The Road Through Michigan

By Rafael Hoffman

The adage “all politics is local” is experiencing an unusual twist in Michigan. The high-stakes swing state has garnered outsized attention from presidential candidates for decades, which moved state-sensitive issues like support for the auto industry high up on national candidates’ priority list.

Now, a Michigan constituency is once again angling for its interests, though this time, that focuses on a war halfway around the world from Detroit, Lansing, and Grand Rapids.

A campaign endorsed and trumpeted by Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, former Congressman Andy Levin, and a handful of elected officials and grassroots organizers, set out to use the state’s primary election to amplify their demand that President Joseph Biden call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

That campaign encouraged Democratic primary voters to back the state’s “uncommitted” option, rather than to vote for the President’s renomination to the party’s ticket. The effort was purely symbolic, with President Biden assured to emerge victorious. Yet, it was designed as a shot across the bow from Michigan’s robust pro-Palestinian camp. What that warning, emanating largely from the Arab-majority Detroit suburb, Dearborn, tried to communicate is that if the White House does not cool its pro-Israel stance, enough Democratic-leaning Michigan voters might stay home in November.

“We’re not sizable enough to make a candidate win,” Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud told a media interviewer, “but we’re sizable enough to make a candidate lose.”

After votes were tallied last week, “uncommitted” garnered a little over 13% in what backers are touting as a stern warning to the Biden administration. 

While winning Michigan will indeed present challenges for the President, many argue activists and media are overplaying the role Gaza plays in how people will vote in November. Still, it is certain that Michiganders will likely see plenty of President Biden as he angles for the state to return him to the White House for a second term.

With a population of around 10 million and 15 electoral college votes, Michigan is on a short list of swing states likely to decide the presidential election.

From Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory until Barack Obama’s second win in 2012, the state delivered relatively narrow wins for Democrats. In 2016, though, Donald Trump squeaked out a victory there by 10,000 votes, largely a sign of the command the former President held on the state’s white working class and rural voters. In 2020, President Biden won Michigan by 150,000 votes, still not a large margin given the state’s size.

Close to half the state lives in the Detroit metropolitan area which leans heavily Democratic. Much of the rest of Michigan is red or up for grabs.

“Voting in Michigan is basically a map of urbanicity. Democratic voting is concentrated in urban areas, the further out you get, the more Republican it becomes,” said Mathew Grossman, Director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University. “It wasn’t always that way; Democrats used to have a more diverse coalition.”

Detroit is the state’s largest city, by far, but smaller cities Lansing and Grand Rapids also lean Democratic. The party currently has the upper hand in the state, controlling the governor’s mansion, its two Senate seats, and the state legislature. Of its 13-member delegation to the House of Representatives Democrats hold a 7-6 advantage.

For Democrats, statewide elections largely rested on turnout from a few key demographic groups.

“African Americans in Detroit, affluent white women in the suburbs and college towns, Ann Arbor and East Lansing, that’s the Democrat’s three-legged stool,” said Michigan-based Democratic strategist, Adrian Hemond, CEO of Grassroots Midwest.

Michigan’s electorate has also shown itself to have a good deal of moving pieces that play into the state’s politically purple persona. Turnout levels of Black voters in Detroit are subject to substantial fluctuations and Macomb and Oakland counties in the northern section of greater Detroit are home to significant numbers of independent swing voters who do not hew closely to partisan voting patterns.

The auto manufacturing plants that were once synonymous with Michigan employ a smaller slice of the population than they once did. Still, the Union of Auto Workers (UAW) and other labor groups hold an outsized sway in the state. UAW exclusively backed Democrats in the past and already issued its endorsement for President Biden. Its importance was on display this past September when the President joined a UAW picket line when workers went on strike for higher wages. Around the same time, Mr. Trump also traveled to Michigan to meet with union leaders.

Their strike was successful, potentially bolstering the union’s political sway over its members.

Manufacturing workers were once a bastion of strength for the Democratic Party. Yet, white blue-collar workers have shifted increasingly Republican for decades, and were a major part of Mr. Trump’s 2016 victory. In Michigan, union endorsements remain important, but hold less sway over members than in the past.

“Union workers moved toward Republicans in 2016. That was a piece of Trump’s strength in the industrial Midwest, and it’s a sign more people weren’t following leadership,” said Professor Grossman. “In 2020, Biden hyper-concentrated on Michigan and won back a lot of support. [But] Trump is still popular with blue-collar workers, and with Biden less popular in general, that makes the race here more competitive.”

A recent polling average gave Mr. Trump a slight lead of 46% in the state, to President Biden’s 42%.

In this image taken from video, Muslim community leaders from several swing states pledge to withdraw support for U.S. President Joe Biden on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, at a conference in Dearborn, Mich., citing his refusal to call for a cease-fire in Gaza. (#AbandonBiden via AP)

Amid Michigan’s complex and shifting political map, its large Arab and Muslim population, numbering over 200,000, and heavily concentrated in Dearborn, are trying to leverage their power. Many Dearborn voters were an important part of President Biden’s carrying over 68% of Wayne County — over 587,000 votes, in 2020. For decades, Dearborn has been home to a diverse largely Muslim population, with large groups of immigrants from around the Arab world. Its congressional representative, Rashida Tlaib, is herself Palestinian, mostly known for her unabashed anti-Israel positions.

