Campaign protesting Biden’s support for Israel makes impact in Michigan primary

Group called Listen to Michigan jubilant as tens of thousands vote ‘Uncommitted’ in line with its call to punish US president for backing Israel in war on Hamas

Illustrative: a volunteer asks people to vote 'uncommitted,' instead of for US President Joe Biden, outside of McDonald Elementary School in Dearborn during the Michigan presidential primary election on February 27, 2024. (Jeff Kowalsky/AFP)
Illustrative: a volunteer asks people to vote 'uncommitted,' instead of for US President Joe Biden, outside of McDonald Elementary School in Dearborn during the Michigan presidential primary election on February 27, 2024. (Jeff Kowalsky/AFP)

A campaign to protest US President Joe Biden’s support of Israel by voting “Uncommitted” in the Michigan Democratic presidential primary declared victory on Tuesday night, as early returns showed the movement garnering more than 10 percent of the vote.

Biden still won the primary overwhelmingly. But the Uncommitted movement, also called Listen to Michigan, had set a goal of drawing 10,000 votes — the margin by which Donald Trump won the state in the 2016 presidential election. Shortly after 11 p.m., with a bit more than a third of the vote counted, more than 45,000 people had voted Uncommitted.

“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” Listen to Michigan said in a statement as votes were still being counted. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”

The campaign was initiated by activists from Michigan’s large Arab-American population, which numbers more than 300,000. Since the early days of the Israel-Hamas war, Arab and Muslim Americans have warned that Biden’s staunch support of Israel could cost their votes in November. Layla Elabed, the lead organizer of the campaign and sister of Michigan Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who is Palestinian-American, said Tuesday’s result shows that the protest movement has reached a critical mass.

“Today’s results and our delegation represent a historic inflection point for creating a Democratic Party that aligns with the majority of its voters who want a ceasefire and end to unrestricted weapons funding for Israel’s war and occupation against the Palestinian people,” Elabed said in a statement.

“We don’t want a Trump presidency, but Biden has put [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu ahead of American democracy,” she added. “We cannot afford to pay the bill for disregarding Palestinian lives should it come due in November.”

A volunteer shows a person how to vote uncommitted, instead of for US President Joe Biden, outside of Maples School in Dearborn, Michigan on February 27, 2024 during the Michigan presidential primary election. (JEFF KOWALSKY / AFP)

Jewish backers of the campaign include Andy Levin, the former congressman who is a scion of a leading Michigan Jewish political family and who was defeated in 2022 by a candidate who had the backing of the centrist and right-wing pro-Israel community.

“We have a huge victory tonight,” he said at Uncommitted headquarters in Dearborn, the Detroit suburb that is the center of the state’s Arab-American community. “This is a victory of American democracy.”

Critics of Listen to Michigan say it may end up playing into the hands of former US president Donald Trump, who won the Michigan Republican primary handily and is almost certain to face Biden in a rematch in the general election. Biden won the state by about 150,000 votes in 2020 but is trailing Trump in polls this year.

“Those who voted ‘uncommitted’ in this Michigan primary did so knowing that President Biden would easily win,” Halie Soifer, the CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America and a Michigander, said in a statement. “That will not necessarily be the case the next time he’s on the ballot when any vote for a third-party candidate, protest position, or non-vote is effectively a vote for Donald Trump.”

Since Hamas’s October 7 invasion of Israel, which launched the war, Biden has supported the war effort and rejected calls to force Israel into a permanent ceasefire. But he has been more open in recent weeks about his unhappiness with Netanyahu, criticizing him for not being more precise in Israel’s counterstrikes and for obstructing the entry of humanitarian aid. The White House is also pushing for a temporary humanitarian ceasefire.

The Hamas-led attack killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians amid horrific atrocities including widespread incidents of gang rape, torture, and mutilation of victims. The thousands of attackers who burst through the border with the Gaza Strip also abducted 253 people who were taken as hostages in Gaze. Of those 130 remain captive, of whom Israel has assessed that dozens are no longer alive.

US President Joe Biden arrives on Marine One to attend a fundraiser in San Francisco, February 21, 2024. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Nearly 30,000 Palestinians have been killed since the war began, according to Hamas-run health authorities, though these figures cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. The IDF says it has killed over 12,000 operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

Listen to Michigan claims the war amounts to a genocide against the Palestinians, a charge common among pro-Palestinian activists that Israel and its allies roundly reject, blaming Hamas for firing from civilian areas.

Opponents of the campaign and observers acknowledged before results were in that the Uncommitted movement would have a strong showing. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Biden ally, said on MSNBC on Tuesday that she expected the Uncommitted vote to be “sizable” and added, “there’s a lot of people who are hurting.” The Biden campaign has sent senior proxies to the state to meet with leaders of its Arab-American community.

People hug at the Listen to Michigan watch party, a group who asked voters to vote uncommitted instead of for US President Joe Biden in Michigan’s US Presidential primary election, during election night in Dearborn, Michigan on February 27, 2024. (JEFF KOWALSKY / AFP)

Democratic Majority for Israel, a pro-Israel advocacy group, noted in a statement ahead of the vote that almost 20,000 people voted Uncommitted in 2020 when the war in Gaza wasn’t an issue. But that year, the Uncommitted vote amounted to just over one percent, a far smaller proportion than in 2024. As of 10:30 p.m. almost a quarter of Wayne County, which includes Detroit as well as Dearborn, voted Uncommitted this year.

Uncommitted wasn’t Biden’s only challenger on the ballot. US Rep. Dean Phillips, a Jewish Minnesota Democrat who is running a long-shot campaign against Biden, was garnering less than 3% of the vote.

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