(Bloomberg) -- Turmoil in the Middle East poses a risk to President Joe Biden’s reelection bid, threatening to sap turnout among some of his key supporters — and possibly flip the race to Donald Trump. 

Tuesday’s primary in the crucial swing state of Michigan may deliver a symbolic rebuke to the president’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war. Much of its sizable Arab-American population blames Biden for siding with Israel and failing to stop the fighting. Many younger voters and Black Americans agree, and there’s a grassroots push to vote “uncommitted” instead of endorsing the president, who has no serious challengers for the Democratic nomination.

“The message is: we need a permanent cease-fire in Gaza to save lives and end funding for Israel,” said Layla Elabed, campaign manager for the group and sister of Representative Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat whose parents come from the West Bank. “The hope is Biden will feel the pressure of losing core constituents and will act.”

The danger may not lie in losing votes directly to Trump, whose administration was strongly pro-Israel and belligerent toward Iran. Rather, it’s that members of Biden’s fragile 2020 coalition will just stay home or vote third-party in numbers large enough to swing a tight race. Even outside Michigan, Biden and his aides have been heckled over the administration’s strong support for Israel in the war with Hamas at campaign events. 

The war began when Hamas – considered a terrorist group by the US — attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people and taking around 250 hostages. The death toll in Gaza has since climbed toward 30,000, according to authorities in the Hamas-run enclave.

There’s also simmering tension with Iran and its Houthi allies targeting Red Sea shipping – contained for now, but carrying the risk of an escalation that could send gasoline prices soaring and hurt the president at the ballot box. 

Biden’s campaign believes it’s too early to determine how the Gaza crisis will affect November’s election, aides familiar with the thinking said. The president said Monday a cease-fire could come as early as next week, but didn’t indicate if it would be permanent. The campaign believes the current outcry is for an end to the fighting and there’s no evidence yet that voters are firmly locked in against Biden, people close to the effort said. 

Elabed underlined that the uncommitted drive is about sending a message to the White House now, not an indication of support for Trump in November, given his record of policies many see as anti-Muslim. “This is not an anti-Biden vote,” she said. 

Michigan is one of the longtime Democratic strongholds that flipped to Trump in 2016, handling him the presidency before Biden won it back. The president’s path to another win in the state – which he carried by about 150,000 votes in 2020 — involves assembling a broad cohort including Arab-Americans but also union members, Black and suburban voters, one campaign official said.

The state has an estimated 70,000 Arab and Muslim voters, a bloc that has supported Democrats three-to-one since the early 2000s, according to Mark Grebner, founder of voting-research firm Practical Political Data in Lansing.

The uncommitted campaign is hoping to get as many as 10,000 votes Tuesday. That’s only about half the total it won in 2012, when Barack Obama was running for reelection without a serious challenger. Still, some powerful Democrats are concerned.

‘A Lot Can Happen’

“I’m not sure what we’re going to see on Tuesday, to tell you the truth,” Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer told CNN Sunday. Biden trails Trump 47% to 42% in Michigan in a hypothetical 2024 rematch, according to a Bloomberg News/Morning Consult poll in January.

Michigan’s Democratic Party aims to focus on the contrast to Trump, according to Chairwoman Lavora Barnes.

“A lot can happen between now and November,” she said. “When given a choice between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, I believe they will choose Joe Biden.”

The president’s team has sought to calm the outcry over Gaza, with a focus on Michigan. They dispatched senior White House aides for talks with community leaders, some of whom refused to meet Biden’s campaign manager.

Representative Ro Khanna, a progressive California Democrat and Biden campaign surrogate, got a warmer reception last week. But when he asked College Democrats if they thought Israel got it right with its reaction to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks, about half of the roughly 40 students in the room raised their hands saying ‘no,’ and just one voted ‘yes.’

Khanna said the administration needs a new approach to Gaza policy to address what he called “a deep sense of loss, a deep sense of anger” among Arab- and Muslim-Americans, which extends to Black voters and progressives too.

“We need a course correction on the foreign policy, and we’ve got weeks, I’d say, to do it,” he said. 

That seems unlikely, though the administration has publicly upped pressure on Israel to rein in military operations in Gaza. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said Tuesday she’s urged Israeli leaders to ease restrictions on the West Bank. The US hasn’t withheld financial support or weapons supplies, and has vetoed a series of United Nations resolutions demanding an immediate halt.  

‘Real Risks’

The Trump campaign can benefit politically from events in the Middle East and elsewhere, by playing up broader perceptions of turmoil under Biden, according to Republican pollster Robert Blizzard. 

“Voters put Biden in place because there was a referendum on Trump and they wanted to calm things down, they wanted steadiness,” said Blizzard, a partner at Public Opinion Strategies. “And all they’ve gotten is chaos and confusion.”

An AP-NORC poll this month found almost two-thirds of Democrats think Israel has gone too far, and fewer than half now approve Biden’s handling of the war. Protesters have been crashing his campaign events for weeks, shouting over his speeches with demands for a cease-fire.

But foreign affairs don’t typically rank that high in voter priorities or play a central role in elections. And plenty of Americans favor supporting Israel, a longtime ally. Still there’s a sense that, on Gaza, Biden has gotten on the wrong side of a chunk of his base.

“There are real risks, because I can’t remember any time when the country was so polarized on this issue,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. When it comes to Biden’s support for Israel, “a significant portion of the people who are most pleased with where the president comes out are not going to vote for the president, and some of the people the president needs to vote for him are most antagonized.”

--With assistance from Skylar Woodhouse.

(Updates with vote data in 10th, Yellen comments in 18th paragraphs.)

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