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Joe Biden’s Fine Line in Michigan
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Joe Biden’s Fine Line in Michigan

The president’s problems in the Wolverine State extend beyond its Arab American community.

A spokesman for Listen to Michigan—a group who asked voters to vote uncommitted instead of for U.S. President Joe Biden in Michigan's Democratic presidential primary—speaks during an election night watch party in Dearborn, Michigan, on February 27, 2024. (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

LANSING, Michigan—In November 2020, the presidential race in Michigan was so tight that network decision desks waited nearly a full 24 hours before putting the state’s 16 electoral votes in President Joe Biden’s column and bringing him within six such votes of the White House. 

Four years later, the Wolverine State is poised to play a similarly decisive role in the ultimate outcome of the expected rematch between Biden and former President Donald Trump. But given developments both within and outside of the president’s control—notably Israel’s war to eliminate Hamas in Gaza—his prospects in Michigan are far bleaker today than even six months ago. Indeed, Trump took the lead in the state’s RealClearPolitics polling average on October 11—four days after Hamas’ brutal invasion and the beginning of Jerusalem’s response. He has not looked back.

Much has since been written about Biden’s political triangulation on Israel, but the president’s problems in Michigan do not begin and end with the state’s disproportionately large Arab American community. Some Republican officials The Dispatch spoke with this month cited the porous southern border, more than 1,500 miles away, as one of the leading concerns of voters in the state—especially after a man who entered the United States illegally from Mexico allegedly murdered a woman in Grand Rapids on March 22. Others credit inflation for Biden’s political woes, arguing that, although unemployment is low and people are working, paychecks just aren’t stretching far enough, causing palpable anxiety that has voters fondly recalling the pre-pandemic economy over which Trump presided.

Biden’s allies will push back on those premises to varying degrees, but Republican and Democratic officials alike were largely aligned on one thing: The current state of the polls in Michigan has less to do with Trump winning voters than Biden losing them. 

“People thought Biden was a bit more moderate than he has turned out to be the last three, three-and-a-half years. He’s jammed through a ton of progressive policies,” Aric Nesbitt, leader of the Michigan Senate’s Republican minority, told The Dispatch. “I think there’s a lot of questions about [Biden’s] age and capacity.”

Top Democrats in the state aren’t disputing that Trump—combined with independent Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who will be on the state’s ballot—poses a real threat to flip Michigan back into the Republican column. “I would say it is absolutely competitive, which we always knew it would be,” Michigan Democratic Party Chairwoman Lavora Barnes acknowledged. “We knew this was not going to be a cakewalk.”

“But we will win Michigan,” she quickly added.

Underpinning that confidence is a campaign operation in the state that the Biden team believes will pay significant dividends come November. The president’s team has opened 30 satellite offices across Michigan, and Democratic sources in the state who are otherwise anxious about the race consider the Biden campaign’s early and sustained effort a bright spot—and a major improvement relative to 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic put a damper on door-knocking efforts and other proven voter turnout tactics. “I’ve seen mobilization efforts like I’ve never seen happening in Michigan,” a union organizer supporting Biden told The Dispatch. “I think they’re taking it very, very seriously, which is a pleasant surprise.”

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story, but the Biden campaign didn’t dispute the public polling or the potholes the president will have to navigate to secure Michigan’s 15 Electoral College votes in November. It is confident, though, that voters prefer the president’s agenda over that of his Republican challenger.

“Joe Biden has a proven record of lowering health care costs and creating hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs for Michiganders, and our coordinated campaign has 30 offices engaging voters from Detroit to Marquette,” Alyssa Bradley, the Biden campaign’s Michigan communications director, told The Dispatch. “The only presence Donald Trump has in Michigan is his record of losing the state in every election since 2018 after pushing an extreme agenda of raising costs, banning abortion, and denying elections. We’ll continue making sure voters know what’s at stake this November for the issues that matter most to them.”

Democrats are relying heavily on the abortion issue to fuel support for Biden and surmount lingering concerns—age-related and otherwise—that Michigan voters have about the president. Abortion access has indeed been a motivating factor for voters across the country in the years since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, returning the matter to the states. But some Republicans believe the issue isn’t as potent in Michigan since the state already enshrined abortion rights in its constitution via a 2022 ballot initiative. “They’re going to try to make it play; they’re going to spend a lot of money,” Mike Rogers—the former congressman and frontrunner for the Republican nomination for Michigan’s open U.S. Senate seat—said in an interview. “That’s the only thing they’ve got.”

Any bump in support Biden might receive from voters prioritizing abortion access could be offset by a decrease in support from voters upset with his support—tepid or otherwise—for Israel’s war effort against Hamas. Although the president easily won Michigan’s Democratic presidential primary on March 5, for example, his victory was marred by 101,430 voters (13.2 percent of the electorate) who backed the “uncommitted” option on the ballot in protest. Left-wing critics of Biden’s Israel policy launched a concerted campaign encouraging Democrats to make that choice.

Michigan has for decades been a magnet for Christians and Muslims immigrating to the U.S. from the Middle East. One of this community’s own, Spencer Abraham, a Lebanese-American Christian, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1994. He was ousted six years later and remains the only Republican that voters in Michigan have sent to the chamber since the late 1970s. Arab Americans regularly backed Republicans around the turn of the century, including George W. Bush for president in 2000.