Since the start of war in Gaza, Dearborn emerged as Michigan’s stage for pro-Palestinian activism. It hosted rallies with cries of “Intifada” and “From the river to the sea Palestine will be free,” widely viewed as a call to cleanse Jews from the region. 

A Wall Street Journal opinion piece titled, “Welcome to Dearborn, America’s Jihad Capital,” detailed statements made by the area’s Muslim clerics. At a rally held at the Ford Performing Arts Center on October 10, Imam Imran Salha told the crowd that Israel’s response to Hamas’ attack put “fire in our hearts that will burn that state … until its demise.” At another rally held four days later, Imam Usama Abdulghani called Hamas terrorist attackers “honorable” and called their brutal incursion a “miracle come true.”

The article also detailed the area’s past support for Hezbollah, Iran’s Quds force, and other enemies of Israel and the United States. Mainstream media amplified Dearborn’s Mayor’s rejection of the Journal piece and President Biden denounced it as “bigoted” and “Islamophobic.”

Supporters of the campaign to vote “Uncommitted” hold a rally in support of Palestinians in Gaza, ahead of Michigan’s Democratic presidential primary in Hamtramck, Mich., February 25. (Reuters/Rebecca Cook)

Focusing on Dearborn, but not exclusive to it, was the campaign to move Democratic voters in last Tuesday’s primary elections to choose the state ballot’s “uncommitted” option over the President. The effort was led by Listen to Michigan, supported by a combined effort of Muslim groups and Our Revolution, a spin-off organization from Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.

Its stated goal is to threaten the White House to pull back from its support of Israel’s effort to eliminate Hamas and call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

“The bare minimum to even start talking to — to really resonate with pro-ceasefire, anti-war voters, the bare minimum just to have those discussions is to have a policy around a permanent ceasefire and a reevaluation of military funding to Israel,” Layla Elabed, Mrs. Tlaib’s sister, who serves as Listen to Michigan’s campaign manager, told NBC. “So, it’s not that … if those two things happen automatically, that Biden will have our support, because we’ve been burned.”

Listen to Michigan set a modest goal of 10,000 votes, the margin by which Mr. Trump defeated Hilary Clinton in 2016. The open message was that if enough Michigan voters decide to abandon the President over his Gaza policies, it could cost him the state.

The campaign far exceeded its publicly stated goals, winning around 100,000 votes. In Dearborn, “uncommitted” beat President Biden with over 50% of the vote.

The effort received a great deal of mainstream media attention leading up to the primary and reports on results cast it as a success. “Michigan Primary Takeaways: ‘Uncommitted’ Sends Biden a Message,” read a New York Times headline, “Sizable ‘uncommitted’ vote in Michigan ignites debate among Democrats,” reported the Washington Post.

Yet, emerging with only 13% of the statewide vote, many familiar with the state’s political currents questioned Listen to Michigan’s impact.

“It was a pretty underwhelming night for the ‘uncommitted’ effort,” said Mr. Hemond. “The fact that they barely cracked the required 15% threshold to secure a single delegate in Rep. Tlaib’s home district is pretty damning about the ability of this effort to move votes. They did not reach 20% in a single county in Michigan.”

Michigan Democrats’ “uncommitted” option, meaning that convention delegates are unbound to any candidate, has won significant support in the past. In 2008, Barack Obama withdrew from the state’s primary since the date set violated party Committee rules. That year, 40% of primary voters chose the “uncommitted” option, largely seen as a vote for Mr. Obama against his main challenger, Hillary Clinton. Without any campaign or specific reason to do so, in 2012, 11% voted uncommitted, with similar numbers choosing the option in successive election years.

This year, Gaza was not the only campaign encouraging voters to choose “uncommitted.” Activists in Michigan’s Armenian community encouraged it to protest the Biden administration’s policies in Azerbaijan. Likely, Democrats with a host of other qualms about the President chose it as well.

Some pointed out that pro-Palestinian activists claiming victory in their campaign were capitalizing on others who declined to back the President for reasons unrelated to their cause.

“The uncommitted vote could be important, but it’s easy to misinterpret,” said Mark Mellman, Democratic strategist and Chairman of the Democratic Majority for Israel, which aided President Biden’s campaign in the Michigan primary. “If you’re concerned about Biden’s age or disagree with him on student debt or climate change, those could also be reasons to vote ‘uncommitted.’ Even 20% for ‘uncommitted’ wouldn’t show much.”    

Even as many Arab and far-left Democratic voters are displeased with the White House’s backing Israel’s cause, voting “uncommitted” was a no-cost protest. With few of these voters likely to choose Mr. Trump in November, many are skeptical the campaign’s results reveal much about President Biden’s prospects in the general election. Even former Congressman Andy Levin, a public backer of the “noncommitted” campaign, said that he plans to vote for the President in November.

