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Fear of Commitment
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Fear of Commitment

On the protest votes—both of them—in Michigan.

Mayor of Dearborn, Michigan, Abdullah Hammoud delivers remarks at an "Uncommitted for Joe Biden" primary election night watch party on February 27, 2024. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

The biggest political story in America as I write this is the share of Democrats in Michigan who preferred to vote for “uncommitted” in Tuesday’s primary than for Joe Biden. When the smoke cleared, 13.3 percent had done so.

The share of Republicans who voted for Nikki Haley over Donald Trump was precisely twice that.

For days, Trump’s critics on the left and right have complained of a double standard in which the media plays up Biden’s electoral weakness while downplaying his opponent’s. If an incumbent president were to lose 40 percent of the primary vote in an early state, they argue, newspapers typically would screech with alarm about dissension within his party and electoral doom looming in November.

Well, Trump is—basically—an incumbent president for Republican purposes. And he lost 40 percent in South Carolina.

He lost more than a quarter of his party’s vote again on Tuesday in a race whose outcome had been a foregone conclusion for weeks. He finished with 68.2 percent, considerably less than the 81.1 percent Biden received. Nearly 300,000 people cast ballots for Haley’s lost cause, vastly more than the number that went to “uncommitted” and also-rans Dean Phillips and Marianne Williamson on the Democratic side.

Even on its own terms, the “uncommitted” share was underwhelming.

In 2012, running unopposed, Barack Obama lost 10.7 percent of the vote in Michigan’s Democratic primary to “uncommitted” for no reason in particular. He went on to win the state comfortably in the general election. This year progressives furious at Biden for Israel’s ongoing campaign in Gaza resolved to use the “uncommitted” line to protest that policy and organized themselves to that end with support from Rep. Rashida Tlaib. Michigan’s large Arab American minority and perennial swing-state status made it the perfect laboratory in which to prove that Biden’s support for Israel had alienated a dangerously large share of his base.

Yet “uncommitted” did only a few points better this time than it did in 2012. Even in strongholds like Dearborn, where it received a majority of the vote, more residents voted in the Republican primary than chose to cast a protest vote against Biden on behalf of Palestinians. For all the hype about “uncommitted” in this race, Philip Klein noted at National Review, it’s anyone’s guess how many of those votes were cast due to factors unrelated to Gaza, like concerns about Biden’s age. Or how much greater the protest vote might have been had the president alienated pro-Israel Democrats by taking a more progressive line after Hamas’ barbaric attack on October 7.

In the end, the “uncommitted” steak wasn’t worth the media sizzle. Meanwhile, in the GOP:

A lot of voters are experiencing fear of commitment to their party’s nominee this cycle. You’d be forgiven for believing, based on the early primary results, that those voters are concentrated on the right. Nikki Haley overstated things when she referred to her faction of the party as “the 40 percent” after South Carolina, as her share was inflated by independents and Democrats. But 25 percent would be a reasonably accurate estimate of the GOP’s anti-Trump bloc right now, I think. Which is almost exactly what she got in Michigan on Tuesday, not coincidentally.

Twenty-five percent ain’t beanbag. So why can’t I shake the feeling that the much smaller share of “uncommitted” votes in Michigan’s Democratic primary is more threatening to Biden than the much larger share of Haley votes in the Republican primary is to Trump?

And no, “because you’re a pessimist” isn’t the right answer. For once.

I do think media bias plays a part, if not an especially large part, in how the outcomes in the two Michigan primaries are being portrayed and therefore how readers like me are led to interpret them.

If you sympathize with the Palestinian side in its endless conflict with Israel—as many educated liberals from which America’s journalist class is drawn do—you have ideological reasons to hype the “uncommitted” result in Michigan. The more significant that bloc appears, the more pressure Biden will feel to make policy concessions to it.

And if you sympathize with the Democratic side in its endless conflict with the GOP, as most of America’s journalist class also does, you have electoral reasons to downplay the share of Republicans who oppose Trump. The more monolithically and slavishly pro-Trump the right appears, the less reason undecided voters have to join it.

But media bias can only explain so much. The right is pretty monolithically and slavishly pro-Trump, after all—this newsletter exists for a reason.

The earnest case for taking the Democratic protest vote in Michigan more seriously than the Republican protest vote begins with the numbers. Very simply, Trump has more margin for error there right now than Biden.

According to RealClearPolitics, Trump leads in polls of the state by an average of 4.2 points. That was the exact margin by which Joe Biden led on Election Day in 2020 en route to winning Michigan, which means we’re currently staring at a swing of more than 8 points toward the GOP in the past three years. The last time the president led Trump in any survey there was early November; in the time since, he’s trailed in some polling by margins as gaudy as 8 and 10.

To rephrase: As it’s become clearer from the early primary results that Trump will indeed be the Republican nominee for president again, his support in Michigan has grown, not shrunk. Biden needs every vote he can get to remain competitive, yet in Tuesday’s primary nearly 20 percent of his party checked a different box on the ballot.

