Politically Persuadable But Focused on Jobs?

Part 1 of our series on understanding Hispanic voters

purple principle episode artwork with headshots of podcast guests carlos curbelo, dr. sharon navarro, and dr. henry cisneros

Is a large and growing segment of Hispanic American voters leaning independent, as in less securely tied to either of the two major parties? 

That’s the operative question in this first episode on Hispanic swing voters, featuring three noted experts: former Florida Congressman Carlos Curbelo, UT San Antonio political scientist Dr. Sharon Navarro, and former four-term San Antonio Mayor and Clinton Cabinet member, Dr. Henry Cisneros. 

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Curbelo notes the growing diversity of Hispanic voters, even within the south Florida district he represented. He goes on to explain that the recent and, to many, surprising shift of Latinos toward the Republican Party may be a result of discomfort with far left rhetoric among families who have emigrated from socialist dictatorships such as Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba. 

Dr. Sharon Navarro observes many Hispanic voters may be registered to a political party yet remain “persuadable” by candidates speaking to concerns from the opposing side. She notes, for example, that the federal government’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is a major employer in the South Texas region. As a result, calls from the far left to completely shut down the border patrol may have persuaded some Texas Hispanics to vote GOP despite the extreme white nationalist rhetoric on the far right. 

“Politics is a marketplace of ideas,” notes Dr. Henry Cisneros, one of the nation’s first Hispanic mayors who governed as a pragmatic centrist. “Progressives, people to the left, Democrats generally would do well to try to put yourself in other people’s shoes who are striving to create a better life for their families, who want the best possible education for their children in basic ways and in traditional ways, with respect to views about the country and patriotism.” 

Our nation’s fastest growing ethnic group may be our least predictable voting bloc again in the 2022 elections and beyond. Tune in for a better understanding of the diverse backgrounds, priorities and viewpoints characterizing Hispanic American swing voters.

Original music by Ryan Adair Rooney.


Carlos Curbelo

So, jobs, the economy and education, you know, if you’re not talking about that with Latino voters, you’re, you’re losing.

Robert Pease (host) 

Carlos Curbelo knows a thing or two about winning Latino voters. He’s a former two-term moderate Republican Congressman from one of the last remaining swing districts in the US House, including parts of Miami and the Florida Keys . We’ll be talking Hispanic swing districts and swing voters with Carlos Curbelo and Dr. Sharon Navarro, a political scientist at UT San Antonio.

Dr. Sharon Navarro 

One third of Latinos aren’t born in the United States, which means that there is no party loyalty in- ingrained in them yet. So they are quite persuadable. 

Robert Pease (host) 

And we’ll speak again with Dr. Henry Cisneros, former four-term Mayor of San Antonio and Clinton Cabinet Secretary.

  Dr. Henry Cisneros

So for a lot of reasons, Latinos were sort of saying, ‘well, wait a minute. You know, if this is what I believe, it’s out of sync with my traditional Democratic leaning, I have to at least consider the Republican Party.‘ And I think we’re seeing that. And I expect we’re probably gonna see more of it.

Robert Pease (host) 

I’m Robert Pease and this is The Purple Principle, a podcast about the perils of polarization in this perilously polarizing primary season. There was so much in the news about the unexpected shift of some Hispanic voters in the 2020 election:

[Archival clip – 2020 news clip about Hispanic voter shift]

Robert Pease (host) 

And it’s being reported again in this 2022 mid-term election: 

[Archival – 2022 news report about Hispanic voter polling]

Robert Pease (host) 

A lot of factors to weigh with regard to Hispanic voters, including country of origin or descent. Sure, there’s common language and cultural factors at work. But Mexico is clearly not Venezuela, which in turn is not Argentina, which is very much not at all Cuba when it comes to political culture, exposure and the effect on recent American immigrants from those nations. 

Let’s start off with Carlos Curbelo, himself a second generation Cuban American, with regard to changes in that South Florida community which echo similar trends from around the nation.

