'Uncommitted' wins 2 Democratic delegates in Michigan, a victory for Biden's anti-war opponents

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Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud speaks during an election night gathering, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024, in Dearborn, Mich. Some Democratic voters pledged to vote "uncommitted" in Tuesday's primary to let President Joe Biden know they aren't happy with his support for Israel in its response to the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

LANSING, Mich. – A protest “uncommitted” vote in Michigan that secured two delegates in the state's Democratic primary on Tuesday was meant as a warning to President Joe Biden's reelection over his support for Israel's war against Hamas in Gaza, but eight months from Election Day his campaign insists it’s nothing to panic about.

While Biden won the state with more than 618,000 votes, more than 100,000 Michigan Democratic primary voters cast ballots for “uncommitted” in the race, enough to pick up the pair of delegates. The vote totals raise concerns for Democrats in a state Biden won by only 154,000 votes in 2020. Biden was beaten by the “uncommitted” vote in both Dearborn and Hamtramck, where Arab Americans make up close to half the population.

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Some local Democrats such as U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian American woman to serve in Congress, had advocated for “uncommitted” votes to convey a message to Biden. Organizers of the “uncommitted” campaign, who had purposely set expectations low with a goal of at least 10,000 votes, celebrated Tuesday’s results as a win.

Biden still won 115 delegates on Tuesday and is well on his way to clinching the nomination over marginal competition.

“The president appreciates the people of Michigan coming out last night to make sure that their voices were heard,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. “And he’s proud to receive more than 80% of the Democratic Party vote.”

She added that Biden aides continue to engage with the Arab American community. “We understand how personal this is, how this moment is incredibly painful,” she said.

In 2012, during Barack Obama’s reelection bid, the “uncommitted” option received nearly 21,000 votes, representing 11 percentage points. The “uncommitted” vote totals in both 2016 and 2020 — when the Democratic primaries were contested — hovered around 20,000, which was less than 2 percentage points.

The uncommitted delegates came from the 6th District, centered around Ann Arbor, and the other from the 12th District, which includes Detroit suburbs with large blocs of Arab Americans.

“Yesterday was a resounding victory,” Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud said Wednesday. “This is not just an Arab or Muslim issue now. This is an American issue now.”

“It’s my hope, Mr. President, that you listen to us, that you choose democracy over tyranny,” said Hammoud.

Unofficial results put the “uncommitted” total at close to 13% of the overall vote in the Democratic primary.

The uncommitted delegates from Michigan will be free to vote for whomever they choose at the party’s national convention in Chicago this summer. The people who will fill those delegate seats will be selected at congressional district conventions on May 11.

The “uncommitted” tally is a concern for Biden, but is not a “death note” for his chances in the pivotal state in November, said Richard Czuba, a pollster who has long tracked Michigan politics. Czuba said the vote would have needed to be between 20 and 30 percentage points to signal significant concerns for Biden’s prospects in the state come November.

Tuesday's results also showed some signs of optimism for Biden, mostly in how weaknesses in the coalition backing former President Donald Trump, his all-but-certain rival, in his quest for the GOP nomination. More than 320,000 Republicans voted for another candidate in the race, the majority for former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, even as Trump appears to be cruising toward renomination.

Biden's team believes they can court many Haley voters to reject Trump once again — offsetting, at least partially, any lack of enthusiasm among the Democratic base — and that the results of the GOP race give them a roadmap to the persuadable voters they need to target.

“He’s struggling with suburban voters, nearly 300k people showed up to vote against him in a primary that’s all but over, and he’s demonstrated repeatedly he’s done nothing to expand his reach beyond his MAGA base,” said Biden campaign communications director Michael Tyler. “Michigan will be close this November, but this team is used to doing the hard and necessary work to not just ask, but to earn the support of our winning coalition.”

Turnout in the noncompetitive primary was high throughout the state — as Biden's campaign and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer flexed their political operations in the run-up to November, a positive sign for Democrats in November, and turnout in the areas that backed “uncommitted” was not substantially higher than the rest of the state.

It is common for states to offer voters the choice of voting for “uncommitted” or “no preference” in presidential primaries, though Michigan is the first state this cycle to award any of those delegates. On Super Tuesday next week, eight states will offer some variation of uncommitted in Democratic and Republican primaries.

Abbas Alawieh, a spokesperson for Listen to Michigan, the group organizing the “uncommitted” push, told reporters Wednesday that it has already heard from organizers in other states looking to push a similar campaign.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said Wednesday that he expected a measure of Minnesota’s Somali population, the largest in the country, to vote “uncommitted” in his state's Democratic primary on Super Tuesday. More than 86,000 Somalis live in Minnesota.

Walz, a major supporter of Biden's reelection campaign, said Michigan's “uncommitted” results were a healthy demonstration of democracy.

“I think they feel passionate, as they should, about an issue we all care about,” Walz said, adding that he expected most protest voters would eventually return to Biden's side in a likely November rematch with Trump, who himself has struggled with college-educated voters and suburbanites in his ongoing Republican primary against former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.

“I’m much more convinced there’s a chance bringing those folks home is much greater than bringing the ‘Never Trump’ folks back home,” Walz said.

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Miller reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Tom Beaumont in St. Paul, Minnesota, contributed reporting.