WASHINGTON – In the 2012 election cycle, one demographic has caught the eye of the Republican presidential candidates, President Barack Obama and the mainstream media — for better and for worse.

Many analysts think Hispanic voters are the key to the outcome of the 2012 presidential election. With a growing population that hit 50.5 million residents in 2010 and accounted for more than half of the U.S. population growth in the first decade of the millennium, Hispanics are expected to be one of the deciding factors in November. They could be especially relevant in battleground states like Nevada and Florida.

However, as the growing importance of Latino voters becomes more apparent, some Republican hopefuls, appealing to the GOP base, have advocated for immigration policies that have turned off many in this constituency.

This strategy, experts say, could lead to the loss of the Latino vote for the Republican Party and more support for Democrat Obama’s reelection.

The numbers

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the Hispanic/Latino population in the U.S. grew by 43 percent from 2000 to 2010. In comparison, the non-Hispanic population increased by only five percent.

“Elected officials really can’t afford to not pay attention to them anymore,” said Elizabeth Garcia, the director of national programs for the League of United Latin American Citizens.

Democracia U.S.A.’s report, National Study of Young Hispanics, found that 500,000 Hispanics reach the voting age of 18 every year. Each political party has the capability to win their votes, Garcia said.

“If we do our job as advocacy groups and register all those eligible Latinos to vote, I really feel that it can be a major force in this election,” she said.

The Issues

Although immigration issues are important to the Hispanic community, Rep. Charles Gonzalez, D-Texas, said Hispanics often base their votes on other issues as well.

In the U.S. Education Department’s report on student enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools during the  2009/2010 school year, 22 percent of students were Hispanic. Gonzalez said the large number of Hispanic students in public schools makes education an important issue, along with health care.

A 2010 Pew Hispanic Center survey confirmed that while immigration was one of the top issues for Hispanics during that year’s congressional elections, the top three issues were education, jobs and health care, respectively.

“You earn the Latino vote by the substance of your legislative agenda,” Gonzalez said.

However, Gonzalez continued, both Republicans and Democrats often fall short in promoting Hispanic interests, either in their campaign speeches or in keeping their promises.

The parties

On this year’s campaign trail, Mitt Romney stated he would veto the DREAM Act, which would give undocumented youth a path to citizenship and the opportunity to attend U.S. colleges. He also said that illegal immigrants should self-deport.

Meanwhile, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum advocates for the construction of more fencing along the border with Mexico.

These strict takes on immigration, Garcia said, can easily alienate Latino voters.

“I feel like a lot of times the anti-immigrant or anti-Latino politicians will quickly throw mud on our community and will group us as a community of undocumented Latinos who aren’t eligible voters,” she said.

In the 2008 election, 67 percent of Hispanics voted for Obama, according to a report compiled by the Pew Hispanic Center. In 2004, President George W. Bush received 40 percent of the Hispanic vote.

Camila Gallardo, a spokesperson for the National Council of La Raza, said this willingness  “to cross party lines” makes the Hispanic community an important voter constituency.

Hispanics also play a larger role in elections because many of the core battleground states, such as Nevada and Colorado, have large Hispanic populations.

Because of the Hispanic community’s potential to dramatically affect the trajectory of elections, Gonzalez said obstacles, such as proposed voter ID laws, are being placed to undermine this potential.

Eight states passed voter ID laws last year, but some of them have been blocked by the Justice Department. These laws include provisions such as requiring all voters to bring a form of state or federally issued ID to the polls.

Many of the states in question have Republican-dominated legislatures, Gonzalez said.

“I keep telling people let’s do away with the charade that this is about voter fraud,” he said. “This is about voter suppression because you believe that the votes are not going to be going your way.”

But many pundits say that the Democratic Party cannot take the Latino vote for granted and assume it will go Obama’s way without any extra work.

For example, Garcia said, many Latinos who value immigration issues were disappointed by the president, who did not pass any comprehensive immigration reform, or the DREAM Act, after promising he would during the 2008  presidential campaign.

“We’re not necessarily any better than we were before Obama in terms of the immigration issue,” Garcia said.

The future

To realize the potential of the Hispanic vote in this year’s election, many grassroots groups are teaming up to increase voter participation.

Latinos for Democracy, a coalition of three Hispanic organizations including the Hispanic Federation, promises that by the end of 2012, the coalition will have registered 200,000 new voters.

The group has created a project called Movimiento Hispano, which has a two-tier mission: to educate Hispanics about voting registration rules and candidates’ platforms, and to register these Hispanics to vote.

Hector E. Sanchez, the executive director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, said mobilizing the Hispanic community is important for its future and to get more Hispanics to the polls.

“Civic participation at a time when Latinos are under attack is the best answer to all those attacks,” Sanchez said. “We need to mobilize Latinos at the highest level now more than ever to make sure that we have a solid representation in the polls, that we have people that are actually going to represent our basic values and issues.”