What Democrats’ ‘uncommitted’ campaign means for US policy

What Democrats’ ‘uncommitted’ campaign means for US policy

The ‘uncommitted’ campaign clearly demonstrated that Biden’s policy toward Israel is weakening his chances in Michigan (AFP)
The ‘uncommitted’ campaign clearly demonstrated that Biden’s policy toward Israel is weakening his chances in Michigan (AFP)
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Democratic voters in Michigan last week sent a message to President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign, expressing their deep disapproval of his approach to the war in Gaza. However, it remains unclear what impact their protest might have on US policy.

Michigan is a key swing state in US presidential elections and one of the states that is crucial for Biden to win. The president is elected through the Electoral College system, which is based on votes in states rather than a nationwide popular vote, with electoral results often centered on the outcomes in a few battleground states, such as Michigan. In 2020, Biden won in Michigan, defeating then-President Donald Trump by about 154,000 votes. In 2016, Trump won the state, defeating Hillary Clinton by fewer than 11,000 votes.

Michigan also has a relatively large Arab American community, though they remain a small minority of the state’s population. The Arab American community played a major role in organizing an effort to send a message to Biden that he risks losing votes over his strong support for Israel in the face of the devastation in Gaza. Importantly, Arab Americans were not alone and partnered with Muslim Americans, young voters and others. Together, they launched a campaign to vote “uncommitted” in Michigan’s Democratic primary.

In the US system, the Republican and Democratic parties choose their presidential candidates through a series of state elections — primaries and caucuses. As the incumbent president, Biden is nearly certain to be the Democratic Party’s nominee, though he technically faces some opposition. In Michigan, Marianne Williamson and Dean Phillips were running against him. However, his major opponent was the “uncommitted” movement, which asked voters to demonstrate their commitment by showing up to vote but choosing this option rather than backing Biden or another candidate.

The campaign clearly demonstrated that Biden’s policy toward Israel is weakening his chances in Michigan

Kerry Boyd Anderson

The movement was successful. Some leaders of the campaign had set an initial goal of 10,000 uncommitted votes, arguing that Clinton lost in Michigan by about only 10,000 votes. Therefore, they said, if Biden lost that many due to his Middle East policy, then he would risk losing the state — and thus, potentially, the entire election. Some analysts noted that a goal of 10,000 votes was very low because uncommitted vote totals in the past had sometimes been much larger. However, on election day last week, more than 100,000 voters selected “uncommitted” on the ballot, putting the campaign at 13 percent of the vote, far more than Williamson or Phillips received.

Biden still received more than 80 percent of the vote, but the uncommitted campaign received enough votes to send two delegates to the Democratic National Convention in August, giving it a very small voice but at least some representation.

More importantly, the campaign clearly demonstrated that Biden’s policy toward Israel is weakening his chances in Michigan. If 100,000 voters actually choose not to vote for Biden in the presidential election — even if they do not vote for his opponent — that alone would risk a defeat in Michigan for the president. Although it is likely that some of those voters would choose Biden when facing Trump as the only viable alternative, the uncommitted campaign sent a clear message that Biden risks losing badly needed votes.

However, it is unclear whether the Michigan primary outcome will have broader electoral impacts or will help to change US foreign policy. The uncommitted movement can place more pressure on Biden if it expands to other states, but there are multiple obstacles. Many states do not have an “uncommitted” option on the ballot, which could make similar campaigns difficult. Other states also lack the type of concentrated numbers of Arab Americans that exist in Michigan. While many other social justice groups and young voters increasingly share Arab Americans’ outrage over the war in Gaza, they do not all have the same capacity to organize around the war as a single issue in an election.

Without openly saying it, Biden’s campaign effectively suggested that he does not intend to change his policy

Kerry Boyd Anderson

The Biden campaign is well aware of many Democrats’ growing concerns about Israel’s approach to the war and ongoing US support. But Biden’s personal support for Israel remains strong. His administration has taken only a few, small steps to try to demonstrate that it hears concerns, but sanctioning a few Israeli settlers and acknowledging that Palestinian lives matter look incredibly insufficient given the extreme suffering in Gaza.

Biden’s campaign officials have tried to express sympathy for the pain that those worried about Gaza feel but, without openly saying it, effectively suggested that Biden does not intend to change his policy. Rather, campaign representatives said that voters should remember that Trump is their only other choice and that Trump’s calls for a Muslim travel ban and positions on issues like climate change and healthcare should be priority concerns for voters.

However, on Friday, Biden authorized the US military to start airdrops of humanitarian aid into Gaza — the biggest policy change he has made since the current war started in October. He also expressed his strongest criticism of Israel so far, calling on it to allow more aid into the Strip.

It is unclear what role the uncommitted vote in Michigan played in pressuring Biden to more actively ensure that aid reaches Palestinians. Biden administration officials have clearly grown frustrated with the Israeli government, which might matter as much or more than domestic political pressures. Nonetheless, the uncommitted vote in Michigan is one factor battering against the long-standing wall of the country’s unconditional support for Israel, which is starting to show cracks.

  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. X: @KBAresearch
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