[Enter Interview]

Carlos Curbelo

So for a long time, Cuban Americans had started distributing more normally on the political curve. So, if you go back to the eighties and nineties, Cuban Americans were very reliable Republican voters. Some people believe George W. Bush got as much as 80% of the Cuban American vote in the 2000 election. And then, very high numbers again in 2004. But yeah, after that, younger Cuban Americans started skewing a little more towards the center and to the left. But, we did see a big snap back in 2020 with the Cuban American community and other Hispanic communities here in South Florida, supporting Donald Trump pretty heavily. And a lot of people attribute that to the Democratic Party’s shift to the left and the prominence of figures like Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, leaders who identify with ‘socialist movements’, which is a bad word here in South Florida for a lot of Latino communities.

Robert Pease (host)

Yeah and that’s understandable, given that context there, so thank you for that. But what about the trend with younger Latinos there, who are maybe becoming more active voters as they get older?

Carlos Curbelo

It really does look, for now, that Republicans are gaining a lot. Regrettably, our politics have become a massive culture war here in recent years. And, it certainly does seem that a lot of Hispanic families, especially Latino men, are rejecting the progressivism that some on the left are aggressively trying to introduce into our culture. So it’s about issues. And certainly, you can understand how a lot of Hispanics, you know, more recent immigrants, really value the opportunity to work during the pandemic. I found that a lot of immigrant families were frustrated with the lockdowns, unable to send their children to school, unable to get ahead at their jobs. So, there is certainly an issue advantage for Republicans on some issues. But I’d say more than anything, it’s the culture wars for now that are attracting a lot of Latino families to the Republican party.

Robert Pease (host)

Yes, but what about the idea that many Latinos are not comfortable with either major party, if for example they are both pro-life and pro-social justice? Do you have the feeling, in your district and the wider community, that many Hispanics are natural independents? 

Carlos Curbelo

I think that’s right. Obviously there are exceptions, but more recent immigrants don’t have those generational commitments to political parties. So, they’re kind of up for grabs. And certainly Latino immigrants are, you know, in terms of large groups, the most recent immigrants to the United States. I think Latino voters need to be met where they’re at. What do they care about? Obviously, if you’ve come to this country recently in the last 10, 20, 30 years, you probably came here because you wanted to work, you wanted to get a good job so that you could make money for your family and get your kids a good education. 

And I think Republicans have been smart at trying to meet Hispanics where they’re at. Democrats, in more recent years, have tried to meet Hispanics where they would like them to be. So, oh, you’re Hispanic? Well, the number one issue for you must be immigration because, you know, it’s an important issue and it’s a social justice issue, and this is what you need to care about. Well, sure. A lot, I mean I care about immigration, a lot of Latinos do. But, you know, it’s understandable that for probably most Latinos, taking care of their families, making sure they have good jobs, housing education, are probably more important to them than immigration. I’ll give you another example, again, more cultural, but progressives in this country have determined that the Spanish language is insufficient and lacking and actually insensitive. So, we can no longer call people ‘Latinos’ or ‘Latinas’, even though of course, in Spanish, when you say ‘Latino’, it refers to everyone, it is not gender specific. 

But, progressives think that’s wrong, and that, you know, Hispanics or Latinos should refer to themselves as ‘Latinx.’ You know, only 3% of Hispanics in our country identify as Latinx. And most people don’t even know what the hell that is. So, you know, I don’t, I actually don’t give advice to either political party these days, but, if Democrats want some advice on, you know reversing some of these losses they’ve seen recently in Hispanic communities, I’d say be more respectful. Meet people where they’re at. Don’t lecture people. Don’t tell me, you know, what I have to call myself. 

Robert Pease (host) 

That’s a great point. We’d also like to get your comment on a clip from a previous guest, Dr. Geoff Kabaservice. He’s the author of one of the best histories of the modern Republican party, Rule and Ruin. Here’s how explains some of the shift in Hispanic voters just after the 2020 election:

[Lookback audio to Geoff Kabaservice]

Geoff Kabaservice (lookback)

But, you know, the hypothesis certainly is that in, let’s say majority minority, Hispanic districts, like those in South Florida, that tying Democrats to the self-professed socialism of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders was in fact important in moving a lot of voters there, because these are people who either fled from socialist regimes in Central and South America, or they have parents or other relatives who did that. And maybe even the tearing down of statues across the country made them think of the kind of socialist revolutions that they had seen, or at least had heard about.

