Biden’s Gaza Challenge Will Persist, but Michigan May Have Been Unique

President Biden and his allies had reasons for both hope and concern after a Michigan primary election that revealed the party’s painful divisions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and confronted him with his largest measure of Democratic opposition to date.

He avoided his anxious supporters’ darkest predictions by winning the Tuesday primary, 81 percent to 13 percent, over an “uncommitted” movement that sprang up to protest his backing of Israel. Yet more than 100,000 voters registered their disapproval of him, signaling serious discontent among Arab Americans, young voters and progressives as he tries to stitch back together his winning 2020 coalition.

Democratic unease with Mr. Biden’s handling of the Mideast war will not go away as the presidential primary calendar moves on to more than a dozen Super Tuesday states next week, but his allies are optimistic that Michigan will serve as the high-water mark for resistance to the president within his party.

Though many states have the option for Democrats to cast protest votes against Mr. Biden, they are not nearly as likely as Michigan was to become a national litmus test for his popularity or his handling of the war in Gaza.

No other place will have the combination of a large and politically active Arab American community, a battleground-state spotlight with heightened stakes for November, and a weekslong runway in which Michigan hosted the country’s only Democratic primary action.

But if Mr. Biden’s immediate electoral worries have receded after Michigan, the political pressure over his position on Israel threatens to linger through the summer and fall barring a major shift in policy or progress to end the bloodshed in Gaza.

Opposition to American political, military and financial support for Israel has dogged Mr. Biden and other prominent Democrats at public events around the country, with frustration spreading beyond Arab American and Muslim communities to college campuses and other progressive areas.

An apparent desire to avoid confrontations with antiwar demonstrators has led Mr. Biden’s campaign to encase him and Vice President Kamala Harris in political Bubble Wrap, taking unusual steps to maintain a focus on more politically friendly topics. When Ms. Harris visited Michigan last week, she spoke about abortion rights before just nine invited people in Grand Rapids. Her previous stops to promote the issue came before crowds of cheering supporters — events meant to show enthusiasm for her and the Democratic ticket.

In Minnesota, where an “uncommitted” push began on Monday before the state’s March 5 primary, Gov. Tim Walz, a top Biden surrogate, said a group of demonstrators had been protesting Mr. Biden’s position on Israel outside his home every day. Others have protested at recent events Mr. Walz has attended to mark Martin Luther King’s Birthday and an appearance at a community college.

“It is concerning, as it should be,” Mr. Walz, who is also the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, said in an interview on Wednesday. “This is what the political process is supposed to do. It forces us to be making sure we’re hearing folks. They are in pain. They are frustrated. They want to see something done.”

The Michigan activists who organized the three-week “uncommitted” effort on a $200,000 budget — a relative pittance in a populous state — judged their share of the vote to be a success. On Wednesday, they warned again that Mr. Biden risked losing to former President Donald J. Trump if he did not stop the war or break from Israel’s government.

“We’re asking you, President Biden, to stop killing our families before you come and ask for our support,” said Abbas Alawieh, one of the movement’s organizers.

James Zogby, the founder of the Arab American Institute in Washington and a Democratic National Committee member since 1993, said Mr. Biden and the White House had no choice but to engage with those angered by the war in Gaza and to keep shifting the administration’s approach to the conflict.

“I can’t help them if they don’t want to be helped,” he said. “I’m not giving up because I don’t want to see Donald Trump back in the White House, but they have to help us help them.”

Still, the results on Tuesday suggested that Mr. Biden had managed to limit the political damage over his Israel policy.

In the six college towns that are home to Michigan’s largest public universities, “uncommitted” received 18 percent support — a share higher than the statewide percentage and enough to raise concerns about the general election, but well short of the anti-Biden margins in Dearborn and other areas with large Arab American populations.

The “uncommitted” organizers, and the progressives who followed their lead, did not push a broader case about Mr. Biden’s political standing or his age, which have for months been a central focus of Democratic worries about his prospects in the general election.

In Colorado, which also holds its primary on March 5, former Representative David Skaggs wrote an essay in The Denver Post last week announcing that he would vote “uncommitted.” Expressing deep reservations about Mr. Biden’s political strength, he warned that negative perceptions about the president’s age would “haunt the Biden campaign” and potentially doom it to defeat.

The Biden campaign has sought to carefully navigate his public appearances, wary of exposure to protesters and scrutiny by mainstream and right-wing news outlets alike.

In recent weeks, the president has popped up more frequently on social media, where has discussed how he met Jill Biden, the first lady, and retold the heartbreaking story about caring for his young sons after his first wife and daughter were killed in a car crash. The Biden campaign also joined TikTok, the Chinese-owned social media platform that has become the primary news source for tens of millions of young Americans.

“Campaign events are only one source of communication, and while the president and vice president are the best and most prominent messengers, they’re not the only messengers,” said Representative Jennifer McClellan of Virginia, a member of the Biden campaign’s advisory board. “The nature of campaigns has changed in a social media world.”

The Biden campaign has long maintained that the voters it needs to win in November are not avid consumers of traditional news outlets that cover the president’s movements and public events.

“The president’s strong primary performances in diverse states show that strategy is working,” said Lauren Hitt, a campaign spokeswoman.

Still, the political consequences of the Gaza war go well beyond the simple tabulation of “uncommitted” votes in Michigan, warned Doug Schoen, a veteran Democratic pollster who has served as a consultant for five Israeli prime ministers.

The fracturing of the president’s coalition, Mr. Schoen said, is part of a broader sense of ineffectiveness, bolstered by Republican intransigence in Congress, the failure of border security legislation and Mr. Trump’s somewhat specious argument that the world was at peace during his administration and is in chaos now.

“This is less about parsing votes in certain key states than the fact that he looks weaker,” Mr. Schoen said of Mr. Biden, “making it that much more imperative for him to prove that he can govern.”

While Michigan Democrats spent the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s primary issuing dire warnings — mostly in private — that Mr. Biden had a political problem that could endure into the general election, his allies in the 15 Super Tuesday states appear less worried.

“We’re not always going to all agree on every single issue,” said Representative Robert Garcia of California, which holds its primary next week. “When the coalition is so diverse, I might have a different perspective than the president on some issues, maybe on the border and immigration. But I’m still going to vote for him.”

Alyce McFadden contributed reporting from New York.

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