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Detroit is big for Joe Biden. Primary turnout was small

Wayne Harrell
Wayne Harrell was photographed outside a Detroit polling location on Feb. 27, 2024. (Credit: Malachi Barrett)

Detroit voters stood strongly behind President Joe Biden in Tuesday’s primary, but low turnout and a contingent of  “uncommitted” votes to protest Palestinian civilian deaths could spur more efforts by Democrats to shore up supporters. 

Unofficial results show only 12% of registered Detroit voters participated in the Feb. 27 election, compared to 23% of voters statewide. Nearly twice as many Detroiters voted in the last Democratic primary four years ago, when Biden was competing against 14 other candidates. Biden and former President Donald Trump won the majority of Michigan votes, taking another step toward an all-but-inevitable rematch in the November general election.

But both candidates showed signs of potential weaknesses.


“There’s a lot of time between now and November for the Biden campaign to either fix the problem or make it amenable to those people who were protesting,” said Mario Morrow, a longtime Southeast Michigan political analyst. “Michigan is even more of an important stomping ground for Biden. You will see more of him and his surrogates. It will increase the amount of money pumped into this state. He cannot fall asleep on Michigan.”


Kamau Clark, Southeast Michigan lead organizer with We The People MI Action Fund, said he was weary of the lack of engagement voters received from Biden’s campaign. Black voters are having robust conversations about housing access, persistent power outages, food insecurity and other issues that primary races could have engaged with. 

“It’s consistent with what Arab Americans voters are sharing around not feeling prioritized,” Clark said. 

Warrendale neighborhood resident Tracie Jones, a 50-year-old registered nurse, voted for Biden after supporting him in 2020. Jones said protecting abortion rights and access to in vitro fertilization treatment are top concerns. However, she was not enthusiastic about casting another vote for Biden, saying he’s “the lesser of two evils” compared to Trump. 

Jones said she does appreciate Biden’s efforts to forgive college loan debt. The administration announced this month that $1.2 billion in student debt will be canceled for roughly about 153,000 borrowers enrolled in a federal repayment plan.

“Having college funding available for low-income students is important,” Jones said. “Then they can go without being in debt for life for education. Education and health care are the big things for me.”

Al Brantley wearing an army hat and face mask
Al Brantley was photographed outside a Detroit polling location on Feb. 27, 2024. (Credit: Malachi Barrett)

Al Brantley, a retired pipefitter, said Biden is the clear choice in November. He said Biden’s support for the United Auto Workers strike last year was important for Detroiters, and the president is a stronger candidate after spending four years in office. Brantley said he’d like to fast-forward to the November election. 

“Everyone is anxious to get it over with, honestly,” Brantley said. 

Brantley helped voter Bernice Smith, a longtime activist and former police commissioner, navigate her walker up a ramp at First Congregational Church in Midtown. When asked who she was supporting, Smith took a few short steps, then waved her finger. 

“I don’t want that damn Trump anywhere near us,” Smith said. “Trump doesn’t care about Black people. The man don’t mean you no good.” 

woman at polling station
Voter Bernice Smith arrives at a Detroit polling location on Feb. 27, 2024. (Credit: Malachi Barrett)

Biden secured 81% of the statewide vote. He performed better in Detroit, collecting 87% of Democratic votes. Roughly 9% of Detroit Democrats voted “uncommitted.” Few Democrats supported the alternatives. Author Marianne Williamson and U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., earned a combined 4%.

Two of Michigan’s 140 Democratic delegates will be awarded to “uncommitted,” a victory for Arab American and Muslim community leaders who encouraged voters to protest Biden’s military support for Israel. One delegate will come from the 12th Congressional District, which covers Detroit’s west side and nearby suburbs, including Dearborn.

Some Detroiters who voted uncommitted said the goal was to show Biden how many votes he is at risk of losing in November. The president beat Trump in Michigan by 154,000 votes in 2020, while Trump won the state by just 10,700 votes in 2016.  

Unofficial results show 100,401 Democratic voters in Michigan selected “uncommitted,” representing 13% of the statewide total. 

The share of uncommitted votes was higher across Wayne County (17%), which is home to several communities with large Arab American and Muslim populations. Votes for “uncommitted” outnumbered votes for Biden in Dearborn, Dearborn Heights and Hamtramck. 

