Michigan primary results: Biden wins but Gaza policy weakens his support


Editor’s note, February 28, 6:45 am ET: President Joe Biden won Michigan’s Democratic primary Tuesday night. With nearly all of the vote counted, about 13 percent went to “uncommitted.” The original story that follows was published February 27.

Arab American activists and their allies are urging voters to cast ballots as “uncommitted” in Michigan’s Democratic primary on Tuesday in protest of President Joe Biden’s support for Israel’s war in Gaza. They’re unlikely to change the result of the contest, in which Biden is the only major candidate, but they’re hoping to signal their anger — and send a warning — to Democrats in one of the most critical swing states on the 2024 map.

Michigan is home to more than 300,000 people who claim Middle Eastern or North African heritage, many of them concentrated in the city of Dearborn — one of the largest Arab American communities in the US. These are voters who helped deliver Michigan to Biden in 2020, when his margin of victory in the state was just over 154,000 votes. In Wayne County, where Dearborn is located, as well as Oakland County, where Arab Americans also make up a significant share of the population, voters backed him at rates of about 69 and 56 percent, respectively.

Those days, however, are over. Biden is currently losing to former President Donald Trump in seven major polls conducted in Michigan since the beginning of the war. There are multiple reasons for that, including falling support in the powerful auto workers union, which endorsed Biden glaringly late in the game this year, but Arab Americans and young progressive voters in the state have also cited Gaza as an important factor, and most Michiganders support a ceasefire.

Arab American officials in Michigan have become prominent critics of the US’s support for Israel’s campaign, which has killed about 30,000 Palestinians since the October 7 attack by Hamas. The mayor of Dearborn — Abdullah Hammoud, who has Lebanese ancestry — wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times Wednesday that “We don’t have to imagine the violence and injustice being carried out against the Palestinian people. Many of us lived it, and still bear the scars of life under occupation and apartheid.” US Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan), the only Palestinian member of Congress, has explicitly told voters not to support Biden.

Tlaib’s sister, Layla Elabed, is now heading up the “Listen to Michigan” campaign to encourage at least 10,000 Michiganders to vote “uncommitted” in support of a ceasefire in Gaza. Now endorsed by progressive organizations including Our Revolution and the Democratic Socialists of America, the campaign has been conducting text and phone banking, buying digital ads, knocking on doors, and sending out mailers throughout Michigan.

“This is a protest vote against genocide,” Elabed said. “The resounding sense in a lot of Arab American communities and Muslim American communities is that our voices don’t matter here. And our lives don’t matter abroad.”

Even if the organizers of the uncommitted campaign succeed, they won’t affect Biden’s chances of securing his party’s nomination. But depending on how large the uncommitted vote is in Michigan, it could spell trouble for Biden in the fall, should Arab Americans and their allies stay home or cast a ballot for Trump in a state Biden, currently in a tight contest nationally, will likely need to win.

Biden has faltered on Arab American outreach

The uncommitted campaign is the product of what Arab American leaders say is the White House’s failure to listen to them and address their concerns through traditional outreach channels. Since October, Arab American leaders have been trying to no avail to get an audience with Biden to voice their concerns about the war, said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, who grew up in Dearborn.

Biden quietly hosted a group of five Muslim leaders in late October at the White House, where they told him that he had failed to show empathy for the acute suffering in Gaza. But that was seen as a slight by the ethnic constituency of Arab Americans, who are also Christian, Druze, Jewish, Mandaean, and other faiths, as well as secular, Berry said. And in February, Biden skipped a scheduled stop in Dearborn while visiting Michigan, instead meeting with auto workers in the Detroit metro area.

“For months, we’ve been asking for meaningful engagement on policy, and, frankly, are being ignored,” Berry said.

The Biden campaign and the Democratic National Committee did not respond to requests for comment.

Officials from the Biden campaign and the White House, as well as Biden surrogates, have visited Michigan multiple times in the last two months with the intent of smoothing things over with the Arab American community. In January, Biden campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez held small meetings with some Arab American leaders after others made clear that they were too angry to be open to dialogue in a planned larger meeting. And even after adjusting the plan, there was one meeting in which all 10 to 15 people invited declined to attend in protest.

To Elabed, the fact that Biden sent his campaign manager to Michigan signaled that he was more interested in securing Arab American votes than talking “about how this failed policy is affecting our communities,” she said.

In February, a group of White House officials, including USAID administrator Samantha Power, also visited Michigan to highlight how the administration is trying to get humanitarian aid to Palestinians. In a closed-door meeting, deputy national security adviser Jon Finer reportedly admitted that the administration had “misstepped in the course of responding to this crisis” and “left a very damaging impression, based on what has been a wholly inadequate public accounting for how much the president, the administration, the country values the lives of Palestinians.”

Biden ally Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) — who supports a ceasefire in Gaza and cutting off further aid to Israel — met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan earlier this month to talk about how to build support for their policy demands in Washington.

