What It's REALLY Like To Switch Political Parties

Photo: Courtesy of Cassandra McDonald.
If you had to describe the current political climate in America, what word would you choose: volatile, toxic, or divisive? Perhaps all of the above.

This election cycle — filled with mudslinging and finger-pointing — has left many Americans feeling like the country is more divided than ever before. And they might be right.

According to polling from the Pew Research Center, more than 4 in 10 Democrats and Republicans say the other party's policies are so misguided that they pose a threat to the nation. "More than half of Democrats (55%) say the Republican Party makes them 'afraid,' while 49% of Republicans say the same about the Democratic Party," according to Pew.

In such a divided environment, it might be hard to imagine someone crossing the partisan line to switch parties. In a political system that views the opposition as "dangerous," how do you shift your allegiance without appearing to have committed high treason? Or is it unavoidable?
We wanted to know exactly what it was like to run for office after changing parties. So we spoke to Cassandra McDonald, a candidate for state representative in Ohio. The 45-year-old native of the Buckeye State started her political career by engaging in community activism — as a Democrat. But now, she's running for office in western Ohio's 8th District as a member of the GOP.

In an interview over the phone, McDonald detailed her reasons for switching parties, her viewpoint on where there's common ground between Democrats and Republicans, and whether she plans to support the Republican nominee for president, Donald J. Trump.

What initially attracted you to the Democratic Party?
"I think, pretty much, it was tradition. It wasn’t like I did research on it or anything like that. It’s just, growing up, as an African-American female, I was raised as a Democrat.

"The funny thing is my mom didn’t really participate in elections and things like that. But I was always a person who was attuned to what was going on with society. And again, everybody voted Democrat. So I said, 'Oh, I’m going to vote Democrat.'"

When did you first start to question whether the Democratic Party was right for you?
"I just pretty much started looking at the things that I wanted to see happen — and I started comparing them to what was happening. I looked at the philosophy behind things. I looked at the value structure behind the Democratic Party. Then I started to look at the Republican Party, and I started to do the same thing.

"And I found a lot of my values pretty much mirrored the Republican Party in the sense that — I feel that everyone has an opportunity. Pretty much, in this world, only the strong survive. There are opportunities. They may not be getting there the way you thought you should get there, but I think everyone can make their way in this world regardless of their circumstances. And I consider myself a prime example of circumstances."

How did you make the switch?
"I was at the Board of Elections and I had the Democratic petitions in my hand to run as a Democratic candidate. But I just didn’t feel right. I said, 'You know what — I’m really thinking about the Republican Party.' I was also thinking about being an Independent, because my thinking is so different from both parties. When it comes to the principles, I’m definitely more Republican. But I’m very liberal, in a sense.

"I’m at the Board of Elections turning in my petition, and I’m just not feeling good in my gut. I don’t want to do this. And I [thought], I don’t have enough time to run out and collect more for another party.

"So I get a phone call, and it’s someone who ran for a mayoral seat in the city of Cleveland. She’s very well-known, and also an African-American woman. And she said, 'You’re a Republican.' She [said], 'I heard a lot about you, and you have to run on the Republican ticket, and I will help you.' So I had two days to collect signatures for that petition. I decided, I’m going to go for it.

"We also need the representation on the Republican side, as far as African-American issues. Because I think that what’s lacking in the Republican Party. So I wanted to bring a fresh ambiance, for them understanding, not just what it means to be African-American, but to be a person who — yeah, many of the things they think we need to make changes to, I’ve experienced it. To me, it gave an opportunity for people to look at the Republican Party differently."

People automatically assume that because I’m a Republican and Donald Trump is the nominee, then that means I must endorse him and I must vote for him, as well. And that’s totally not true.

What’s the number-one thing you wish you'd known before you switched parties?
"Okay, and you gotta forgive me, but I’m kinda frank. There is still too much racial tension in the Republican Party. We’re still trying to make waves, and even in some [people's] views, I’m going against the grain. Some people in the Republican Party don’t like that. But, if we’re going to progress, and this is going to be a progressive type of movement with this election, then somebody has to do it."

The general public can be fairly shocked when a woman of color is a Republican. Can you talk a bit about the reactions you’ve received from constituents who are people of color?
"I’ve had people gasp, like, 'Oh my God! You did not do that!' I’ve had people just say, 'Why would you do that?' and you know, I go and explain. But also, tell me why I shouldn’t. Tell me why I shouldn’t. Because my thing is, what’s going on now, in all honesty — it doesn’t boil down to which side of the fence you’re on, but what type of a person you are, and what are you taking to the office with you.

"I get people telling me, 'I can’t vote for you because you’re a Republican.' But you liked everything that I said — you loved everything I stood for. But because there’s an 'R' there, you don’t want me to help you."

People change their minds about everything — majors in college, celebrities, music, food. So, why is it such a big deal to change political parties?
"Changing political parties, or anything for that matter, is an element of introspection, and in some cases, growth. For instance, we may change majors because what we saw as an education that would provide good earning potential proved to be very wrong considering your demographics. Not what you were looking for long-term.

"I think that what makes it a big deal of switching parties is, one, it shows that a person is not only willing to take risk, but also do what they feel right or best. Two, it allows for freedom of individual choice and commitment to their own personal morals and values. And three, that it can be just as much a strategy for the overall benefit of society as a whole.

"A person who demonstrates an ability to form a relationship with their colleagues in both parties. This is essential to be effective as a leader. It's not new, just taboo to discuss."

A lot of Americans feel like there’s a huge divide between Democrats and Republicans. As someone who’s been on both sides — where do you see common ground?
"I think the common ground right now is education. Besides education, it’s where we stand on addictions and mental health."

There is still too much racial tension in the Republican Party. We’re still trying to make waves, and even in some [people's] views, I’m going against the grain.

You’re running for office. Do you feel like people assume negative things about you due to things the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, has said or done?
"Definitely. That’s one of my hardest issues right there because the image that Donald Trump is bringing — and people automatically assume that because I’m a Republican and Donald Trump is the nominee, then that means I must endorse him and I must vote for him, as well. And that’s totally not true.

"One thing that I’ve always done is stayed committed to my constituents and my values. And as it stands, I have not endorsed Trump, and right now, I don’t plan on voting for Trump.

"So, that’s a principle I would give to anybody interested in getting into politics. At the end of the day, you have to think about how you will feel with what you did and not so much based on how other people are going to perceive your decisions. "
What advice would you give to someone who isn't sure their political party is right for them?
"Before you look at the party, assess yourself. Then look at laws that have been passed, look at what they’re currently working on. And, it may sound funny, but there’s a ton of surveys and quizzes — test it out and see.

"When you have the opportunity to listen to debates or listen to a forum where a candidate is speaking, go listen to it and see where you line up."
What advice do you have to young women who are considering politics, but weary of the divisiveness?
"My biggest advice would be, if you want to effect change, don’t always start with trying to do something monumental. If you can change a situation that is going on [on] your street, or your classroom, or your work, then do it. Politics [are] everywhere. If you can make an impact, those smaller places first — start there."
This interview has been edited and condensed.