But Arab American voters have been trending Democratic in the decades since, a process that was likely accelerated by Trump’s proposal to implement a “Muslim ban”—later pitched as a “travel ban” affecting a handful of countries—during his first term in office. By 2020, this crucial bloc, in Dearborn and scattered across the Detroit suburbs, had delivered nearly 70 percent of its vote to Biden, according to exit polling of the communities and counties where they predominate. In a state that was decided by about 154,000 votes four years ago, any significant drop-off in support from this voting bloc could prove fatal. 

The Biden campaign knows this, and has made a concerted effort to reassure such voters that the president hears them—to little avail. “It’s less than a fig leaf,” Osama Siblani, the 69-year-old publisher and editor-in-chief of the Arab American News, scoffed when asked by The Dispatch to assess Biden’s recent overtures to his community. “This is the president of the United States. That’s the most powerful country on the face of this earth.”

“That is the only country that is supporting Israel right now. The whole world is saying, ‘Stop,’” Siblani continued. “And, the only leader that’s still holding out on this and not doing it in an effective way is Biden.” (Siblani’s charge, while not exactly accurate, is indicative of the frustration felt by many of Biden’s Arab American critics.)

While Arab American activists like Siblani criticize Biden for providing Israel with too much support, Republicans are knocking him for providing it with too little, citing his squabbling with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and criticism of Israeli war tactics as well as his administration’s demands for a ceasefire in Gaza, refusal to veto a recent United Nations resolution condemning Israel, and potential sanctions on a military unit of the Israel Defense Forces. 

Such public apprehension about Israel’s war effort, however, hasn’t done much to move Biden’s younger and Arab American critics, who argue that the president’s underlying policy of steadfast diplomatic and military support for Israel has not changed. Indeed, Biden is poised this week to sign into law a $95 billion supplemental military aid package for Ukraine, Taiwan, and Israel that includes $15 billion to help Jerusalem replenish its stockpiles (and $9 billion in humanitarian relief for Gaza). 

Why else do Biden’s critics among Arab Americans and younger voters reject Republican claims that the president is selling out Israel? 

Frequently mentioned reasons include his visit to Israel just days after Hamas’ October 7 attack, his strong rhetorical defense of Zionism (support for Israel as a majority Jewish state and haven for Jews), his denunciations of anti-Israel protesters on American college campuses and elsewhere, his initial refusal to call for a ceasefire in Gaza, and the aggressive U.S. military action he ordered to help Israel rebuff an Iranian attack earlier this month.

For now, at least, Jewish voters in Michigan seem to be more focused on that underlying support for Israel than Biden’s rhetorical equivocations.

Not only is Biden not abandoning Israel, a politically active Jewish businessman in Detroit told The Dispatch, but the commander in chief also happens to be “the single most supportive president of an Israel in conflict in the history of the [U.S.-Israel] relationship—by far. It’s not close.” This individual, who has supported both Democrats and Republicans and requested anonymity to speak candidly, believes Biden is erring politically by engaging critics of his Israel policy because it has emboldened rather than mollified them.

But what would happen if Biden did throw Israel overboard, at least enough to deliver Arab American critics of his policy the changes they are demanding? Would doing so cost Biden the backing of the robust Jewish community in the Detroit suburbs, which, like most American Jews, tends to vote for Democrats?

Trump, for his part, has tried to eat into Biden’s lead with this voting bloc in a typically brash fashion. “Any Jewish person that votes for Democrats hates their religion; they hate everything about Israel, and they should be ashamed of themselves,” he said in March. A few weeks later, he argued that “any Jewish person that votes for a Democrat or votes for Biden should have their head examined.”

Trump was particularly supportive of Israel as president, having moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and helped negotiate the Abraham Accords that normalized relations between Israel and several Arab countries. But even Republican operatives think Biden’s grip on the Jewish vote is largely secure.

“They still want to be Democrats—the Jews—and so I’m not sure how much that changes,” a veteran Michigan Republican conceded. Another longtime GOP operative in Michigan told The Dispatch that “hard-left, traditional Democrats [who are Jewish] are going to stick with Biden.”

“They have justified to themselves that Biden remains committed to Israel, even with his comments,” the operative continued. “They’re not entirely happy with everything. But I think they think, overall, he’s done good.”

The caveat: In an election decided by just a few thousand votes, any shift can be significant. 

Republicans are much more confident that Biden is facing a heap of trouble with black voters in Michigan, in metropolitan Detroit but also in Flint, Saginaw, Southfield, and elsewhere. Not only do these operatives believe Trump could make material gains with black men relative to 2020, but they contend that the incumbent president is facing a turnout problem in the black community broadly, in that they’re not nearly as motivated to show up in November as they were four years ago. 

Publicly, the Biden campaign isn’t worried, telling The Dispatch the president won 91 percent of the vote in the Democratic presidential primary in Southfield, a bellwether for the black vote in Michigan. But the president and his surrogates in the state are nevertheless conducting a full-court press to motivate this crucial bloc, complete with a major advertising campaign targeting black voters.

In toto, the Biden campaign’s actions suggest a keen awareness that winning black voters in sufficient numbers to defeat Trump overall in Michigan this fall is going to take some work.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.