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Will the primary 'protest vote' against Biden and Trump make a difference in November?

More primary voters are turning out to vote against the presumptive nominees than usual. But that doesn't necessarily spell trouble for the general election.

Donald Trump facing left and Joe Biden facing right.
Former President Donald Trump and President Biden. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Spencer Platt/Getty Images, Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

President Biden and former President Donald Trump have already clinched their parties’ 2024 presidential nominations.

But the primary contests will continue until the last states vote in June, and each week thousands of people keep casting their ballots for other candidates — or for none of the above — in protest against the presumptive nominees.

The latest round of protest votes came Tuesday in Connecticut, Wisconsin, Rhode Island and New York.

On the Democratic side, between 8.4% (Wisconsin) and 14.9% (Rhode Island) of the electorate voted for “uncommitted” or “uninstructed,” mostly to register their disapproval of Biden’s approach to the war in Gaza. In New York, an estimated 12% left the presidential line on their ballots blank, according to organizers for the protest campaign.

On the Republican side, an even larger share of primary voters — between 12.7% (Rhode Island) and 17.9% (New York) — chose a former candidate such as Nikki Haley or Ron DeSantis, or none of the above, instead of Trump.

The key question now is whether this protest vote will make a difference when Biden and Trump face off in November. Here’s what we know so far.

📈 The 2024 primary protest vote is bigger than usual

In recent uncompetitive presidential nominating contests — such as the 2020 Republican, 2012 Democratic and 2004 Republican primaries, when the incumbent president ran virtually unopposed — the typical protest vote has been about 7%, according to a New York Times analysis.

So far this year, the average Biden protest vote stands at about 13%.

At the same time, an even larger share of GOP primary voters has continued to vote against Trump since his Republican rivals exited the race (though the comparison is inexact because the former president is not technically an incumbent).

This makes sense. National polls have consistently shown low approval and favorability ratings for both Trump and Biden.

🗳️ But it’s not unprecedented...

There’s no doubting the passion behind this year’s protest votes.

In races with foregone conclusions, angry Democratic primary voters — especially Arab Americans, Muslim Americans and younger progressives — nonetheless keep turning out because they believe Biden hasn’t done enough to stop what they describe as “genocide” in Gaza.

And angry Republican primary voters — especially moderate, college-educated suburbanites — keep showing up because they believe Trump, who faces 91 felony charges across four criminal cases, is not fit to be president again.

Those objections won’t just vanish over the summer. But it’s also important to maintain a sense of perspective.

For one thing, protest voting isn’t a new phenomenon. In 2012, incumbent President Barack Obama was running essentially unopposed for the Democratic nomination. By the time the primary season ended in June, Obama had lost more than 10% of the vote to minor candidates or “uncommitted” in 16 states — including more than 18% in New Hampshire, more than 20% in North Carolina and Louisiana and more than 40% in West Virginia, Arkansas, Kentucky and Oklahoma.

In November, Obama won reelection by nearly 5 million votes.

🤏 ...and the raw numbers aren’t huge

The scale of the protest vote matters too. More than 96,000 Wisconsinites voted against Trump in Tuesday’s GOP primary; more than 65,000 voted against Biden (including 48,000 for “uninstructed”).

That’s not nothing in a state where Biden beat Trump by just 20,682 votes last time around. But it’s also a lot less than, say, the 200,810 North Carolinians who voted “no preference” against Obama in the state’s 2012 Democratic primary — or the 3.2 million Wisconsinites who voted for Trump or Biden in 2020.

As overall turnout falls in a primary season that’s already effectively over, people who are highly motivated to send a message will inevitably make up an outsize share of the (shrinking) voter pool. Energized opposition can have a bigger effect when no one else is particularly energized.

🙅 Most of Trump’s protest voters probably weren’t going to vote for him anyway

Much has been made of the 20% to 40% of GOP primary voters who cast their ballots for Haley when she was still running — and the 10% to 20% who continue to do so today.

“Don’t expect them to automatically vote with the party just because,” Haley said last month. “If they feel like the Republican Party’s not even trying to get them, they either won’t vote ... or they will find some other person to vote for.”

But this theory assumes that most of Haley’s voters — or at least the ones who haven’t already fallen in line behind Trump — are former Trump fans who are only now threatening to defect to Biden.

In truth, many (if not most) were probably Never Trump voters to begin with.

Consider this year’s GOP primary in Georgia. There, Trump won 85% of the vote; Haley won 13%. Given that Trump lost the Peach State to Biden by just 11,779 votes in 2020, those 77,899 Haley voters could prove pivotal in November — if they were former Trump supporters who had recently soured on him.

But according to the New York Times, “Trump doesn’t have much to worry about here — or at least nothing new to worry about. Most of these voters already backed Mr. Biden in the 2020 election and continue to back him in 2024.”

Case in point: 10% of those who voted in this year’s GOP primary in Georgia had previously voted in a Democratic primary during the last eight years — “a good indication that they may have been Democrats voting in a Republican contest,” as the Times put it. A very similar 12% told pollsters for the Times and Siena College that they supported Biden over Trump in 2020; 11% said they would support Biden over Trump in 2024.

The fact that Haley received a near-identical 13% of the primary vote suggests that this is all the same group of anti-Trump voters — not voters Trump is suddenly in danger of losing, but voters he lost long ago.

🇵🇸 Biden’s protest voters may be a more complicated story

The Democratic dynamic is different. Biden’s protest voters are largely young, progressive, Arab American and/or Muslim American — not Trump voters turning out to trip up the president before returning to the guy they were always going to vote for anyway.

In heavily Arab- and Muslim-American Michigan, for instance, more than 100,000 people voted “uncommitted” in the Democratic primary as a result of an organized protest campaign — 13.2% overall. They were largely concentrated around Dearborn (where nearly half the residents claim Arab ancestry) and Ann Arbor (home to the University of Michigan).

In 2020, Biden won roughly 60% to 70% of Arab Americans and Muslim Americans — and a similar number of 18-to-29-year-olds — on his way to beating Trump by about 154,000 votes in Michigan. Losing 100,000 of those voters in 2024 would not be helpful.

But similar to the situation with Trump, it’s unclear how many Biden protest voters were committed to voting for the president before the war in Gaza began — and of those who were, how many will actually show up to vote for someone else in November.

Young voters and nonwhite voters also tend to be irregular voters — unlike the older, highly engaged Democrats who have been dutifully voting in much larger numbers for Biden during the primaries.

🚨 Ultimately, both Trump and Biden have bigger problems

Polls show that a small but significant number of Republicans could turn against Trump if he’s convicted of a serious crime. Other surveys show that Biden, 81, is trailing Trump in key battleground states — in large part because 70% of independent voters think he’s too old to serve another term. These will be bigger issues in November than the primary protest vote.

⚖️ Yet the protest vote could tip the scales if everything else is very, very close

In a polarized age, it takes only a few thousand votes in a state like Michigan, Georgia or Wisconsin to tip a presidential election one way or the other. If bona fide Biden voters who are incensed about Gaza stay home, or support a third-party candidate, or flip to Trump, it could make a difference in a razor-thin contest. And the same goes for true Trump voters who do the reverse. Just don’t expect a big swing in either direction.