The “uncommitted” campaign did not reach double-digits in Detroit. Morrow said the campaign was well run and drove turnout in some communities but didn’t have a major impact on Biden’s support in Detroit. 

“You do have a larger number of people participating in the primary (in Southeast Michigan) because they wanted to voice opposition to Biden,” Morrow said. “(Detroiters) are basically saying ‘we are strong Democrats and will not do anything that’s going to give Trump an inkling that he could win.” 

However, the “uncommitted” vote achieved majorities in a handful of precincts near Detroit’s borders with Dearborn, Dearborn Heights and Hamtramck. 

Only two out of 76 voters in a precinct directly south of Hamtramck supported Biden. Four years earlier, 163 voters in the same precinct supported Biden over Trump. 

Precincts where the majority of voters select “uncommitted” weren’t always in close proximity to those Arab American communities. Sixty-five percent of Democratic voters in a Woodbridge neighborhood precinct voted “uncommitted.”

two woman standing next to each other
Mikala Cox, 28, and her sister Cierra, 24, both voted “uncommitted” at Murray Wright Campus in Woodbridge. (Credit: Jena Brooker)

Mikala Cox, 28, and her sister Cierra, 24, both voted “uncommitted” at Murray Wright Campus in Woodbridge while taking a break from working as poll challengers in Dearborn. The sisters are Lebanese Americans. 

“In the (2020) presidential election we voted for Biden because we didn’t want Trump to win, now I don’t know if I would have changed it, what I would have done differently,” Cox said. “I wish I didn’t vote for Biden, because he’s committing genocide. I voted uncommitted to send a message to Joe Biden that our vote has power and he’s not listening to voters that are passionate about this issue. There are thousands and thousands of people dying.” 

Detroit resident Annie McGraw, 30, cast an “uncommitted” vote at First Congregational Church in Midtown. McGraw, who previously lived in Dearborn, has been following Mayor Abdullah Hammoud’s advocacy for Palestinians. McGraw said she would ultimately vote for Biden in November.

“It’s tough with our two-party system to do some type of protest vote,” McGraw said. “Especially with someone like Donald Trump, I don’t feel comfortable voting in a way that would potentially hurt Biden in the general election. This is a good way to get our voices heard and tell him people in Michigan disapprove of his policies in Israel.”

Howard McWilliams
Howard McWilliams was photographed outside a Detroit polling location on Feb. 27, 2024. (Credit: Malachi Barrett)

Other voters who spoke with BridgeDetroit said they didn’t understand why people would reject Biden when Trump is the only other alternative. Howard McWilliams, 60, said Trump is a “dictator,” and he fears his return to office. He identified himself as a staunch Democrat.

McWilliams was unmoved by the “uncommitted” campaign, but worried it has the potential to hurt Biden’s reelection bid. McWilliams said “Israel has every right to do what it’s doing to Gaza” after being attacked by Hamas last October. 

Wayne Harrell, 66, said Biden is too focused on wars in Ukraine and Gaza. Harrell supports Biden but said this will be a hard election; the country is divided and falling apart. Biden needs to “protect your home first,” he said. 

“We need someone to focus on us,” Harrell said. “I’m just a resident in Detroit, we face challenges. Whatever happens in the U.S. falls on smaller people. Talk to people trying to survive.”

Maurice Tedder, a software developer and Detroit resident, said international affairs are top of mind for him in this election. Tedder said he voted because it’s his “civic duty” and that it’s the minimum people should be doing to be involved in the democratic process. 

He said Biden’s support for Israel impacts his viewpoints, but that he feels there are no other options.

“I mean if there was another candidate who had another more favorable position, that would be another option,” Tedder said. 

Maurice Tedder standing outside
Maurice Tedder voted at the Murray Wright Campus on February 27, 2024. (Credit: Jena Brooker)

Trump earned 68% of the Republican vote in Michigan, with former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley collecting roughly 27%. 

Detroit Republicans were vastly outnumbered by Democrats – more than 10 times as many Democrats voted Tuesday in the city. Of those who voted for him in Detroit, Trump earned 60% of the vote. 

Gary Cook, 76, said he believes Trump is mentally sharper than Biden. As a veteran of the Vietnam War, Cook said he’s worried about the violence in Gaza and Ukraine escalating into a third world war.

BridgeDetroit reporters Jena Brooker and Micah Walker contributed.

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