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What the Michigan primary tells us about about November

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Welcome to The Campaign Moment, your guide to the biggest developments in the 2024 election — and where we’ll never be “uncommitted” to you, dear reader.

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Today, we’re left to put together the pieces of a couple of much-spun results in the Michigan presidential primary.

To recap: On the Republican side, Donald Trump continued his march to the nomination, but Nikki Haley still pulled roughly 27 percent as an effective protest vote. On the Democratic side, President Biden won even bigger, but about 13 percent of voters opted for “uncommitted,” in a more direct protest vote over his handling of Israel’s war in Gaza.

Neither is a game-changing result. But with a pair of front-runners whom the electorate is remarkably meh on — and with the general election having effectively begun — it matters which candidate has bigger problems with his base.

Let’s start with Biden and what the Gaza issue portends.

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To hear some tell it, Biden ceding more than 1 in 8 voters to “uncommitted” betrays a serious liability with his base in November — and the need to side more with the Palestinians’ cause. To hear others tell it, it’s pretty much a nothingburger.

The truth is somewhere in the middle. The defections were significant but far from a shock wave. This is clearly something Biden will have to mind — but mostly because Michigan is such a competitive state where even a minor shift could matter. And the war in Gaza, which both arouses huge passions and splits his party roughly in half, could play more of a role here than elsewhere.

The percentage of “uncommitted” votes on Tuesday was only slightly higher than it was in the last Michigan primary featuring an incumbent Democratic president, Barack Obama in 2012. Obama ceded 10.7 percent. He actually ceded even more votes to “uncommitted” or “no preference” that year in several other states.

The comparisons aren’t perfect, for reasons I broke down in my takeaways last night. This was obviously much more of a protest vote concerning a specific issue — and an issue that animates Biden’s left flank.

The question is whether people who lodge a protest vote in February might not still be punishing him over it — especially with Donald Trump likely the alternative — in November. We also don’t know what Biden’s stance might be on the war by the fall, and what the situation on the ground in Gaza will look like.

It’s very difficult to say how this affects November with any certainty; we don’t even have exit polls to tell us how many Democrats are threatening not to support Biden. (At least 1 in 5 voters have said that about Trump in Republican contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.)

But it’s hardly the only evidence that this could be a tough issue for Biden to massage in the months ahead. To wit:

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  • Americans strongly side with Israel over the Palestinians in most polls, but the Democratic base is far more divided — often just about down the middle. A recent Fox News poll in Michigan showed a 33-33 split among Michigan Democrats.
  • The most pro-Palestinian groups tend to be the ones Biden was already underperforming the most with in the general election, including young people and Black and Hispanic voters.
  • An AP-NORC poll a month ago showed 63 percent of Democrats say Israel has “gone too far” in the war.
  • Recent Fox News and Quinnipiac University national polling shows only about half of Democrats approve of Biden’s handling of the war.
  • Recent Pew Research Center and YouGov polling shows nearly one-third of Democratic-leaning voters thought Biden was favoring the Israelis too much.

The problem for Biden is that virtually any decision or statement he makes risks alienating at least one wing of his party.

If there’s some good news for Biden, it’s that this doesn’t yet appear to be a huge issue for lots of voters. The YouGov poll shows just 13 percent of Democrats “strongly” disapproved of his handling of the war. And even in that Fox News Michigan poll, just 24 percent labeled it an “extremely” important issue to them — less than among Republicans.

We don’t know how many of those people are dug in against Biden or view this as a tipping-point issue. Yes, Trump sides even more with Israel, so he’s not an obvious home for these voters. But there are third-party candidates more aligned with the Palestinians’ cause, and sometimes people lodge protest votes or stay home.

A small number of angry Democrats could matter greatly in a close race — in Michigan or elsewhere. But next to other Biden’s liabilities (his age/immigration) and Trump’s liabilities (his extremeness/his legal problems), it’s not clear this currently ranks terribly high.

What is clear is that it’s worth watching.

Trump’s suburban struggle moment

There were also plenty of protest votes on the Republican side, of course.

It’s not strictly comparable, given these votes were for an actual person (and established politician) by the name of Nikki Haley — whom voters might simply like better than Trump. But Trump is continuing to cede lots of votes.

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And nowhere does Trump face bigger defections and questions than in the suburbs.

In Michigan, two of Trump’s worst counties were Washtenaw (44 percent Haley) and Oakland (33 percent Haley), just outside of Detroit. He also lost 34 percent in Grand Rapids-based Kent County and 36 percent in Kalamazoo County.

And even in his 20-point win in South Carolina on Saturday, Trump actually lost three counties by double digits — two in the Charleston area and Columbia-based Richland County.

It’s no secret that the Trump era has cost the GOP in the suburbs — owing in large part to his problems with educated voters. But it’s still been close in each of his two campaigns. Trump won the suburbs by four points in 2016, then lost them narrowly in 2020.

Recent polls suggest that might not hold up. A Marist College poll this month showed suburban voters disliked Trump 64-32 and favored Biden by 25 points. And a December New York Times/Siena College poll showed suburban voters disliked Trump 62-34 and favored Biden by 14 points.

Given the suburbs are roughly half the vote these days, this could matter greatly.

A moment when Super Tuesday went very wrong

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Super Tuesday is nigh — more than a dozen states will vote March 5, and a third of GOP delegates are at stake — and that gives us a chance to share one of our favorite presidential primary stories.

The challenge of campaigning in multiple states is real, but in no case has it been more real than it was in 1984 for Gary Hart.

Aiming to recast the impending Democratic National Convention by sweeping the final of three “Super Tuesdays,” Hart’s campaign decided to dispatch his wife to California while he campaigned in New Jersey. At a later event, Hart reflected, “The good news for her is she campaigns in California and I campaign in New Jersey.”

“I got to hold a koala bear,” his wife said.

Hart responded: “I won’t tell you what I got to hold: samples from a toxic waste dump.”

Offense was taken at the seemingly tired New Jersey dig and stereotype. And while Hart had led in some New Jersey polls, Walter Mondale went on to win it by 15 points. His domination of the delegates there helped put an end to a very drawn-out race.

And if not for later events, this episode might be a bigger part of Hart’s political obituary.

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Source: Washington Post

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