Michigan Primary Takeaways: ‘Uncommitted’ Sends Biden a Message

Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Donald J. Trump won Michigan’s primary elections on Tuesday as the president and his predecessor hurtle toward a rematch in November.

But the results showed some of the fragility of the political coalitions they have constructed in a critical state for the fall. Losing any slice of support is perilous for both Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump. Mr. Biden won Michigan in 2020 by about 150,000 votes, and Mr. Trump carried it in 2016 by about 11,000 votes.

The results of the primaries on Tuesday carried extra weight because Michigan was the first state that is a top general-election battleground to hold its primary in 2024.

Here are four takeaways from the results:

When the movement to persuade Democrats to vote “uncommitted” began three weeks ago, its public goal was clear: Pile enough pressure on Mr. Biden that he would call for an unconditional cease-fire in Gaza.

Since then, top White House officials told Arab American leaders in Dearborn, Mich., that they had regrets over how the administration had responded to the crisis. Mr. Biden called Israel’s military action “over the top.” And on the eve of the primary, he said he hoped a cease-fire agreement would be in place within a week. (The view from Israel and Gaza suggested Mr. Biden was being a bit optimistic.)

And yet the strength of the “uncommitted” effort surprised the president’s campaign, which until this week didn’t anticipate the strength of anti-Biden sentiment among Michigan Democrats.

In the early hours of Wednesday, roughly 13 percent of primary voters had chosen “uncommitted” — a share that paled next to Mr. Biden’s 81 percent, but represented more than 75,000 people in Michigan who made the effort to lodge their disapproval of the president.

The movement is now likely to spread to other states, many of which have an option for voters to choose “uncommitted” or “no preference” in their primaries. Listen to Michigan, the group that kicked off the state’s protest vote, is holding an organizing call for supporters in Minnesota, which votes next week, and Washington State, which holds its primary on March 12.

“This is the only option we have to enact democracy in this moment,” said Asma Mohammed, a progressive activist who is among the leaders of a new group called Uncommitted Minnesota. “We are against a Trump presidency, and we also want Biden to be better. If that means pushing him to his limit, that is what it will take.”

The challenge for the Biden campaign will be slowing any perceived momentum after Michigan by those protesting his Gaza policy. As long as the war grinds on and the United States keeps sending aid to Israel, there is little Mr. Biden can do to assuage voters who are angry about the mounting Palestinian death toll.

Mr. Trump has long been the heavy favorite to become the Republican nominee. Mr. Biden left little doubt that he would run again for Democrats.

Yet tens of thousands of Michiganders in both parties voted against their standard-bearers on Tuesday, a stark rejection that suggests they could have problems stitching together a winning coalition in November. The saving grace for each man, as Karl Rove, the former top strategist for George W. Bush, vividly put it recently, is that “only one can lose.”

Part of the reason Michigan’s results appear more damaging to Mr. Biden than Mr. Trump is the matter of expectations.

Ms. Haley has been campaigning against Mr. Trump for months, and her share of the Republican electorate has gone down from New Hampshire to South Carolina to Michigan.

But Mr. Biden cruised through his first two primaries in South Carolina and Nevada before a loosely organized group of Arab American political operatives, with $200,000 and three weeks to spare, won enough support that their effort is likely to clinch delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

“If the White House is listening, if our congressional leaders are listening, if our state leaders are listening, we need a change of course or we risk the complete unraveling of American democracy come November,” said Mayor Abdullah Hammoud of Dearborn.

It was not surprising to see “uncommitted” beat Mr. Biden in Dearborn and Hamtramck, two of the Michigan cities with the highest concentrations of Arab Americans. With nearly all ballots counted, Dearborn gave 56 percent of its Democratic primary vote to “uncommitted.” In Hamtramck, “uncommitted” drew 61 percent of the city’s Democratic vote.

Perhaps more worrisome for Mr. Biden was his performance in Ann Arbor, a college town 30 miles to the west.

There, where most students and faculty members at the University of Michigan live, “uncommitted” earned 19 percent of the vote. In East Lansing, home to Michigan State University, “uncommitted” got 15 percent of the vote.

While no other battleground states have Arab American communities the size of Michigan’s, they all have college towns where young, progressive voters are angry about American support for Israel.

It is in those places — Madison, Wis.; Athens, Ga.; Chapel Hill and Durham, N.C.; Tucson, Ariz.; and State College, Pa., among others — where Mr. Biden faces a general-election threat if he does not attract overwhelming support and turnout among students in November.

Donald J. Trump won — again. Nikki Haley lost — again.

At one point in the nominating calendar, the Michigan primary had the potential to be a brief but notable way station between the four first states and Super Tuesday.

But the lopsided results offered more of the same, with Mr. Trump dominating everywhere in Michigan and Ms. Haley on track for her weakest showing since the race narrowed to two candidates. She marches on, with planned rallies and fund-raisers in seven states and Washington, D.C., before Super Tuesday on March 5.

The month of February was about momentum, and Mr. Trump has all of it. March is about delegates, and he has most of those, too.

But the race for delegates is about to quicken sharply. California alone on March 5 has more delegates at stake than all of the contests in January and February combined.

Ms. Haley’s campaign called her share of the vote — she was below 30 percent early Wednesday — “a flashing warning sign for Trump in November.” But it was a warning sign for her candidacy now.

Nicholas Nehamas contributed reporting from Dearborn, Mich., and Alyce McFadden from New York.