The fact that Tuesday’s “uncommitted” vote finished only a few points ahead of the same vote in 2012 also means less than one might think.

When Barack Obama lost 10.7 percent to “uncommitted,” Michigan was a Democratic stronghold of longstanding. The party had won the state in every election since 1992, with Obama himself having crushed John McCain there in 2008. And Obama was a strong personality, a charismatic figure at the heart of a historic presidency whose base had no misgivings about his ability to do the job. It was easy to believe that leftists who felt sufficiently disappointed in him to vote “uncommitted” in a meaningless primary would swallow that disappointment and come home in November.

Everything has changed since then, making the “uncommitted” vote feel more significant and dangerous for Biden. Trump attracted enough populist working-class whites in Michigan in 2016 to turn the state red for the first time in nearly 30 years. He came within 3 points of doing it again four years later. And it’s Trump, of course, who’s the strong, charismatic choice in this election who’s widely viewed as being competent—relatively speaking—to serve another four years as president. He might plausibly leverage those assets to mobilize reluctant voters on his side to a greater degree than Biden will.

Granted, he’ll mobilize many reluctant Democratic voters to turn out for Biden in the process. In 2020, 44 percent of Biden’s supporters explained their vote as one they cast against Trump rather than for Biden, a number twice as large as the share of Trump supporters who voted against Biden more so than they did for Trump. But in that race the Democrat could and did run essentially as a cipher, lacking any presidential record of his own to defend. At the time progressives could overlook Biden’s potential support for Israel in office, dismissing it as hypothetical. Not anymore.

Besides, it’s usually the out-party, in its hunger to regain power, that’s more willing to forgive its nominee’s sins. That’s the whole story of Trump’s first presidential victory in 2016. Why wouldn’t it also be the story of his second?

The asymmetrical nature of the parties in 2024 also leads me to fear that “uncommitted” might be more of a problem for Biden than Haley voters will be for Trump. The modern GOP is largely post-policy: There are a few discrete issues about which its voters care deeply, like stronger borders and gun rights, but the conviction that unites and binds different factions is the simple belief that Democrats are ruining America. The fast track to prominence in Trump’s GOP isn’t being a thoughtful legislator, as Rep. Mike Gallagher might tell you. It’s being good at owning the libs and/or RINOs on television, as Rep. Matt Gaetz might.

It’s culture-war performance art, by and large.

The left takes policy more seriously—sort of. The progressive vanguard in Congress became political stars not by being good at theatrically owning the cons but by championing outlandishly ambitious and infeasible programs like the Green New Deal, which admittedly isn’t very “serious.” But after eight years of watching the right roll over for Trump, one gets the sense that most populist Republicans would eagerly adopt whichever foreign policy he chose to foist upon them. (The devout useful idiots among them are an exception.) Not so with progressives: No Democratic leader is going to talk them out of the loathsome “settler colonialism” lens through which they view Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and ultimately justify barbarism like Hamas’.

So when 13.3 percent of the base in a swing state feels passionate enough about a single policy issue to withhold their votes from Biden, that’s more threatening than 10.7 percent of general malcontents withholding their votes for gassy “just because” reasons from Obama in 2012 and arguably more threatening than 26 percent of partisan Republicans withholding their votes from Donald Trump with some unknown degree of vehemence. One wonders how large the pro-Palestinian vote might have been on Tuesday if, instead of a line on a ballot, it had had a talented candidate to campaign for it, the way Reaganites have had Nikki Haley.

I think there’s also a strategic asymmetry that makes the “uncommitted” vote worth taking seriously, though.

A Democrat who protests Biden’s policy toward Gaza by declining to vote for him in November is doing something irrational in the short term but rational in the long term.

It’s irrational in the short term because a second Trump administration would assuredly give Israel a freer hand in Gaza than a second Biden administration would. The “ceasefire now!” crowd is far more likely to get a ceasefire by sticking with their party this fall than by helping to reelect a strongman who’s already talking about banning Palestinian refugees from the United States.

Long-term, though? If the goal of the “uncommitted” crowd is to steer the Democratic Party toward a more pro-Palestinian policy, nothing would impress upon them the need to do so as forcefully as costing them a national defeat at Donald Trump’s hands.

That’s especially true if, as organizers of Michigan’s “uncommitted” effort hope, the movement spreads to college towns across the United States. Young Democrats are driving left-wing antipathy toward Israel; any evidence that the party is fatally alienating the next generation of its voters, like a mass boycott of the general election by twentysomething liberals, will cause panic attacks and retrenchment in the Democratic leadership.

Simply put, if your most cherished issue is making the party of the American left even more receptive to the anti-anti-Hamas view than it already is, withholding votes from Biden in November makes a certain sort of sense. Never mind that progressives who voted for the Green Party in 2000 and 2016 ended up paving the way for Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump, respectively. This time self-sabotage is going to work.

Does it make similar sense for the GOP’s Nikki Haley voters to withhold their votes from Trump this fall?