But Elabed said it still doesn’t feel as though Biden is adequately responding to the concerns of the Arab American community. His sharpest critique of Israel’s campaign came only earlier this month, when he said that it was “over the top” and that civilian suffering and death “had to stop.” Meanwhile, the US recently vetoed a ceasefire resolution at the United Nations for the third time since the start of the war. The Biden administration continues to push for a $14.1 billion supplemental aid package for Israel on top of the approximately $3.3 billion it already receives annually from the US, and is continuing to make major arms sales while offering unconditional military support to Israel.

“For Joe Biden to ignore the very communities that largely brought him Michigan in 2020 is a slap in the face,” Elabed said. “It does feel so dehumanizing that a party that I have supported my whole adult life is now ignoring the deaths and murder of my people and the destruction of my ancestral land.”

Arab Americans say blame Biden if Trump wins a second term — not them

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is urging voters in her state not to vote uncommitted. “It’s important not to lose sight of the fact that any vote that’s not cast for Joe Biden supports a second Trump term,” she said on Sunday during an interview on CNN’s State of the Union.

But many Arab American activists are arguing that Whitmer and others critiquing uncommitted voters should instead lay the blame at Biden’s feet.

“If the outcome is that we have another Trump presidency, it is going to be Joe Biden and his administration and the Democratic Party that hands over the White House to the Trump administration,” Elabed said. “Because when you ignore your core constituency … you have no one to blame but yourselves.”

Many Arab American voters fear a second Trump presidency — not just on the issue of Gaza — and acknowledge that his foreign policy was disastrous for Palestinians and the Arab world, Berry said.

He moved the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2017 — a choice made in recognition of the fact that Israel had made unified Jerusalem its capital but a decidedly controversial one given that control of Jerusalem has historically been a key sticking point in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. The US recognized the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights under Trump and reaffirmed it under Biden.

The Trump administration also argued in 2019 that Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank are not necessarily illegal, lending legitimacy to Israel’s claims on the territories, but the annexations and moves toward it are widely regarded as illegal under international law, and no other country has recognized them.

Trump also instituted a travel ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries — including the Arab states of Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — that was struck down by the courts and later revived in a different iteration.

None of this is news to Arab American voters. But activists argue it’s still hard for them to justify voting for Biden when the Biden administration has in their minds failed to adequately push back on the slaughter of Palestinians after October 7.

“We fought back for those four years,” Abed Ayoub, national executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said. “We pushed back and we found ways to fight back against [Trump’s] policies. But the one thing we didn’t have was a genocide.”

Berry said her organization is pushing hard to ensure that Arab Americans don’t just sit this election out as a result of anger with Biden, which she said is not how the community’s best interests are served, but isn’t encouraging that they vote any particular way. The alternatives include voting for third-party candidates or casting a ballot for Trump. Many Iraqi Chaldean Christians in Michigan’s Macomb and Oakland counties already backed him in 2020, when he promised to shield them from deportation.

Ayoub said he himself doesn’t think Trump is the right option. But given what he’s been hearing from Arab and Muslim voters, he said they’re willing to consider him.

“We’ll speak to [Trump]. And if he does the right moves in the campaign … we don’t mind voting for him,” Ayoub said. “Those dead family members, those dead bodies, those images we’re seeing … That’s enough for them to say, give me a few bad tweets and a few mean words and let my family members live.”

What does all of this really mean, in Michigan and nationally?

The national contest between Biden and Trump, who is all but assured the GOP nomination, is tight. As one of six major battleground states in 2024, Michigan could determine the outcome of the election overall, and Biden can’t afford any significant splintering of his coalition there.

The Arab American community in Michigan is small, making up slightly over 1 percent of the state’s population of 10 million. And outside the Arab American community, there are “not that many” voters who disagree with Biden’s policies in Gaza and even fewer are “so motivated in their anger against Biden that they would vote uncommitted in a Democratic primary,” Bill Ballenger, a longtime political pundit in Michigan, said.

But if the margins in Michigan are anywhere as close as they were in 2020 and 2016, “maybe the loss of support in the Arab American community could spell the difference between victory and defeat for Biden,” Ballenger said. “No wonder he’s worried.”

And while the war in Gaza looms large in Michigan because of its large Arab American community, it’s an issue that has resonated nationally among Arab Americans, who also have sizable and growing communities in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Georgia. The movement to abandon Biden over his stance on Gaza has already spread to some of those states, and his campaign is struggling to secure surrogates and endorsements that could help bridge the gap with Arab Americans and young progressives. Nationally, Biden’s support among Arab American voters has fallen from 59 in 2020 to 17 percent after the war in Gaza broke out in October.

Democrats generally have also increasingly turned against the war in Gaza. About half of 2020 Biden voters said that they believe Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians in a February poll by YouGov/The Economist.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll decide how to vote based on Biden’s response to the war; the economy remains a bipartisan priority for voters, and Democrats also cite health care, climate change, poverty, racism, abortion, and women’s rights as top concerns. Biden is pushing the progress he’s made on the economy and trying to draw a sharp contrast with Trump on these other issues so far. But the number of uncommitted voters in Michigan could signal just how deep Democratic discontent is.

“This is not only isolated to Arab or Muslim voters in Michigan,” Ayoub said.

Haleema Shah contributed reporting to this article.

Clarification, February 27, 10:30 am: This story has been updated to clarify Abed Ayoub’s views and those of Arab American voters.


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