President Joe Biden is facing a strong challenge in November from former President Donald Trump, who leads in the polls in key swing states that could determine the course of the election. It’s hard to pinpoint a single issue that’s of concern to the activist Democratic base — student loans, inflation and immigration all come to mind in various states — but the cause is easier to pinpoint in Michigan and Wisconsin, where voters are sending the incumbent an unambiguous message about his support for Israel’s war on Gaza. The question is: Will he listen? 

In 2020, Biden narrowly won the White House by flipping Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia and Arizona back to the Democratic column. He’ll need at least the two upper Midwest states this year to beat Trump, whose victories in the region in 2016 helped him beat Hillary Clinton. And to do that he’ll need the same voters who came out for him in 2020 to return to the polls. 

But those voters are increasingly angry with the president over his policy on Gaza, so much so that they’re expressed their displeasure in voting “uncommitted” or leaving ballots blank in primaries. The number of people doing this isn’t enough to change the outcome of the primary contest — Biden easily won — but it shows a growing dissatisfaction with a president who seems committed to ensuring thousands of young Palestinian parents endure the same heartache he felt when his wife and daughter died over 50 years ago. 

Michigan’s relatively large Muslim population went heavily for Biden in 2020, but polling indicates they’re largely going to abandon the incumbent over his support for Israel’s war.

In Michigan, where Biden edged out Trump by around 152,000 votes, 101,623 voters chose uncommitted. That’s two-thirds of the votes he needed last time, in a state that is essential to his reelection prospects. Michigan’s relatively large Muslim population went heavily for Biden in 2020, but polling indicates they’re largely going to abandon the incumbent over his support for Israel’s war. 

Wisconsin doesn’t have the same demographic concerns for the Democrats, but had a narrower margin of error in 2020. Biden won the state in a squeaker — by a margin of around 28,000 votes. Alarmingly for the incumbent, 47,800 Wisconsinites chose “uninstructed” in the primary, the same protest vote as “uncommitted” in Michigan. The discontent is real. 

Voters in Arizona and Georgia have also cast protest votes. Arizona doesn’t have an “uncommitted”-style option, so voters were encouraged to go for Marianne Williamson as a stand-in; she received 15,837 votes, more than the roughly 10,500 votes Biden bested Trump with last time. Georgia was a bit of a brighter spot, with only about 6,000 voters leaving their ballot blank in protest; still, the state went to Biden by 11,779 votes in 2020. 

This should be an alarm bell for the White House. Biden only won the White House by a nose four years ago and this year the head to head polling isn’t doing him any favors. Polling averages from FiveThirtyEight give Trump a three-point advantage in Michigan, a one-to-four-point edge in Georgia and a three-point advantage in Arizona. Wisconsin is dead even. If these numbers hold, Biden will need every vote he can get — and he’ll need to motivate his most loyal supporters to come out in force for him. 

A good way to motivate the base is to be accountable to criticism. The uncommitted vote — including all the ways the protest vote is manifesting itself — is a signal from Democrats of their dissatisfaction over the way the administration is assisting the massacre in Gaza. Though not a huge number of voters, it’s enough to turn the tide in a swing state. In large part, the Democratic voters choosing this form of protest are telling the president they’re still gettable voters. But they’re also warning him not to take their support for granted. 

Despite leaked stories to the press about the president’s personal antipathy to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his “concern” over the number of civilian deaths in the territory, the material reality of U.S. policy continues to be one that offers steadfast and unwavering backing for the massacres. Earlier the same day that seven World Central Kitchen members were killed in an Israeli triple tap drone strike, the Biden administration approved sending thousands more bombs to the Israeli military; the week before that the White House sent massive, 2,000 pound bombs to Israel for its assault on Gaza. The rhetoric and the actions just don’t add up. 

A staggering 75% of Democrats — Biden’s party — do not support how Israel has conducted the war.

The American public isn’t stupid. Support for Israel in the war is dropping as the country’s military continues to pound Gaza into rubble and starve the citizenry. A staggering 75% of Democrats — Biden’s party — do not support how Israel has conducted the war. Most of the people opposed to the war might be expected to still go out and vote for the incumbent in November. But there’s a further concern. 

Israel’s overall blockade of aid and destruction of infrastructure is sending Gaza hurtling into famine and mass starvation. Unlike the photos and videos of bombed out buildings and maimed and dead bodies, which can be rationalized away as the cost of war, images of famine are likely to provoke outrage and anger from the electorate. 

The urgency of this political threat is best displayed by how the hosts of “Morning Joe,” the right-leaning MSNBC morning show that Biden watches religiously, have gone after Israel in recent days, portraying the nation as a rogue state and making clear in no uncertain terms that the president should cut them off. The “Morning Joe” efforts were somewhat of a Hail Mary, but the pressure may have influenced the April 4 “tense” phone conversation between the president and Netanyahu, after which Israel announced it will let some aid into the territory. It would be a mistake for Biden and his administration to take that insufficient development as enough to assuage angry voters. If they stop at half measures and allow the massacre to continue, they’ll only have themselves to blame if Trump squeaks into the White House on the strength of the Upper Midwest.

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