‘This guy has lost his mind since I voted for him’: Can these ex-Trump voters swing it for Biden?

Trump at his hush money trial  (Associated Press)
Trump at his hush money trial (Associated Press)

Conventional political wisdom regarding Donald Trump states that the people who voted for him in 2016 and 2020 aren’t likely to go for any Democrat this time around — especially not Joe Biden.

But a prominent group of anti-Trump Republicans believes those two-time Trump voters are best positioned to convince others in the GOP to vote to re-elect Biden. And they’re ready to spend big to do so.

Earlier this month, a group called Republican Voters Against Trump rolled out what they are describing as a $50 million multi-platform advertising campaign. That campaign is designed both to troll the twice-impeached, four times-indicted ex-president and to genuinely reach out to his most loyal supporters.

One such ad ran earlier this month on two prominent Fox News programmes — Fox & Friends in the morning and Jesse Watters Tonight in the evening — and featured an ex-Trump supporter called “Chuck”.

In the ad, Chuck says he holds Trump “completely, 100 per cent … accountable for the insurrection at the Capitol” and vows to “not ever support or vote for Donald Trump” again.

“I will vote Democrat. I can’t believe I’m saying it, but I will. I will vote for Joe Biden,” he adds.

Such a bold declaration from a former Trump supporter is often met with skepticism from both sides of the American political spectrum.

The Independent showed the 30-second spot with “Chuck” to a former Democratic activist who volunteered on Hillary Clinton’s doomed 2016 campaign. The ex-activist  — who asked not to be identified by name because they no longer work in politics — responded with an animated GIF of the Peanuts character Charlie Brown attempting to kick a football held by his sister Lucy, only to have her pull it away at the last minute. Asked to explain the response, the former Democratic diehard replied that they’d seen all this before: Republicans vowing never to pull a lever for Trump, only to revert to type when in the privacy of the voting booth.

The ex-activist also pointed to post-2016 surveys showing that many poll respondents who expressed support for Clinton did so because it was a socially desirable response when they actually intended to vote for Trump.

A person close to Trump’s campaign also expressed derision at the advertisement, calling it “astroturfed BS from fake Republicans”.

But according to the people behind the RVAT campaign, the testimonials aren’t fake, and everyone involved is as Republican as Abraham Lincoln.

The group is the brainchild of ex-Republican stalwart Sarah Longwell, former head of the LGBT+ Republican group known as the Log Cabin Republicans.

Longwell, a longtime GOP consultant who is known for her branding expertise and focus group work, is at the center of a sprawling universe of “Never Trump” conservatives. In addition to her work with RVAT, she’s involved with Defending Democracy Together — an anti-Trump and pro-democracy umbrella group run by former Weekly Standard founder Bill Kristol — and she’s publisher of the “Never Trump” movement’s unofficial bible, The Bulwark.

But it was her work with RVAT that many experts credit with making the biggest difference in the 2020 election cycle.

According to a study by the Democratic Super PAC Priorities USA, flashy ads from other anti-Trump groups such as the Lincoln Project didn’t end up moving the needle with Republican voters. But RVAT found that their own specific brand of advertising — personal testimonials — was most effective in giving former Trump supporters a way out by making it acceptable for them to even consider pulling the lever for a Democrat.

Gunner Ramer, the group’s current political director, told The Independent in a phone interview that RVAT is going into 2024 with a similar strategy to four years ago.

“What we have found is most persuasive with the center-right voter — who probably has an unfavorable opinion of Donald Trump and Joe Biden — is that hearing from like-minded messengers and seeing them and hearing from them is what gives them the necessary permission structure to say: ‘You know what, I may have voted for McCain and Romney and maybe even Trump in the past, but I can’t get behind this version of Donald Trump,’’” he said.

Ramer described RVAT’s messaging as both “backwards-looking” and “forward-looking” in terms of highlighting both the ex-president’s aberrant behavior from the period between his 2020 election loss and the January 6 2021 riot, and his recent promises to be “a dictator on day one”.

“It’s this idea … terminating the Constitution, this idea of retribution and revenge that swing voters cannot stand. The people who do our testimonials emphasize that’s the main reason that they can’t support him, even though they previously did,” he added.

Ramer also explained that the segment of the electorate RVAT is targeting through its $50m campaign may not be numerically large, but it will make a big difference in shoring up Biden’s support in so-called “blue wall” states — Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

“We are not talking about an overwhelming part of the Republican electorate. They’re not significant in size as much as they are significant in that they are the margin-makers,” he said.

He pointed to the 30 per cent of voters who cast ballots for Nikki Haley during the primary. Perhaps half of them, he believes, are guaranteed to vote for Biden in November, while another half are inclined to vote for Trump. He stressed that a small number of that latter 15 per cent of Republican voters represent “a very real and movable universe” of voters.

“I think that Donald Trump has made it very clear that he doesn’t want people who supported Nikki Haley in the past. And those are the exact kinds of people that we are going to be messaging to,” he said.

The Independent spoke to a pair of voters who have already gotten the message and are now working to spread it by participating in RVAT’s ad campaign.

