The Hispanic activist grew defensive as we discussed Latinos' low turnouts in recent elections. Indeed, the subject popped up with no prompting from me.
"Latinos don't vote?" said Lydia Camarillo, who runs voter registration drives in San Antonio. "Excuse me. TEXAS doesn't vote."
True, Americans don't participate in elections at the high rates seen in other countries. But Latinos are still less likely to show up at the polls than are Americans in general. A new poll from the Pew Hispanic Center suggests that such low turnouts will continue into this year's congressional midterms.
That could prove tragic for Democrats. Some 65 percent of registered Latino voters back their Democratic candidate for Congress, according to the Pew study. Only 22 percent prefer the Republican. But a mere 51 percent of registered Latinos actually plan to vote, compared with 70 percent of all registered Americans.
Hispanics are the group most likely to lack health insurance. Republicans are vowing to repeal the reforms that will soon guarantee them medical coverage. Wouldn't that be worth a trip to the polls on Nov. 2?
Bob Stein, a professor of politics at Rice University in Houston, understands Democratic suffering over this apparent lack of interest in defending that hard-won reform. "I just got you this thing," he said rhetorically. "I bled for you. Don't abandon us."
What's happening, he explains, is that Hispanics are focused on the pocketbook issues, such as jobs and income. But isn't health care about economic security?
Again, Latinos — and many other Americans — have yet to grasp that they have something to lose. After all, those lacking health coverage won't see the key benefits arrive for another 14 months.
This fits into classic voter behavior theory, according to Stein. "What the Republicans understand," he told me, "is that you can talk to people about a benefit that's promised (guaranteed health coverage) and a benefit that's been received (Medicare), and people will come out to protect only what they have."
That the reforms would actually strengthen Medicare's financing, and even add some new benefits, is beside the point. We're talking about perception here, not reality.
It happens that immigration is not the obsession for Hispanics that cable television ringmasters make it out to be. Latinos are all over the map on the issue. In the Pew survey, Latinos ranked immigration fifth on their list of concerns — one rung below the federal budget deficit.
Barack Obama was a big draw for Latino voters in 2008, and he's not running this time. Preserving what he has accomplished should be a motivating factor. Why is it not? This question is directed at everyone who dreads a return to the economic chaos of the George W. Bush era.
Diving into the Pew numbers, one finds other reasons why Latinos might fail to exercise the electoral power they have. As noted, they are overwhelmingly Democratic, and Democrats are generally less enthused this year. (See above paragraph.)
Older registered voters tend to participate in midterm elections at higher rates than their juniors, and Hispanics skew toward younger people. This speaks to Camarillo's claim that, adjusting for demographics, Latino participation in elections is not all that far from the general public's.
Sure enough, the Pew numbers have 62 percent of registered Latinos age 50 to 64 saying that they plan to vote next month. More than half of those 49 and under, meanwhile, intend to stay home.
What applies to apathetic Latino voters should apply to all listless Democrats. You may not be awed by what Obama and his party have done. You will be less pleased by what will happen if Republicans start undoing it.
ABOUT THE WRITER:
Froma Harrop serves on The Providence Journal's editorial board in Rhode Island. Her column appears in more than 200 newspapers and she is a regular guest on many television and radio news analysis programs.