Reeves warning on the economy”, says the Daily Mirror, as the Labour treasurer-in-waiting likens Britain to a house trashed by the Tories. “Budget won’t fix UK’s ‘unfair’ £50,000 child benefit rule - so Hunt can afford tax cuts” reports the i while the Daily Telegraph says “Hunt looks at ditching non-dom tax perk”. “PM tells police chiefs: time to end ‘mob rule’” is the Daily Mail’s lead and likewise the Times has “Save Britain from mob rule, Sunak tells police”. In the Daily Express, the splash is about Esther Rantzen’s assisted dying campaign: “I feel let down by MPs sitting on the fence”.

Today in Focus

Ella Baron on the Rochdale byelection

Conservative deputy chair Lee Anderson was suspended from the party after suggesting London’s mayor Sadiq Khan was being controlled by Islamists. But why can’t the party call his comments Islamophobic? Archie Bland reports

Cartoon of the day | Ella Baron

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

The last time Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff visited Southend-on-Sea as a child, she writes, “I remember being blown away by the scale of the rollicking rollercoasters, too scared to go on them but enamoured of the environment: the sticky twirls of ice-cream, the noise, the fun”. Would she feel different returning as an adult in the depths of winter?

It turns out a February visit to the seaside is not without its own reward. “Yes, it rained continuously, and there were cigarette butts and dog poo on the beach, but, wandering down the deserted promenade and seeing a wee girl and her faintly exasperated dad having a ‘picnic’ surrounded by seagulls had its own, bedraggled charm,” Brinkhurst-Cuff found.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s puzzles are here to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.