Life

These voters switched political parties for 2020

Brandon Straka (left), a former liberal and the founder of #WalkAway Campaign and David Weissman (right), ex-Trumper-turned-Biden supporter.
Courtesy: Brandon Straka and David Weissman

In a political climate where Americans are more divided than ever and their beliefs are more deeply entrenched, people can still make dramatic mindset shifts. CNBC Make It spoke to two people who have switched parties since the 2016 election and are voting differently in 2020.

David Weissman, 40, and Brandon Straka, 43, are at opposite ends of the political spectrum — Weissman is a Democrat and Straka is a Republican. But just a few years ago, Weissman was a self-described "Trump troll" and Straka was a tried and true liberal.

"I was angry, sometimes hateful," says Weissman, an army vet living in Florida, who until the current election, had voted Republican his entire life. In this election, he plans to vote for the Democrats. Weissman has been sharing his journey on social media to the more than 220,000 followers he's accumulated on Twitter.

Straka, a hairstylist and aspiring actor from New York City, says he was distraught when President Donald Trump was elected in 2016. But this year he plans to vote for Trump. Straka, who now has more than 630,000 Twitter followers, started the #WalkAway Campaign, foundation and Super PAC to support others leaving the Democratic party.

To make the switch, both say they took the time to listen and understand the other side. And though it wasn't easy and there was backlash from former friends and loved ones, both say opening their minds to different points of views also gave them purpose and changed their lives for the better.

From 'angry' Trumper to future social worker: 'I learned to have empathy'

David Weissman in 2016 as Trump/Pence supporter (left) and in 2020 as a Biden/Harris supporter (right)
Courtesy: David Weissman

David Weissman says he used to be a MAGA-hat-wearing "Trump troll." He espoused typically conservative views — he was pro-guns, in favor of building a border wall and pro-life (the last of which he still is to a degree). Weissman, who is Jewish, also saw Trump as a friend of Israel.

"I believed Trump spoke for us and was blunt enough to get things done," Weissman says.

Weissman, who is originally from New York, served 13 years in the army and is a divorced father of three. "I used to be 'that guy.' I always voted Republican. I watched Fox News. I read clickbait articles on Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton," Weissman wrote in an op-ed in June 2018.

Looking back, Weissman realizes that amid the 2016 election, he often overlooked Trump's failures and focused solely on his accomplishments, while doing the opposite for Hillary Clinton. He says he was part of the "Lock her up" chorus.

After Trump was elected, Weissman joined MAGA groups on Twitter that would "mob" anyone who had opposing views.

But Twitter also provided a turning point.

In 2018, Weissman was tweeting at comedian Sarah Silverman, accusing her of caring more about illegal immigrants than about American veterans. To his surprise, Silverman responded respectfully to him.

It created an opening, and he and Silverman started a dialogue over the next few months. Weissman says Silverman engaged him without insults and helped to debunk the stereotypes he believed about liberals. They discussed issues like gun reform, DACA, White privilege and abortion.

"My world view began to change when I learned about White privilege and police brutality," Weissman says.

He says he also learned that many Democrats just want common sense gun laws in the effort to reduce gun violence, and while he personally doesn't believe in abortion, he came to understand the idea that it's a woman's choice. And he was surprised to learn that some DACA recipients were veterans, too.

Soon, Weissman says, he saw Trump's tweets as divisive and a form of bullying. And Weissman himself began to experience backlash from MAGA supporters on social media for engaging with Silverman and others with liberal beliefs.

In June 2018, Weissman left the Republican party. First, Weissman became an Independent, and later, a Democrat.

But his new beliefs did more than change who he voted for.

"When I was on the Right, it was always about what I wanted for myself [and] for my kids," Weissman says. But being a Democrat is more about helping others, he says.

Weissman says the awakening has made him less angry and hateful, because he has replaced those emotions with empathy. As a Trump supporter, Weissman says he didn't really have a purpose path or a career after serving in the military. But as he has become more empathetic, he has learned to use his privilege to help others and has become active in his community. He even participated in a women's march last year.

After years of getting by on odd jobs, Weissman also decided to go back to school to study social work. He is currently in his second year at Eastern Florida State College, and plans to help veterans after he graduates.

