In Michigan, a Win and a Warning for Biden

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Two parallel truths danced around each other Tuesday in Michigan, as President Joe Biden easily won the state’s primary, but heads into Super Tuesday lightly bruised as double-digit shares of voters in far-flung counties lodged protest votes against him.

Even among the biggest Biden supporters, who were quick to note he snagged the vast majority of its 117 delegates, there was the annoying fact that some plenty-loud Democrats in the state urged their neighbors to reject Biden and his place as the only major candidate on the ballot. (Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota, and author Marianne Williamson were also on the ballot, but she has dropped out in the span since the ballots were finalized in December.) Instead, Biden critics urged like-minded primary voters to say they were “uncommitted” as a signal to Biden that his continued support for Israel’s response to the Oct. 7 terror attacks by Hamas is going to cost him.

In the months since the attack, Muslims and Arab Americans in Michigan have been particularly harsh on Biden, making clear they wanted to punish him for not doing more to stop what they see as Israel’s overblown reaction to a surprise Hamas attack that left 1,200 dead. Since Israel lept to action, 29,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, large parts of Gaza have been leveled, 1.9 million people are displaced, and a quarter of the population of Gaza—576,000 people—are bordering on famine. In a show of unity at rallies and online, Black voters and younger voters lent their voices to those calling on Biden to join them in demanding an immediate and permanent ceasefire.

In Washington and at Biden’s campaign base in Wilmington, Del., the general attitude has been one of pique in the face of mutiny over perhaps the greatest wedge issue in the Democratic Party. Biden advisers are annoyed but not worried about the insurgent voices on the Left calling for a reversal of the long-standing U.S. practice of publicly supporting Israel. There’s also this fact: Biden seldom takes into account domestic politics when it comes to foreign policy, and there is no plausible way Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a de facto co-Secretary of State during his eight years as Vice President, was going to be anything but supportive of Israel—even if he is not particularly fond of the nation’s Prime Minister or how he’s prosecuted the response to Oct. 7.

Taken from a macro level, Biden’s showing in Michigan on its own is hardly reason for him to lose sleep. But it fits with a problematic series of small-scale shifts inside the Democratic Party that could cost him come November. Keeping in mind Biden came within 44,000 votes in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin of an Electoral College tie with Donald Trump in 2020, the micro-fraying of the Democratic coalition has left strategists plenty worried. 

The “uncommitted” crowd picked up at least one delegate, meeting the Democratic National Committee’s qualifying threshold of 15% support in a congressional district to claim a ticket to the convention in Chicago. That earliest sign of discontent came from the district that includes Dearborn, the largest per capita Muslim population in the United States. That district’s representative in the House, the first and only Palestinian-American member of Congress Rep. Rashida Tlaib, recorded robocalls for a group leading the “uncommitted” effort, which is led by her sister.

“Send a clear message to President Biden: Change course on Gaza, pursue peace, save lives, and win back the trust of the voting coalition who got him to the White House in 2020,” Tlaib said in a recorded call sent to 87,000 people in her Dearborn-area district from Listen to Michigan and Our Revolution, a progressive group that grew out of Sen. Bernier Sanders’ political machine.

At other points, support for the “uncommitted” position climbed north of 15% statewide, giving hope that those activists could compete for those delegates, too.

Message sent, for sure. Received? To be seen.

There really is no yardstick against which to judge Biden’s performance. The last time a Democratic incumbent President sought renomination was 2012, when Barack Obama won 89% support in Michigan—but, importantly, that was in a system run as a caucus, not a primary. In 1996, incumbent President Bill Clinton didn’t even appear on the state’s primary ballot as he sought a second term and “uncommitted” prevailed with 87% of the vote.

(On the Republican side, former President Donald Trump coasted to another primary win against former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley.)

Biden allies say his relationships with Black voters, union members, and suburban moms are a firewall. But among all three blocs, enthusiasm appears to be shrinking and the relative share of the electoral pie could be insufficient. In 2020, just 11% of the electorate identified as Black, according to exit polls. One-in-five voters said they were part of a union household in 2020; union membership now stands at 13%, down from 16% a decade earlier. 

And while suburban voters powered Biden’s 2020 coalition—55% of his votes came from the ‘burbs—he’s not so hot there these days, especially with women. The latest NBC News poll finds Biden underperforming with suburban women; among all women, he is up 10 points over Trump, but in the suburbs the advantage falls to 6 points. And he’s trailing by a point among white suburban women, a statistical tie in effect.

To be sure, Biden remains the plain frontrunner for his party’s nomination. He won the New Hampshire primary as a write-in candidate despite keeping his name off the ballot in solidarity with a new DNC calendar that he ordered.

And then there’s the money. In January, the Biden campaign raised $15.7 million and ended the month with $56 million in the bank. By contrast, Trump raised $8.8 million and closed the month with $30.5 million in cash on hand. 

Put plainly: Biden won four years ago with a coalition that has been slowly fraying in front of national Democrats’ face. Tuesday was the first piece of ballot-box proof. It was a snag, not an unraveling. But with swing state polls showing Biden trailing, a loud minority inside his own camp looking to bleed his support could leave him lurching into the general election.The margins are incredibly tight. After all, Biden won Michigan in 2020 by 154,000 votes and the state’s Arab population today has grown to about 300,000, and the Muslim voting pool is more than 200,000. Biden can scant afford to have discontent inside those populations if he plans to be a player come Michigan’s autumn.

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