Robert Pease (host)

Again that’s the historian Geoff Kabaservice. We’re curious if you felt or observed, or discussed that kind of association in your district, or throughout Florida in general, which certainly has been an important swing state in the past and could be again?

Carlos Curbelo

He’s exactly right. Look, people come to this country, from Latin America at least, I can’t tell you about everyone else because I’m not an expert, but I, you know, my family came from Latin America and most of my friends’ families came from Latin America. So I’ll bestow expert status on myself for this. People came to this country, and come to this country, seeking stability, okay? They are coming from places that have witnessed political revolutions, most from the left. They are coming from places where there’s no law and order, where gangs run the streets. I mean, this is the case in Central America for sure. 

So imagine you come here and you’re living in this country and you’ve been here for 10 years and you’ve been able to, you know, rebuild your life. And then someone comes and starts introducing… and look, I’m not, we need to be fair. Okay? No one, AOC, Bernie Sanders, they’re not calling for a socialist dictatorship or anything like that here. But, they express sympathy for these governments. They speak, at least forgivingly, about Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, and the Castros in Cuba, and Ortega in Nicaragua. And then sure, you know, they are introducing some elements of what people fled from. 

[Archival – News clips about Latin American leftist dictators]

Carlos Curbelo

So at that point, you can expect those voters to say, no, no, I don’t care about any issue. I don’t care about who’s being rude or who’s lying. I just need to do whatever I can to prevent what happened in my country from happening here in my new country. 

So if that means electing Donald Trump, who has lied and insulted people and been a bad example for my children and, you know, disrespectful, well, at least he’s against those other people. And, you can diminish that kind of thinking, you can call it ignorant, but, this is the reality for many people. They lost everything in their countries. They are traumatized. They want to be safe. They want to continue having the opportunity to work.

[Exit Interview]

Robert Pease (host) 

We’ve been speaking with the honorable Carlos Curbelo, former two-term centrist congressman from South Florida, and now a political analyst for NBC. One of the trigger points for this episode also came from Florida by way of a great PBS documentary, Latino Vote: Voices from the BattleGround. In that film, the pastor Dr. Gabriel Salguero offered up not the usual red vs blue dichotomy of Hispanic immigrants, but a more purple, independent, and issue-focused perspective:

[Archival – Dr. Gabriel Salgeuro from ‘Latino Vote’]

Robert Pease (host) 

We played that clip for our guest, Dr. Sharon Navarro of UT San Antonio, and asked if her research showed an inclination toward more independents and less loyal partisanship among Latinos in Texas and nationwide.

[Enter interview]

Dr. Sharon Navarro

Over half of Latinos identify as Democrat, and two out of five of Latinos lean independent within the Democratic party. With respect to the Republican party, three in five Republicans lean independent. So there is that sector of the Latino population that is persuadable, given the right candidate and the right political positions. If we look at the younger generation of Latinos, one third of Latinos aren’t born in the United States, which means that there is no party loyalty ingrained in them yet. So they are persuadable. 

I would not say that they are homeless. Studies show that the independent voters within the respective parties will tend to back that respective party, but if they are persuaded by the candidates, they will cross party lines. In studies that I have done, even at the local level, if there is a co-ethnic candidate, meaning a candidate that has the same descriptors, meaning phenotype, speaks Spanish, has a Spanish name, within that same party, they will still cross party lines and vote for the candidate that speaks to their issues, regardless of if this candidate looks like them.

Robert Pease (host)

So traditionally, I hope it’s fair to say there were some notable centrist Hispanic candidates on the national stage. Now we have the runoff with Henry Cuellar who is, I think the last perhaps, pro-life Democrat in the congressional delegation. But recently, not so much. So, is there, in your view, any Hispanic candidate out there now that maybe aren’t so well known, maybe at the local level, who are a little more centrist, or less predictably partisan?

Dr. Sharon Navarro

I think the Republican party has done a great job at mobilizing and recruiting at the local level, even at school board elections, and you can see the same effect occurring with Democratic parties. So even at the most basic levels, you can see party politics and partisanship run into the mix. So it’s hard to find a centrist person when you are constantly bombarded by hype- partisan politics.

