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Michigan's 2024 vote could be heavily impacted by Biden's Middle East policy

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Michigan is a state to watch in the 2024 presidential election. Trump won it in 2016 and Biden in 2020. But for Democrats, the Israel-Hamas war is throwing the support of Michigan's large Arab American population into doubt. They're skeptical about voting for a White House that they say disproportionately supports Israel while doing little to protect the lives of Palestinians. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea reports from Detroit.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: In 2020, Arab Americans turned out big for the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden. That's one of the reasons he carried Michigan on his way to winning the presidency. Now, three years later, it's a very different world for Biden and for those voters.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Chanting) Free, free Palestine.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Chanting) Free, free Palestine.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Chanting) Long live Palestine.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Chanting) Long live Palestine.

GONYEA: This was at a recent rally downtown on Detroit's riverfront. That chant and loud calls for an immediate ceasefire were common, but so was this.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Chanting) Biden, Biden, you can't hide.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Chanting) Biden, Biden, you can't hide.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Chanting) We charge you with genocide.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Chanting) We charge you with genocide.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Chanting) We charge you with genocide.

GONYEA: Thousands attended the rally. Speaker after speaker decried American military support for Israel in its war against Hamas in Gaza. There's anger over a U.S. veto of a United Nations resolution calling for a cease-fire, which the U.S. and Israel say will give Hamas time to regroup. Democratic state Representative Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority floor leader in the Michigan House, spoke and cited the Declaration of Independence.

ABRAHAM AIYASH: America, you promised the world that all men and women are created equal. Yet somehow, we find billions of dollars to dehumanize Palestinians.

GONYEA: Watching nearby was longtime Arab American business owner and civil rights activist Nasser Beydoun. He used even stronger language in describing President Biden.

NASSER BEYDOUN: Where's his humanity? You know, is he that much of a Zionist that Palestinian lives don't matter to him?

GONYEA: Beydoun says he's a former Republican-turned-Democrat who supported Biden in 2020 and who's currently running for Michigan's open U.S. Senate seat. He supported Biden in 2020 but says Democrats are failing Arab Americans.

BEYDOUN: He lost constituents that voted overwhelmingly for him in Michigan. And if he wants to see reelection, he needs Michigan. And right now he doesn't have it, and I don't think he'll ever come back from it.

GONYEA: Michigan State University political scientist Nazita Lajevardi, whose research includes Muslim American public opinion, sees skyrocketing disapproval of Biden since the start of the war. And Lajevardi hears how that and increased anxiety over treatment of the community affects people's political choices.

NAZITA LAJEVARDI: Muslims in the U.S. - they are very much aware of how Democrats are not to be leaned on, and I think they know what it's like to be ostracized and have no allies on either side of the aisle.

GONYEA: Also at Michigan State, student Yusuf Abbas, whose family is Palestinian, says he's never been quick to talk politics. He always let others start those conversations, but he says the ongoing tragedy has prompted him to be more public.

YUSUF ABBAS: If someone is open-minded, we can sit down and discuss what's going on because if you're Jewish or you're Israeli or if you're Palestinian or Muslim or Arab, it hurts both of us.

GONYEA: But Abbas, a Democratic voter, says he doesn't hold out any real hope that Biden will bring meaningful change in the Middle East. Saba Saed is also a student at Michigan State. She was born in the West Bank and spent the first half of her life there.

SABA SAED: I've never really trusted the American government system, especially when it comes to Palestine, because they failed us so many times. But I never thought in my life that it would be this bad, this awful, this, like...

GONYEA: That sense of hopelessness is pervasive in the Arab American community. So Michigan House Majority Leader Abraham Aiyash says he's using the skills he learned working on Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign to organize to force Biden to act.

AIYASH: We do have political power. We do have the ability to influence an election. And if you are not going to take that into consideration, simply using platitudes while your policies perpetuate violence and harm, we will not stand by it.

GONYEA: And Michigan, with some 200,000 Arab American voters, will be a high-stakes test of that power a year from now. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Don Gonyea
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.