To a stalwart Never Trumper like me: Of course. That’s the heart of my argument to traditional conservatives to end the “Republican hostage crisis” as soon as possible. The only chance Reaganites have to gain leverage over the GOP’s populist majority is to teach them the hard way that they can’t win elections without meeting Reaganite demands. If that majority insists on nominating coup-plotting post-liberal miscreants like Trump, they should do so knowing that they’ll start every election having to somehow replace 25 percent of their own voters.

That would be painful for conservatives in the short term, as it would mean Democrats winning at least one and probably multiple national elections. But in the long term, it would restore sanity to the GOP by forcing populists to redress their authoritarian excesses.

It’s easy for stalwart Never Trumpers like me who left the party long ago to tolerate Republican defeat, though. For partisans committed enough to the GOP to have stuck with it all the way to the current depraved stage of Trumpist decadence, it’s asking the world. How many of them can plausibly imagine any justification for helping Democrats to win a presidential election, let alone multiple presidential elections?

Granted, 59 percent of Haley’s voters in South Carolina said they wouldn’t vote for Trump for president this fall. But many of those voters were independents who had already planned to oppose him in the general election. And of those who weren’t, I suspect eight months of relentless GOP attacks on Biden over the border and inflation will lead most back to the same destination at which they eventually arrived in 2016 and 2020: Trump may be grossly unfit for office and a threat to the constitutional order but, you know, he’ll appoint good judges ‘n stuff.

“The 25 percent” behind Nikki Haley won’t be anywhere near 25 percent by Election Day.

There’s another problem, one hinted at today by my colleague David Drucker in his report on Haley’s supporters. Unlike the progressives who voted “uncommitted” in Michigan yesterday, traditional conservatives have no one in their party to negotiate with over their demands.

The “uncommitted” effort is a straightforward pressure campaign aimed at the White House to influence U.S. policy on Israel. The White House understands that, of course, and is straining to make concessions. On Monday, the day before Michigan went to the polls, Biden touted the possibility of a ceasefire that might begin as soon as this weekend. Democratic leaders are keen to hold onto “uncommitted” voters and want them to know it. That’s how politics works.

On the left, that is, and in the Republican Party of old. But not in Trump’s Republican Party.

With rare exceptions, the populists who dominate the GOP betray no interest in reconciling with traditional conservatives. That starts with Trump himself, who celebrated a comfortable victory in the New Hampshire primary by announcing that Nikki Haley’s donors would be “permanently barred” from his movement. On the same day, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene vowed that Republicans who didn’t support populist policies would be “completely eradicated” from the party. During her 2022 campaign for Arizona governor, Kari Lake famously ordered McCain Republicans to “get the hell out” of the GOP.

Populists are occasionally willing to throw traditional conservatives a small bone on policy but on the big-picture disputes between the two—authoritarianism as a governing ethic, cultish personal loyalty toward Trump, retreating from the Western liberal order abroad—there’s nothing to negotiate. Haley voters can take it or leave it. Unlike traditional Republicans, populists would rather lose to Democrats than compromise on their worldview. They prefer a smaller, “purer” party that loses consistently to a larger, more ideologically diverse one that wins.

That’s the essence of the hostage crisis, and why populists continue to enjoy such strong leverage over Reaganites. Resolve is the strongest weapon in politics.

In theory, being told to get in line or “get the hell out” should make Nikki Haley’s voters more likely to stay home in November than the “uncommitted” progressive bloc in Michigan, not less. The Democratic leadership is conciliatory toward the dissidents in its base and the Republican leadership is not. That means disgruntled Democrats show up on Election Day while disgruntled Reaganites boycott the vote, right? 

I don’t think so. If you’re pro-Palestinian, you can withhold your vote from Biden without shedding your partisan identity. At no point will the president or any of his aides declare that anyone who protests the Gaza campaign by not voting in November is “no longer a Democrat,” rest assured. But if you’re a Haley Republican who opts to withhold your vote from Trump, you’re committing to de facto exile from your party, an affiliation that may have colored your entire adult life. You can go on calling yourself a Republican afterward if you like, but most members of your party will insist that you’re no such thing. In the GOP of 2024, “RINO” means nothing more or less than “opposed to Trump.”

For most partisans, exile is a steep psychological penalty. Not for me and not for most Dispatch readers, I suspect, but for the average not-very-engaged conservative the thought of being politically homeless indefinitely will be frightening. As I said earlier: To still be a Republican in 2024, you need to be awfully committed to the brand.

I hope I’m wrong. And maybe I am: The Haley voters whom Drucker spoke with seem increasingly aware that they’re already in exile, that there’s no party to “come home” to in November because they’re no longer at home there. “Unfortunately, the MAGA people are not going to welcome us and they’re not going to like us,” one told him, succinctly and accurately. Nothing would be more encouraging for the future of the right than a schism this fall that debilitates populists’ chances of winning elections near-term. They won’t be reasoned out of illiberalism, but it might—eventually—be electorally beaten out of them. 

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.