Robert Pease (host)

Yeah. Now it seems a little bit ironic, if not counterintuitive, that at the same time that some segment of Hispanic voters are clearly moving Republican, there are still Republicans fear mongering about losing the majority to Hispanic voters, such as your Lieutenant Governor. So, has anyone in the Republican party pointed out that contradiction, that you know of?

Dr. Sharon Navarro

No. I think there is this sense of loss of control, and whatever you can do to maintain it and control it is what has to be done.

Robert Pease (host)

Well, if you don’t mind, let’s pivot a bit and discuss the diversity of Hispanic viewpoints. And maybe that’s been with us all along, and it’s just being discovered now. But it’s the theme of a 2022 Atlantic magazine article by an upcoming guest here, Dr. Geraldo Cadava at Northwestern. But tell us about that diversity, within Southern Texas? 

Dr. Sharon Navarro

Right so, the primary constituency is of Mexican American descent, but you do have smaller pockets of other Central Americans making it across the border. So when we look at the Hispanic voting myth, you have to take into a much more complex view the generational differences, the educational differences, whether or not children are born in Mexico or in Central America or they’re born here. You also have to look at migration patterns, first immigration, generation versus second and third, the farther away you are in generations, the less likely you are to see issues like immigration important. So, understanding the Hispanic vote is complex, and there are a lot of cultural nuances that candidates have to take into view when they try to mobilize the base and bring them out.

Robert Pease (host)

And that kind of reminds us of a Politico article. Maybe you saw a headline soon after the primaries, ‘Hispanic Women Emerge as Big Winners in Texas GOP primary.’ And I think as many as eight Latinos, including six women could be Republican nominees. So, was it a surprise to you that that many Hispanic candidates would do that well?

Dr. Sharon Navarro

No. The Republican party has for years been closing the gap between Latino and Democratic voters. So when you look at the offices that they’re placing, simple locations of offices, they’re now being located in heavily Latino districts, which you hadn’t seen before. You didn’t see that a decade ago. You don’t see that from the Democratic party.

Robert Pease (host)

So, to some extent, for these candidates to embrace the Republican party, they have to filter out a lot of extreme rhetoric on the far right wing, you know, a lot of, kind of White-supremacist-like rhetoric. Do you find that people in South Texas kind of ignore national politics and focus more on local issues, and kind of filter out that extreme polarization?

Dr. Sharon Navarro

Yes, we saw that take place with Donald Trump. Latinos were aware of his immigration stance, the way he portrayed immigrants or some Hispanics, but they understood the economic side of the Republican party. They were hurting from the COVID pandemic shutdowns. And when you talk about Latinos in South Texas Rio Grande Valley, along the Texas Mexico border, the federal government is one of the largest recruiters in that area. A lot of Latinos are employed by border patrol, customs agents. And so when you hear the opposite political party talk about abolishing border patrol, you’re talking about their livelihoods. Inevitably, Latinos have a husband, a brother, an uncle, a grandson that is employed in law enforcement. And to them, that is an everyday reality. So the Republican party, aside from all their extreme rhetoric, talks about the bread and butter issues that matter more to Latinos, and they’re able to filter through those types of discussions.

[Exit interview]

Robert Pease (host) 

Bread and butter issues. At a time of high inflation, a war in Europe, and continuing COVID concerns, those bread and butter issues remain crucial to capturing swing voters nationwide, Hispanics among them.  

Dr. Henry Cisneros has been a major player and insightful observer of politics for decades. I asked him the same questions, about the natural independence of Hispanic voters in the current election cycle. And also whether economic concerns are now threatening their traditional ties to the Democratic Party? 

[Enter interview]

Dr. Henry Cisneros

Well, traditionally in Texas, up to about 75 to 80% of Hispanics have thought of themselves as Democrats. And principally, it has been driven by the aspirational dimension of Latino politics, which is, people want to advance. And Democrats have been the party that have been supportive of improvements in education, bilingual education, scholarships and financing for education, job training, the opportunity to create affirmative action type programs that open the door within the workplace, small business programs, and a range of things that are on this aspirational track. This ladder, if you will, of upward mobility. Republicans in many instances have opposed those things, and therefore Latinos have traditionally gravitated to the Democratic party. We have seen it begin to break down, and I suspect it will break down even further. In the last election, some of the poorest areas of Texas, which had been the bluest areas of Texas, were actually carried by President Trump in this last election.