“I don’t think it’s a good indicator,” said Professor Grossman. “People who vote in a primary will likely vote Democrat. In general, people who say they are undecided now usually realize what they dislike about the other party by November. That doesn’t solve Biden’s Gaza problem, but [this campaign] is not as large a sign as it is being interpreted as in the media.”

Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud speaks during an election night gathering, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024, in Dearborn, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Even before the “uncommitted” campaign received wide media attention, reports abounded that the White House was increasingly fretful about its unpopularity in Dearborn and the impact that could have on what is close to a must-win state for the President.

A few weeks ago, Biden campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez was dispatched to meet with community leaders there. Based on the statements after the meeting, it did little to win them over.

“Little bit of advice — if you’re planning on sending campaign officials to convince the Arab-American community on why they should vote for your candidate, don’t do it on the same day you announce selling fighter jets to the tyrants murdering our family members,” said Mr. Hammoud, Dearborn’s Mayor, in a social media post.

While a concentrated urban community could play an outsized role in a closely divided state like Michigan, some feel the role media and possibly the Biden campaign assigns them is inflated.

“[Michigan’s] Muslim and Arab-American voters are a large share relative to other states, but that still doesn’t make them a huge percentage,” said Professor Grossman. “They’re not anywhere near the sway African-American voters have.”

Another piece of the Dearborn equation that received little media coverage is that, unlike urban Blacks, Arab-Americans are not a consistently dependable base for Democrats. Prior to 9/11, before the Bush Presidency became associated with wars against Islamicism, many, at times a majority, of American Arabs voted Republican. In 2016, Mr. Trump’s hard line against Muslim immigration further distanced Arab communities from the GOP. Still, the group’s religiosity and social conservatism chased them away from Democrats in the past.

As recently as 2022, much of Dearborn voted against Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer, after the party opposed Muslim community leaders’ fight to keep books promoting progressive social agendas out of the district’s public schools.

Even so, many perceive that the Biden administration is attempting to shift its rhetoric, and possibly policy in a direction that might better suit Dearborn and loud corners of the activist left.

For months after the October 7 attack, the President voiced full support for Israel’s goal to eliminate Hamas, even paying a visit to the nation during wartime. Yet, recently, he called Israel’s military actions “over the top” and the administration is voicing deep reservations over the operation in Rafah. Last week, President Biden publicly declared that he was hopeful a long-term ceasefire would be announced soon.

Mr. Mellman deflected suggestions that electoral concerns were driving this apparent shift.

“I don’t think the President is looking at this in political terms,” he said. “He knows these issues well and has been strongly pro-Israel for decades. He’s guided by his understanding of the situation.”

Yet, many challenge that perception, arguing that the President’s tone change is driven by an effort to placate Muslim voters and his party’s progressives, who have become increasingly loud in their ceasefire demands.

The Biden campaign’s Gaza dilemma is multi-sided. While the far left has made much noise over its opposition to Israel’s war effort, they do not represent a majority of voters. A Harvard CAPS Harris poll showed 63% of Americans support the effort to destroy Hamas. A sizable majority of Democrats support this position as well, although by a smaller margin. A YouGov poll showed that of voters disapproving of President Biden’s handling of the Gaza war, 16% said they wanted him to show stronger support for Israel and only 13% felt his Israel support was too strong.

“Far-left activists punch above their weight and get a disproportionate amount of attention to their size,” said Mr. Mellman. “They’re a loud voice, but they’re a very small portion of the Democratic Party.”

It remains somewhat unclear to what extent a consistent pro-Israel stance could aid President Biden’s electoral hopes. A recent poll commissioned by Fox Newsshowed a majority of Americans favoring Israel (53%) and only 25% expressing more sympathy for Palestinians. Still, many of these voters might already be Trump voters or people who will likely back the President irrespective of Israel policy.

“People who could be swayed are probably people who are more conservative on economic issues, but more with the Democrats on cultural issues. The trouble [for Biden] is that Trump’s position is even more pro-Israel, so its unclear how it factors into how people make their choices,” said Professor Grossman.

With polling subject to varied analysis, Mr. Mellman said national support for Israel translates into a benefit for President Biden staying the course.

“No matter how you look at it, the pro-Israel constituency is larger and there are Jews and non-Jews who will shift their votes based on Israel,” he said. “Evangelicals make up 26% of Michigan voters. Even if most of them are Trump voters, if Biden can peel off a few percentages of them by supporting Israel, that would be more votes than he might be losing from Muslims.”

While there are clearly constituencies that care passionately about America’s Israel policy, what polling generally shows is that it is unlikely to play a determining role in the general election. Perhaps most importantly, with eight months until Election Day, it is unclear how prominent Gaza will be in the news when voters go to the polls.

More generally, data shows that the issue is not a priority to enough voters to shift the election.

“Americans do not rank foreign policy as what motivates voting behavior,” said Mr. Hemond. “For Democrats, fear of a second Trump term is the main factor in this election. Most Democrats are not excited about Joe Biden, but they’ll vote for him with Donald Trump on the ballot. No one motivates Democratic voting behavior more than Donald Trump.”

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