What to Watch for in Michigan’s Primaries


When President Biden made Michigan one of the first states on the Democratic Party’s presidential nominating calendar, he increased the political influence of a populous, diverse battleground state.

That decision over a year ago has led to the most significant test of Mr. Biden’s standing within his party since he was elected, as a push to protest his support for Israel threatens to upend what his allies had expected would be a straightforward primary campaign.

Mr. Biden is still widely expected to win Michigan’s Democratic primary election on Tuesday by a significant margin. But a homegrown campaign to persuade Michiganders to vote “uncommitted” will measure the resistance he faces among Arab Americans, young voters, progressives and other Democrats over his stance on the war in Gaza.

A high number of “uncommitted” votes would send a warning to his campaign nationally and set off alarms in Michigan, which he won in 2020 but where polls show weakness against former President Donald J. Trump. A low number, by contrast, would give Mr. Biden and his Democratic allies renewed faith that he can weather the tensions and focus on campaign priorities like the economy and abortion rights.

The absence of reliable public polling has left the outcome uncertain, and has helped turn the primary into a night that Mr. Biden’s allies are sweating.

“I am going to be looking at Democratic turnout, and it will tell me if I need to be worried,” Representative Haley Stevens of Michigan said in an interview on Monday. “We will know on Wednesday how deep this is.”

Republicans are also holding their primary election, though far more delegates will be at stake on Saturday in a nominating convention — or conventions — hosted by a state Republican Party at war with itself. Mr. Trump is the heavy favorite in both contests over his last remaining primary rival, Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor.

More than one million early and absentee votes have already been cast in Michigan’s primaries, according to Jocelyn Benson, the secretary of state. But that data did not reveal how the ballots were divided between each party’s primary.

Here’s what to watch for in Michigan’s primaries.

The Arab American-led group that began the uncommitted push three weeks ago, Listen to Michigan, has set a modest goal: 10,000 votes.

For some context, there were about 20,000 votes for “uncommitted” in each of the last two Democratic presidential primaries in Michigan that featured robust and competitive fields.

With Mr. Biden facing only a token challenge from Representative Dean Phillips of Minnesota, the “uncommitted” tally will be interpreted as a vote of no confidence in Mr. Biden over his Gaza policy or other intraparty grievances.

Our Revolution, the progressive group started by supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, has set 10 percent of the primary electorate as its target. (Mr. Sanders himself is supporting Mr. Biden and, a spokeswoman said, disavows the Uncommitted campaign.)

Mr. Biden’s allies tried to halt the momentum against him in the campaign’s final days. A pro-Israel group introduced a series of digital advertisements to back the president and warn that voting uncommitted would help Mr. Trump. Mr. Biden said on Monday that he hoped to have a cease-fire in place within a week, with Israel halting military operations in Gaza in exchange for the release of at least some of the more than 100 hostages being held by Hamas.

“My national security adviser tells me that we’re close, we’re close, we’re not done yet,” he told reporters in New York. “My hope is by next Monday we’ll have a cease-fire.”

Mr. Biden’s campaign has declined to engage in primary forecasting beyond asserting that he will win, which the Listen to Michigan leaders also predict. But his allies in Michigan and beyond are bracing for the possibility of a rough night, with the more pessimistic among them suggesting that “uncommitted” could draw well into the double digits.

When the Biden campaign wanted to run up the score in South Carolina, which the president placed at the front of the party’s nominating calendar, it dispatched a flotilla of surrogates, including Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the House Democratic leader, to the state to drum up support. Vice President Kamala Harris closed the campaign with an energetic rally before a few hundred supporters on primary eve.

The Biden team’s footprint in Michigan has been lighter.

In Ms. Harris’s final primary-season appearance in Michigan, she met last week with nine allies in Grand Rapids — a move necessitated by fears that Gaza protesters would disrupt her focus on abortion rights. Mr. Biden last visited the state on Feb. 1, speaking at a small gathering with union autoworkers and stopping by a restaurant. Protesters demonstrated outside his events anyway.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appeared at a half-dozen events for Mr. Biden this month, and her political action committee hosted nearly 20 more, but the most prominent campaign surrogates from out of state who stumped for Mr. Biden in Michigan were Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Mitch Landrieu, the former New Orleans mayor who is a campaign co-chair. Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, who now lives in Michigan, also promoted Mr. Biden in the state.

The White House did dispatch a high-ranking team to meet in private this month with Arab American officials in Dearborn, at which a senior foreign policy aide acknowledged “missteps” on the administration’s foreign policy and public messaging about the conflict in Gaza.

Other would-be Biden surrogates were asked to travel to Michigan and declined because they did not want to engage with Gaza protesters, according to people familiar with the negotiations. The Biden campaign declined to comment for this article.

Representative Ro Khanna of California, typically one of Mr. Biden’s most energetic supporters, came to the state without the branding of the Biden campaign, though it did authorize his trip. He hosted a “cease-fire town hall” on the University of Michigan campus and then appeared with Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — the one member of the state’s congressional delegation who endorsed the “uncommitted” campaign.

The leaders of the movement insist they do not want to hurt Mr. Biden in the general election, but hope to persuade him that his position on Israel will hurt him politically in time for him to correct himself.

“There is a risk for Biden to lose Michigan in November,” said Layla Elabed, the campaign manager for Listen to Michigan. “Hopefully the numbers after the primary will be significant enough for Joe Biden to care about listening to Michigan.”

Ms. Elabed and others involved with Listen to Michigan have argued that most Democrats protesting Mr. Biden’s Israel policy will support him in November — as long as he changes course on the issue. Other Michigan activists have said Mr. Biden must go further and reduce American military aid to Israel. A group of Armenian Americans is also urging an “uncommitted” vote to protest treatment of ethnic Armenians living in Azerbaijan.

How many Democratic primary dissidents come back to Mr. Biden in November in a likely contest with Mr. Trump remains an open question.

“Joe Biden can get the vast majority of these people to vote for him if he changes course,” said former Representative Andy Levin of Michigan, who has endorsed and campaigned for the “uncommitted” movement. “If he doesn’t change course, there’s nothing I can do to get folks to vote for him.”

Ms. Haley, after nearly a month of focusing on South Carolina’s primary only to lose by 20 percentage points to Mr. Trump in her home state, arrived in Michigan without much momentum. Her biggest outside benefactor, the Koch political network, announced it was pulling the plug on its support for her.

Michigan has an open primary system, which means Democrats could vote for Ms. Haley, as they have in other states — but given the outsize attention on how Mr. Biden performs in his primary, Ms. Haley may not be able to count on that kind of support this time around.

Still, the primary may be Ms. Haley’s high-water mark in Michigan, as most of the state’s delegates to the Republican National Convention will be awarded at a party convention scheduled for Saturday. Convention delegates tend to be more devoted to Mr. Trump than the broader Republican primary electorate.

But this, too, is more complicated than meets the eye: A rift among Michigan Republicans has led to dueling conventions led by the two people who are each claiming to be the party leader.

Ms. Haley, in her campaign stops in Michigan, has continued to argue that Mr. Trump will lose the general election — a message very similar to what the “uncommitted” supporters are predicting about Mr. Biden if he doesn’t change course on the Israel-Gaza war.

Jazmine Ulloa contributed reporting.



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