And the question is, well, why? Well, in part, many of them are evangelical, and that puts them in a certain place with respect to the right to life versus choice questions. Also, they live in rural areas and they use guns, and they were really nervous about the Democratic positions, which seem to be, take away people’s guns. We know that’s not the case, but that’s the way they were pitched and pursued. They are also people who run small businesses, and are worried about the impact of regulation on small businesses. The Republicans have made a point of being the party of business.

Now, politics is a marketplace of ideas. And, when Democrats can figure out that things that might work from a left point-of-view in New York don’t work in rural Texas, then they will make, you know, accommodations on the spectrum of ideas that bring Latinos back. But if they don’t, then they do risk losing some major portions of the population. 

So there’s a lot of issues in play and a lot of things that Democrats ought to be aware of, and not take this population for granted, and begin to fashion the kind of, more centrist posture that can hold onto this population, even as we’re focusing on the traditional things that have won Latinos. And that is a recognition that we ought start with pre-K education and move right through the schools, and develop the training and create the business opportunities, and the contracting choices, et cetera, that make it possible for Latinos, poor Latinos, to aspire to the middle class. That’s always been the way we’ve distinguished ourselves, and the way we can going forward.

Robert Pease (host)

Yeah, it’s interesting you mentioned more centrist candidates. I’m not sure we’ve seen that in primaries so far in the recent Texas primary…

Dr. Henry Cisneros

We have a primary right now in Texas that captures it, and that is the pain between the incumbent Henry Cuellar, and his opponent, a woman who shares my last name, no relation, named Jessica Cisneros. And she has the endorsement of AOC and the traditional Democratic left. And he has been a major, center-to- slightly-right ally of Nancy Pelosi on key votes needed in the Congress. And they’re in a runoff, they came within a few thousand votes of each other in the primary. So there’s a classic kind of choice and indication of where the Latino community, in the Democratic primary at least, will be.

Robert Pease (host)

Yeah, that is certainly an interesting race. We’ve had a couple of guests speak to this kind of polarity that exists between rhetoric on the far left and on the far right. And the problem of far left rhetoric, possibly alienating swing voters, like many Hispanics.

Dr. Henry Cisneros

I do think that, frequently we pursue some idea that’s emerged from some academic or other place, that assumes that everyone automatically has to adopt it because that defines whether we’re left of center or not. And it, the world really doesn’t work that way.

So, I think that progressives, people to the left, Democrats, generally, would do well to try to put themselves in other people’s shoes who are striving to create a better life for their families. Who want the best possible education for their children in basic ways, and in traditional ways, with respect to views about the country and patriotism, for example. And who want to create the best working environment possible, and make an income, and buy a home. And that’s still where the majority of America is. And if we can relate to those realities as a party, then we have something to say to people. But pursuing the latest cliché, the latest fashionable, arguments, that probably isn’t how you build a consensus, a broad based party.

[Exit interview]

Robert Pease (host) 

Dr. Henry Cisneros there. Former four-term mayor of San Antonio, and  former President of Univision, the largest spanish-language media company in the US. He’s echoing a point made earlier by Carlos Curbelo in Miami, and Dr. Sharon Navarro of UT San Antonio, about the importance of plain old bread and butter issues to so many Hispanic American voters and families in the current economy. That’s important to bear in mind throughout this 2022 election cycle. House and Senate leadership are at stake and these more independent, persuadable Hispanic voters will definitely be a factor in that outcome, and for many elections to come.

We will have another episode coming up soon in this series on Hispanic Swing Voters. And that will feature Northwestern University historian, and frequent Atlantic contributor, Geraldo Cadava. One of his Atlantic articles is entitled, “There’s No Such Thing as the Latino Vote.” And subtitled, “Why Can’t America See that?”

[Look ahead audio clip of Dr. Geraldo Cadava]

Geraldo Cadava (look ahead)

And so I think what needs to happen is just a fundamental rethinking of how parties and campaigns approach Latinos and talk to Latinos in a way that really takes seriously their political positions and what they say they believe about any number of issues from ownership, to immigration, to jobs, to education.

