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The Media Is Overhyping the “Uncommitted” Threat to Biden

Breathless press reports present 100,000 votes as an existential danger. But there’s little reason to believe the president’s reelection effort is in mortal peril.

Joe Biden wearing sunglasses and looking out the window of a Ford F150 truck.
Joe Biden in Dearborn, Michigan in 2021

Finally, Democrats have a presidential contender who can appeal to the most disaffected voters in the party’s sprawling and sometimes unwieldy coalition. The name of this candidate sure to appeal to the young and the restless is a one-word moniker: “uncommitted.” 

Slightly more than 100,000 Michigan Democrats (13.2 percent of voters) marked their ballots “uncommitted” in Tuesday’s presidential primary, spurred on by an organized send-him-a-message protest movement against Joe Biden’s public support for Israeli actions in Gaza. These angry Democrats—concentrated in Detroit suburbs with large Muslim populations and college towns—could all fit into the University of Michigan’s football stadium with a few nosebleed seats left over. 

How impressive is a protest vote in the nation’s tenth-largest state equal to a game-day football crowd? 

Reading the breathless morning-after coverage of the Michigan primary, it was easy to get the impression that Biden’s reelection is doomed unless Bibi Netanyahu, Israel’s war-hawk prime minister, suddenly becomes a pacifist. 

The Washington Post highlighted the “unexpectedly large number of ‘uncommitted’ votes in Michigan’s Democratic primary.” The online headline in The Wall Street Journal likened the Gaza protest to Nikki Haley’s vote total: “Michigan Wins Carry Warning Signs for Biden and Trump.” With a voice-of-doom tone, the online CNN analysis of the Michigan primary posited that Biden “faces a battle for his own coalition and political base that he must win if he is to defeat … Donald Trump.” And Politico’s morning Playbook embraced a historical comparison as it noted that the 2024 support for “uncommitted” was, in raw numbers, “roughly five times the protest vote that Barack Obama saw in the state in 2012 when 10% of Democrats opted against choosing a candidate.”

It all seems devastating for Biden until you look at the details. 

For starters, the comparison with Obama is bogus. The 2012 Michigan primary in late February violated the national Democratic Party’s scheduling rules—and didn’t count. Turnout was depressed since the actual delegates were selected in a May caucus. 

Nikki Haley received roughly three times as many votes as the Democrats’ “uncommitted” protest. Undermining the Journal’s attempt at false equivalence, Haley demonstrated for the third primary in a row that Trump faces serious problems with affluent, college-educated Republicans. 

And there was something journalistically classic about the Post decreeing that the size of the anti-Biden vote in Michigan was “unexpectedly large.” Political reporters have been playing the expectations game for over a half-century: In 1972, Democratic front-runner Ed Muskie was treated as a loser by the press because he did not win the opening-gun New Hampshire primary by a large enough margin. In 2024, organizers of the “uncommitted” protest got away with claiming that anything over 10,000 votes for “uncommitted” would be a victory of their cause. Desperate for benchmarks to frame expectations, the media hurtled between that lowball 10,000-vote number and the 10 percent protest against Obama in 2012.

A strong case can be made that the Michigan Democratic primary was a minor blip that will be easily forgotten in November. Of course, Biden may have erred politically by being circumspect, until recently, in his criticisms of Israel’s brutal invasion of Gaza. Biden’s unfortunate calculus may have been that if he held his tongue publicly, he would have more private influence with Netanyahu. But if Biden’s current optimistic talk about a cease-fire for Ramadan (and maybe beyond) proves prescient, some of the Democratic anger and tensions surrounding Gaza will begin to lessen.

The truth is that voting “uncommitted” was about the most painless protest gesture possible. No one was boosting a rival candidate to Biden (the once overhyped Dean Phillips actually managed to finish behind Marianne Williamson in Michigan), nor did anyone have to live with the lasting consequences of their vote. It was as close to a freebie as you ever get in politics, but still only one in eight Michigan voters chose that option.

Yes, according to an analysis by the Detroit News, “uncommitted” beat Biden in three small Wayne County cities that are home to large numbers of Arab Americans: Dearborn, Dearborn Heights, and Hamtramck. But these are places to which political reporters have been flocking ever since Israel invaded Gaza following the brutal October 7 attacks by Hamas: The anger in these communities, though palpable, has been well recorded in the press for months.

For all the talk about the youth vote abandoning Biden, “uncommitted” only received 21 percent of the vote in Ann Arbor (home of the University of Michigan). That’s akin to “uncommitted” badly losing the Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn. Yes, the University of Michigan is on spring break, but if students were truly motivated to send a message to Biden, they would have taken advantage of early voting that began while classes were still in session. 

In their determination to follow the newest shiny object like the Michigan primary, political reporters often forget that it is still a long way to November. Biden will have committed political malpractice if he has not drummed into the heads of wavering Democrats by the fall that the 2024 election is a choice between him and Trump. For all the public insensitivity that Biden may have displayed about Gaza, does anyone expect Trump to offer a kinder, gentler alternative to appeal to Muslim voters? Unlike a primary where the only alternative is a phantom known as “uncommitted,” an actual election is a choice. And history has shown that it is much easier to cast a protest vote in February than in November with so much on the line.