Weissman looks different, too. After letting go of his anger, he started living a healthier lifestyle and has lost 40 pounds, he says.

But the journey hasn't been easy. "It wasn't easy at all. I had some ups and downs," he says.

Weissman, who has been sharing his journey on social media says some have accused of him being paid by the Left, which he says is not true, and others have attacked his military service.

"I once had to show my voting records, because I had trolls say, 'Oh, he's a liberal plant.' [They] attack me personally and my kids," Weissman says.

But Weissman has a good support system of new friends who help him deal with such attacks, and he has learned to not let it bother him.

When asked if Silverman didn't respond to him back to 2018, if he would still be a Republican today, "I honestly don't know," he says.

The transformation of a 'lifelong liberal': 'I feel more successful'

Brandon Straka, founder of #WalkAway Campaign, wearing a "Make America Great Again" t-shirt.
Courtesy: Brandon Straka

In 2016, Brandon Straka desperately wanted to vote into office the first woman president. He believed Hillary Clinton would be an extension of the Obama legacy (Straka voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012). At the time, Straka, who is gay, says he gave a lot of credit to Obama for advancing civil rights and gay rights.

Straka was also put off by many of Trumps ideas, like building a border wall. "I remember getting this pit in my stomach thinking that was the most racist thing I'd ever heard," Straka says.

When Trump was elected, Straka says he was so upset he called out of work and posted Facebook Live videos of himself crying. He couldn't understand why people would vote for someone like Trump — so he decided to ask the president's supporters questions on Facebook.

"I just need to understand, because maybe it's better to just face the truth and just start asking people like, 'Do you hate gay people? Do you hate black people?'" Straka says. 

But Straka, who is originally from Nebraska, says that most of the Trump supporters he knew were drawn to him for "policy driven reasons," like being tough on immigration and his stance on things like tax cuts and bringing jobs back to the U.S.

"[I] wasn't even aware that he had any practical policy ideas," says Straka, who says the "liberal media" never covered the substance of Trump's campaign.

As the years passed, Straka's frustration grew. A tipping point came when MSNBC's Rachel Maddow tweeted that she had Trump's tax returns.

"I said to myself, 'OK, if she really has the smoking gun against Trump, I'll forget about all the negative feelings I have about the liberal media and Democratic Party," Straka told the New York Post in 2019.

But when Maddow produced only a copy of Trump's 1040 forms from 2005, Straka says he threw his remote at his TV and decided he was done. (To be fair, before the show aired, Maddow did tweet that what she had was Trump's 2005 1040 form.)

From there, Straka researched Trump and Republican ideals and liked what he found. For instance, he says he used to believe pro-life Republicans wanted to control women's bodies, but learned that many "conservatives have a desire to protect life, which has no voice and has no ability to protect itself, which is actually an incredibly compassionate and beautiful thing."

On May 26, 2018, Straka officially walked away from the Democrat party publicly and posted a video on YouTube of why he decided to leave, saying things like the Left is "un-American," "inflexible" and has "fascistic behavior and rhetoric." The video has now been watched more than 854,000 times.

Three months after posting his viral video, Straka quit his day job to launch the #WalkAway Campaign, which now has more than 500,000 followers on Facebook.

"I literally lost more than 90% of my friends" as a result, Straka says, especially in the LGBTQ community. (When asked how he reconciles the Trump administration's views on gay rights, such as the recent rollback healthcare protections for transgender people, Straka says that decision was finalized through the courts and was initiated before Trump even took office, and says, "I'm a gay man. I have lost no rights over the last four years.... I'm not in danger of losing any rights.")

Straka has also been accused of being a paid actor for the Right, and his campaign has been called an AstroTurf movement. And in 2018, his #WalkAway hashtag was connected to Kremlin-linked Russian bots on Twitter, according to CNN. Straka denies all of this.

Still, Straka says he now feels "more confident in myself and in my work" than ever before. He now travels the country doing paid speaking events and says he has team of 10 full-time employees for his #WalkAway Campaign.

"I am a gay man who, on my own, without any help, without any political contacts, any money, created a successful political movement on a side of the fence where it's claimed I'm not even welcome," Straka says.

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