Robert Pease (host) 

Also coming up in our series on state level polarization, we’ll speak with three experts on Georgia Politics. Very purple, tightly contested elections. Yet still polarized along racial lines and the urban-rural divide. We’ll speak with Ken Lawler of Fair Districts GA:

[Look ahead audio clip of Ken Lawler]

Ken Lawler (look ahead)

And one of the trends that we see in Georgia from this last map and go around in all three maps, congressional, State House, State Senate, is we’ve lost competitiveness. We have almost no competitive districts where we should have some, right? 

Robert Pease (host) 

Dr. Adrienne Jones of Morehouse College:

[Look ahead audio clip of Dr. Adrienne Jones]

Dr. Adrienne Jones (lookahead) 

And I also think, you know, having these high stakes races at the top of the ballot is important, right? Because it brings people out, gets them interested. But I still think that as Americans, we have a lot more work to do, in terms of learning our down-ballot races, like who is running for judge? Who is running for public service commissioner? Who is running for some of these offices that have a large impact on people’s everyday lives?

Robert Pease (host)

And Dr. Charles Bullock from the  University of Georgia: 

[Look ahead audio clip of Dr. Charles Bullock]

Dr. Charles Bullock (lookahead)

Brad Raffensperger, the incumbent Secretary of State, has been cussed By Trump just as Brian Kemp has. And again, Trump incorrectly challenges or charges Raffensperger with not maintaining safe elections, allowing the election to be stolen. So he’s now paying the price for this. And that Trump has endorsed Jody Hice, who’s currently a member of Congress, has endorsed Hice to take on Raffensperger. So that’s gonna be another hot contest here.

Robert Pease (host)

Please join us on both of these important topics. No state has been more pivotal in recent elections than Georgia, and no group has been more pivotal in recent elections than Hispanic swing voters. This is Robert Pease for the Purple Principle team. We’d appreciate it if you could share us with a friend or a colleague, connect via social media, and support us on Apple Subscriptions or Patreon. Original music composed and created by Ryan Adair Rooney. The Purple Principle is a Fluent Knowledge production.

The Hon. Carlos Curbelo: Twitter page, Unite America, University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute

Check out Carlos as a regular contributor to Telemundo, NBC News, MSNBC and NBC 6

Dr. Sharon Navarro, Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and editor of Latinas in American Politics: Changing and Embracing Political Tradition. Dr. Navarro’s faculty page, Twitter, website

Dr. Henry Cisneros, former four-term Mayor of San Antonio, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and former President of Univision. Currently a board member of the Bipartisan Policy Center. Dr. Cisneros on Twitter.

Introducing the 2021 Cook Political Report Partisan Voter Index (Cook Political Report with Amy Walter)

Facts on Latinos in the U.S. (Pew Research)

Geoff Kabaservice – Niskanen Center

Rule and Ruin by Geoffrey Kabaservice

‘He is not going to be the nominee’: Dems slam Sanders over Maduro stance (Politico)

Latino Vote: Voices from the Battleground 

Hispanic Americans’ Party ID: Updated Analysis (Gallup) 

Have Latinos Really Moved Toward The Republican Party? (FiveThirtyEight)

These House Democrats oppose abortion rights; not all of them may keep their seats after 2020 (CNN)

Dan Patrick’s Long History of Toxic Immigrant-Bashing (Texas Observer)

There’s No Such Thing as ‘the Latino Vote’ (The Atlantic)

Hispanic women emerge as big winners in Texas GOP primary (Politico)

In the Rio Grande Valley, the Border Patrol Is the ‘Go-To Job’ (New York Times)

Texas presidential results, 2020 (Politico)

The Supreme Court draft ruling puts Henry Cuellar in hot seat over abortion votes ahead of runoff election (Texas Tribune)

Dr. Geraldo Cadava – Northwestern University

Latino Voters Are Key to 2024, and They’re Not Always Buying What Democrats Are Selling (New York Times)

Fair Districts GA

Dr. Adrienne Jones – Morehouse College

Dr. Charles Bullock III – University of Georgia

The New Politics of the Old South, 7th edition