Michigan ‘uncommitted’ vote fuels hope for third-party advocates

Michigan’s election results are giving third-party sympathizers hope after a portion of voters protested against President Biden’s reelection at the polls.

While Biden swept the state overall, the double-digit “uncommitted” number pointed to a strong appetite for a potential alternative in November, as resentment with the president builds over everything from his age to the Israel-Hamas war.

As Robert F. Kennedy Jr. qualifies for more ballots, and No Labels prepares to make a decision on whether to jump into the race, those advocating for a third-party option see new proof of interest among voters disenchanted with both parties’ candidates.

“As Robert Kennedy Jr. gains ballot access state by state, many disaffected Democrats and Republicans now leaning independent considered this their last time voting in the primaries,” Matthew McCloskey, a volunteer for the Kennedy campaign based in west Michigan, told The Hill.

“So what to do, write in Robert Kennedy Jr., or check ‘undecided?’”

McCloskey cast what he described as a “protest vote” Tuesday and turned his attention ahead to the general election.

“I’m excited to not have a protest or lesser-evil candidate that I’m voting for in November,” he said, expressing confidence in Kennedy.

One of national politics’ most closely watched battlegrounds, Michigan tallied a significant number of third-party votes in the 2016 election due to Green Party candidate Jill Stein. The Stein effect was part of what enabled Donald Trump to pull off a surprising defeat of Hillary Clinton that year. In 2020, Biden won against Trump, but by less than 3 percent, a margin Democrats are aware can swing back toward the GOP.

This cycle, the third-party threat is now bolstered by the 13 percent of Michigan’s Democratic voters who went against Biden in a primary where he’s already presumed to be the nominee.

Kennedy is hoping to be the beneficiary of that protest vote. And some are already casting him in that light, diverting the focus away from Biden and former President Trump. After the results were tallied, The Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial board posed the question: “The Winner in Michigan Is . . . RFK Jr.?”

Some of what progressives and independents consider Biden’s more controversial policy decisions in office, coupled with more intrinsic factors such as his age and voters’ perception of his mental acuity, have again put the Wolverine State on the map as he faces an expectedly tough path to keep the White House. The president’s handling of the war in Gaza contributed to 100,000 Democratic voters going against the incumbent in an otherwise easy primary victory.

According to data collected by the Center for American-Islamic Relations, a whopping 80 percent of Muslim voters in the state said they would theoretically support a third-party candidate over Biden or Trump. That tally was divided among the potential third-party options, including Kennedy and Cornel West, who both reregistered as independents after beginning their bids as Democrats, as well as Stein, who’s running again with the Green Party.

Other surveys show less favorable margins but could still prove consequential in the state where only a low single-digit difference is determinative of the final outcome. An Emerson College/The Hill poll also released this week shows Kennedy with a modest 6 percent of support in the battleground.

Progressives and grassroots groups organized around the “uncommitted” vote in an effort to signal their mounting disapproval of the war in Gaza and the Biden administration’s months-long foreign policy decisions around the conflict, including resisting immediate calls for a cease-fire after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas.

Our Revolution, a left-wing activist network that has had a presence in Michigan since Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) took the state over Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary, led advocacy around the protest vote leading up to this week’s election. The group said its aim was to make “Michigan a megaphone for Peace” and to send a signal against the ongoing approach to the war.

Wa’el Alzayat, CEO of Emgage Action, a Muslim advocacy group, said he intends to use the sizable anti-Biden results to further amplify his message at a time of high resentment towards the president.

Alzayat said his organization is “working to maintain the momentum post-Michigan’s ‘uncommitted’ achievement,” lobbying especially around a cease-fire and noting that many tens of thousands of Democratic voters expressed discontentment with Biden’s policy.

The goal, Alzayat suggested, stretches beyond one state and is part of a larger effort to push for their platform throughout the calendar’s following contests. Super Tuesday is March 5, when multiple states are holding their elections, including delegate-rich California and Texas.

“We will be looking at upcoming primaries to assess the best strategies to continue with this signaling,” he said. “You can be assured that we will not rest until at a minimum, we get a permanent mutual cease-fire in Gaza, a sizable increase in aid to those who need it, and an actionable plan for Palestinian freedom.”

On Thursday, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the largest union for labor workers in Washington state, said it is backing the “uncommitted” vote for its Democratic primary later in March, according to a report by NBC News.

While Democratic strategists caution against gleaning too much from the Michigan vote against Biden, there’s a lingering sentiment that the third-party factor could change the general election in unpredictable ways.

“Biden has won 82 percent overall and also 81 percent in Michigan, so let’s not get overly enamored with the uncommitted showing. The uncommitted number was modestly impressive, but it’s also a free vote with zero consequences,” said Jim Kessler, vice president at Third Way, who has been analyzing the possible effects of third-party candidates throughout the cycle.

“Let’s see where these voters are come November. Some of them will not return to Biden, but some of them were never with Biden,” Kessler said. “The bottom line is the Biden team should neither ignore these voters or be alarmed by their showing.”

Before the results showed room for a possible opening, Kennedy’s campaign was also bolstered by less-noticed news from American Values 2024, the super PAC supporting his bid, which said it has amassed enough signatures this week for the Independent candidate to qualify for the ballot in Georgia and Arizona. Both were important pickups for Biden last election against Trump and are among the newer swing states Democrats continue to use in their calculus toward a fall victory.

Reached by The Hill, the Kennedy campaign did not confirm that it qualified, noting campaign finance laws that prohibit the campaign from coordinating with any PACs. But the PAC’s autonomous signature-gathering effort has nonetheless inspired the candidate himself, who after Michigan saw the apathy toward Biden come to fruition for the first time during a tangible test at the ballot box.

“They can’t ignore us anymore,” Kennedy wrote after the primary on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. “We’re gaining momentum and building a movement to heal America.”

Democrats who believe Michigan’s showing should be viewed cautiously for now still see the third-party question as more likely to tilt things in the favor of Republicans; Kessler is among those who argue that “a third-party candidacy is far more dangerous to Biden than Trump.”

Furthermore, the ongoing presence of Nikki Haley in the GOP primary race, still declining to drop out after losing her home state of South Carolina, has fueled speculation that she could be No Labels’s choice for a consensus candidate. Between Kennedy and a possible Haley option, many Democrats believe it only further hampers their chances. 

“Biden needs some of those Haley votes to win, and if they are siphoned off to a spoiler No Labels bid from the center, it gives a big lift to Trump,” said Kessler. “And it won’t take much. This is going to be an awfully close general election.”

2024 Election

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