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No-Win Scenario

Biden Will Win Michigan Easily. It May Also Show His Weakness.

The president will crush Dean Phillips. But if “uncommitted” beats expectations dramatically, this may be the most complicated blowout in presidential primary history.

People gather in support of Palestinians outside of the venue where President Joe Biden is speaking to members of the United Auto Workers in Michigan.
Jeff Kowalsky/Getty Images
People gather in support of Palestinians outside of the venue where President Joe Biden is speaking to members of the United Auto Workers in Michigan.

The Michigan primary is Tuesday, and there won’t be much drama as far as who the winners, on either side, will be—Joe Biden and Donald Trump are locks. But there is something brewing on the Democratic side that could prove to be consequential. It’s not who’s on the ballot: Biden is, of course, sharing it along with Minnesota Congressman Dean Phillips. Marianne Williamson will be on it as well because she qualified for a ballot line before she dropped out of the race.

The box to keep an eye on is the fourth: “uncommitted.” This is the space that political insiders will be watching, and it will determine the narrative flowing out of Michigan. Right now, there’s a lot of general concern among Democrats about Biden’s age, and in the Great Lake State specifically, there is considerable concern about Biden’s pro-Israel tilt in his handling of the Israel-Gaza war, and a movement afoot to deny him support over it.

If all roads lead to an unusually large “uncommitted” vote, what Democratic insiders are still now only whispering—that maybe Biden shouldn’t be the nominee—will only grow more audible. The outcome could signal not only that some voters are mad about Gaza, but that others simply don’t want Biden because of his age. 

It seems unlikely, but if that happens, and if exit polls tells us that a considerable number of voters chose “uncommitted” not only because of Gaza but because of more general concerns about Biden’s age, the Democrats will face an unprecedented situation: Biden could win the state by a landslide, and it could at the same time reveal his limitations.

Let’s go through some numbers. In 2020, about 1.59 million Michiganders voted in the Democratic presidential primary. That was up from roughly 1.2 million in 2016. This year…well, I’m not there, and I have no real idea how large turnout is likely to be. As of last Thursday, around 874,000 mail-in ballots had been cast, but that figure is for both parties, and those raw numbers can’t be broken down any further right now.

Let’s say that by primary day, the mail-in figure hits 1 million. Historically, we know that  more Democrats than Republicans vote early, so let’s guesstimate that 600,000 of those ballots are Democratic. What does that tell us about overall turnout? Again, I’m really guessing here, but hypothetically, let’s just say that turnout may be somewhere around the 1.2 million figure of 2016.

Estimates are that Michigan has about 70,000 Arab American voters. Not all of them will vote, of course—and not all of them are Democrats, either. Nancy Kaffer of the Detroit Free Press wrote last week that as of the previous week, only 400 Arab American voters had requested primary ballots. The figure is usually around 1,600, she wrote, but of course that 400 number was three weeks out from the primary, so it surely has been climbing.

In the most recent presidential primaries, around 20,000 voters in each party have chosen “uncommitted.” In the 2020 Democratic primary, the exact number was 19,106. An organizer for Listen to Michigan, a group spearheading the anti-Biden, vote-“uncommitted” initiative because of Gaza, is hoping another 11,000 will vote “uncommitted” this year. That’s the margin by which Trump won the state in 2016. 

In other words, Listen to Michigan is saying, 11,000 holdouts is enough to flip a presidential election result, so if the “uncommitted” number gets north of 30,000, that’s big enough to call into question whether Michigan will remain part of Biden’s blue firewall in the Electoral College. The Abandon Biden campaign, another major proponent of this initiative, is hoping that “uncommitted” totals 2 to 5 percent.

I’m not sure 30,000 out of 1.2 million cast (if I’m correct above) sends that huge a signal. That’s 2.5 percent. Does that frighten the White House? That doesn’t seem likely. Yes, 10,000 defections could matter in the general election. But it’s also small enough a number that if Biden changes his policy and is seen by November as pressuring Israel toward negotiating a two-state settlement, preferably under a new government that he has helped conjure into being, that he might be able to win most of it back.

If “uncommitted” pushes up to 40,000, double the normal total, then things get more interesting. At 60,000, or 5 percent in my turnout scenario, that’s 40,000 more “uncommitted” voters than normal, and triple the usual amount. Now, we’re in the territory where it’s hard to imagine you’re not getting the White House’s attention. Shall we take it one hypothetical step further? Let’s say the “uncommitted” vote hits 100,000; not a round percentage (8.33), but a very nice round number, and one that would attract tons of notice.

I realize I’m just tossing out numbers. I have no idea where to put the threshold. But the higher the “uncommitted” number is, the more clearly it reflects anger at Biden about Israel and general anxiety about whether he should even be running.

If the “uncommitted” votes are low in number and come only from Dearborn and Ann Arbor and Lansing (that is, the expected places), that may not change the narrative. But if there are a lot of “uncommitted” votes from those areas? And if a certain percentage of “uncommitted” votes shows up in other Democratic areas of the state—Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo, all of which Biden won in 2020? Then the result will probably reflect a set of broader anxieties about Biden’s age, and that could force some conversations in Washington. (It will also bear noticing whether turnout is appreciably lower than 2020 in Detroit, Flint, and other Democratic strongholds.)

Let’s remember, though, that this isn’t only about electoral votes. It’s about real life. I’d like Biden to change his stance on the war. The tougher rhetoric on Bibi Netanyahu is fine, but his administration is still sending him military aid with no conditions, and it’s being used in the slaughter of thousands of innocents. Biden needs to change on this issue—not to win Michigan, but because it’s the right thing to do. If it takes electoral pressure to help him see that, fine. That’s the way voting blocs flex their muscle in a democracy.

But obviously the electoral question looms large here, too. Polls show repeatedly that large majorities of voters think Biden is too old to be president for four more years. That often includes a hefty percentage of Democrats. These polls have Democrats reaching for their vapors.

There is one thing to think about, though. Polls measure sentiment; they don’t measure intensity. So maybe a lot of people say yeah, he’s too old, but they don’t really care that much. Kevin Drum recently looked into how many Google searches there are about Biden’s age. Searches spiked after the release of the Hur Report, but they quickly went back down to where they’d been for a year, which was extremely low.

It’s hard to know what to make of that. But a vote is an opportunity to express a conviction. And a chance to vote for “uncommitted” is a rare thing in American democracy. It represents a well-timed and tailor-made chance for us to see if Democratic voters are genuinely skittish about Biden. 

I think my colleague Jason Linkins makes a lot of good points about what a mess it would be for Democrats to change horses now. But there’s nothing more American than seeing what the voters think. If the “uncommitted” number is on the low side, Biden will come out of Michigan in good shape. If it’s high, this could be the most complicated blowout in presidential primary history.