Michigan Calls for Policy Change and Ceasefire in Gaza

Last Tuesday’s message from more than 100,000 Michigan Democrats who cast their ballots for “uncommitted” was crystal clear: President Biden must call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza and dramatically change policy because they were having a problem voting for him or encouraging others to do so.

Make no mistake, this was a big deal. First, mobilizing people to vote “uncommitted” as a protest is hard. Winning votes for an alternative candidate like Bernie Sanders is much easier because supporters want to help them win. Turning out these uncommitted voters is more difficult because their inclination is to not vote at all.

Turning out over 101,000 “uncommitted” votes was a massive undertaking that far exceeded expectations. The Michigan-based organizers set a goal of 10,000 (Trump’s 2016 vote margin over Clinton). I was hoping for 5% uncommitted—a percentage representing the Arab American vote in Michigan plus some allies.

The final tally of 13.3% clearly demonstrated that, in addition to a substantial portion of the Arab community, other groups— including young, Black, Muslim, and progressive voters—turned out as well.

Democrats’ emphasis on Michigan is rooted in how US presidents are elected—not by the number of votes they receive nationally, but by the collection of states they win. Each state’s electoral votes are equal to its apportioned number of members of Congress (based on population) plus two (for its Senators). A state’s electoral votes go to the candidate who wins its popular vote.

In recent years, states like New York and California have predictably voted for Democrats, while others like Texas and Mississippi have voted for Republicans. Candidates won’t expend campaign resources competing in these states, focusing instead on states like Michigan that can go either way.

Because it’s difficult for Democrats to create a configuration of states giving them a winning majority without Michigan, it has greater importance than predictably Democratic or Republican states. Comprising at least 3.5% of Michigan’s voters, Arab Americans have an opportunity to play a greater role in shaping the national outcome.

The 13.3% uncommitted Michigan Democrats, therefore, sent a strong message to President Biden:

“Listen to us. Give us a reason to vote for you, or your re-election is at risk.”

To date, the Biden campaign hasn’t appeared to understand that clear message. Their ham-fisted approach to the Arab community has meant no policy meetings with national Arab American leaders, but instead making failed attempts to meet with Michigan Arab Americans and secure their votes. Most community leaders refused to participate absent real policy changes. Biden representatives tried to assuage the community’s anger by offering half measures.

One apologized for the White House not being more sympathetic to Palestinian suffering. But when asked when the President would back a ceasefire, another chimed in that wasn’t going to happen.

Other gestures in the lead up to the Michigan vote included: sanctioning a handful of Israeli settlers for anti-Palestinian violence; hints of a plan for a “pathway to an eventual Palestinian state”; pressing the Israelis not to invade Rafah; and, a day before the vote, Biden off-handedly remarked that a temporary ceasefire was forthcoming.

These lures were unconvincing to the Arab community.
Simultaneously, Democratic operatives were spreading counter-messaging: the uncommitted vote would be too small to matter, and even if upset with Biden now, in November, Arab Americans would choose Biden over Trump.

Finally, some argued that what Arab Americans want to win their votes would be difficult because pressuring Israel might alienate Jewish voters. These hollow arguments are easily dismissed. The uncommitted protest vote was one of the largest ever recorded and clearly enough to make a difference in November.

It’s dangerous and shortsighted to dismiss groups of voters, as current polls and the 2020 election make plain that 70,000 total votes in key toss-up states could shift the outcome. And it’s deeply insulting for the Biden campaign to ask Arab Americans to swallow feelings of pain and anger to spare the another group’s feelings.

What Michigan’s “uncommitted” voters have done is put down a marker—“Read the room. We want you to change policy to save lives. If you don’t, you risk losing our votes and key groups who support a ceasefire and justice for Palestinians.”

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