One of them, an Ohio Republican who is identified in his RVAT testimonial as “Nathan”, told The Independent he grew up in a Republican family and supported then-Buckeye State governor John Kasich during his 2016 primary run against Trump. But Nathan ended up voting for Trump in the presidential election because he was running against Hillary Clinton.

Nathan said he voted for Trump once more in 2020 because of his loyalty to the Republican party. But his attitude towards Trump changed after he watched a mob of the ex-president’s supporters storm the Capitol on the day Congress was set to finally certify the 2020 election.

“I still voted for him because I thought he’d be better than Biden … But it was after January 6 that I kind of forced myself to kind of take a look …I had donated to his campaign and in 2020 I phone-banked for him, I knocked on doors for him. And then for the type of behavior, post-election, especially January 6… I felt betrayed,” he said. “Having done everything I could to try to get him elected, and then his behavior that way, it felt like a betrayal to me. So I cannot go back after that.”

The double Trump voter said he’s still Republican-leaning ideologically, but he is now looking beyond party when he chooses who to vote for.

For example, Nathan — who describes himself as a man who is married to a man — said he will also be voting for a Democrat in Ohio’s pivotal Senate race, choosing incumbent Sherrod Brown over Republican challenger Bernie Moreno because of Moreno’s opposition to same-sex marriage.

“I’m still a Republican. But I’m in Ohio and our Senate candidate right now, Bernie Moreno … wants to overturn gay marriage. So it’s like, well, shoot, I’m not going to vote against my marriage … I’m going to vote for Sherrod Brown too. And then Trump has the people that surround him who are also rather wanting to overturn the Obergefell case [which legalized same-sex marriage in the United States]. So it’s like, I can’t vote for him to be against my interests,” he said.

For another double Trump voter turned Biden supporter, an Oregon resident called Dave, supporting a Democrat means turning his back on a lifetime spent in Republican Party institutions.

Dave told The Independent he’d voted red since the days of Ronald Reagan, even going so far as to serve as an official in his local Republican Party. He was considered so loyal to Trump and the GOP that he was listed as an alternate delegate to the party’s nominating convention four years ago.

“He was our candidate. You vote for the Republican candidate … I thought maybe this kind of person — we need to rattle people’s cages and maybe fix things in Washington. So that was the hope, that we had somebody who was different and could really rework the system in Washington, and it’d be more effective. Unfortunately, that isn’t what happened,” he said.

Dave explained how he had begun to have doubts about Trump even as he was serving as a county-level GOP executive board member, a precinct committee chair, and an RNC alternate delegate, citing the then-president’s opposition to Covid mitigation measures in the midst of a global pandemic.

“In June of ‘20, I started looking at the poll numbers, especially in the swing states. And in an executive board meeting, I said, ‘Guys, unless something changes he’s going to lose in November,” Dave said, before recalling how the response from his colleagues was simply “anger and denial”.

“I can do math. I am a bit analytical. And I said, ‘I just don’t like the numbers.’ I said, ‘I just think he’s going to lose.’ And then I said something that was perceived to be horrible. I said: ‘I don’t like the way he handled Covid … he screwed it up … In my opinion, it’s going to cost him the election.’ And again, boy, I got withering looks,” he said.

Dave still voted for Trump in the end, but just as he predicted, Trump lost.

His colleagues in party leadership didn’t have the same clarity, he said. And on January 6, he had finally had enough as he watched Trump’s mob assault police officers and desecrate the seat of the American legislature in the worst attack on that building since British troops set it ablaze in 1814.

“The fact that [Trump] sat there idly while all of his handlers pleaded with him to do something. And then he was essentially praising them, saying that was a good day, and finally, finally, under duress, telling them to go home … I was disgusted with it,” Dave said. “I looked at my wife, and I said, ‘I’m beginning to think all the things that Democrats said about him are true. You know, that he really is just a very unpleasant person who can’t be trusted at all, on any level.’”

Dave wanted his fellow party leaders to speak out. Some did, to a point.

But then, Kevin McCarthy — the House Minority Leader at the time — went to visit Trump at Mar-a-Lago and posed for a now-infamous photo, single-handedly rehabilitating the disgraced former president.

Dave told his wife he was changing his party registration to Independent: “I said: ‘I don’t even know what this party is anymore.’”

“It’s just a party that has become something that is unrecognizable to me. I hate what’s happened to it …and it’s getting worse. It’s becoming more extreme, not less extreme. And I fear it’s going to become at some point as insignificant as a Whig Party, it’s going to be a footnote on a history book page somewhere,” he added.

The top strategist for RVAT, John Conway, told The Independent that Dave is not alone, and RVAT’s mission is to use the ex-delegate’s testimonial and those of others like him to make other Republicans understand that they’re not alone, either.

Trump’s actions in the wake of his loss — as well as his multiple indictments — have opened up a new range of voters to target this time around, Conway said. Two-time Trump supporters who are fed up and disgusted with the man they voted for in 2016 and 2020 are a growing demographic.

“I think it’s really important to realize that you could have voted for Donald Trump in November of 2020, and then saw January 6, and then see him find himself under four criminal indictments [and that might change your opinion],” Conway added. “What we’ve seen in focus groups, and even with the folks that we’ve been mobilizing, are that there’s a lot of 2020 Trump voters who say: ‘This guy has lost his mind since the last time I voted for him’.”