LOS ANGELES - If you think the Hispandering by political parties desperate to scrounge every bit of the ascendant Latino voting power has peaked, think again: The fast-growing Latino electorate will probably double by 2030.
That means the record numbers of Latinos who cast ballots in this year's presidential race - possibly as high as 12.5 million - are just the leading edge of an electoral boom, according to a report released Wednesday by the Pew Hispanic Center.
Though the country's 53 million Latinos make up 17 percent of the U.S. population, they made up just 10 percent of all voters this year, national exit polls found.
To borrow a boxing metaphor, they still 'punch below their weight,' the report's authors wrote.
But Latinos' share of the electorate will quickly swell because of several reasons, including the fact that they are by far the nation's youngest ethnic group. The Latino median age is 27 years compared with 42 for whites. Many Latinos are simply too young to vote and young people tend to vote less than older adults.
In the coming decades, (Latinos') share of the age-eligible electorate will rise markedly through generational replacement alone, according to Pew Hispanic.
The research center projects that Latinos will account for 40 percent of the growth in electorate between now and 2030, swelling to about 40 million Latinos eligible to cast ballots.
Moreover, if Hispanics' relatively low-voter participation rates and naturalization rates were to increase to levels of other groups, the number of votes that Hispanics actually cast in future elections could double within two decades, the report said.
Although Latinos tend to lag badly behind blacks and whites when it comes to voter turnout, most experts from both parties cite them as a major reason President Barack Obama won re-election last week. Exit polls suggest that upward of 70 percent of Latinos voted for the Democrat incumbent, with only about 27 percent voting for Republican Mitt Romney.
Along with the also fast-growing Asian American vote - which supported Obama by an even higher percentage - and a black electorate that went practically all-in for the president, the Latino voting bloc is believed to have doomed Romney's chances, particularly in key battleground states like Florida, Colorado and Nevada.
Latino leaders have said that the ethnic group's vote is not chiseled in stone and that it is more elastic than the black vote. In 2004, President George W. Bush got as much as 44 percent of the Latino vote. While many of those votes came from Texas, where Bush had been the governor, many experts also credit his more sympathetic attitude on immigration issues for winning Latino votes elsewhere.
In the run-up to this year's election, several Republican leaders, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Republican strategist Karl Rove and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio warned the GOP about taking an overly harsh stance on illegal immigration that could alienate many Latinos.
While Romney ultimately softened his tone on the issue, many Latinos remembered his tougher talk on immigration during the Republican primaries, when he espoused making things so hard on the undocumented that they would self-deport.
Since Romney's defeat, some conservative pundits, including Fox News' Sean Hannity, have endorsed comprehensive immigration reform that provides a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country. They have been joined by evangelical leaders calling on Washington to pass immigration reform.
That could prove a double-edged sword for Republicans. While it may make some Latinos more amenable to voting for a GOP candidate, it could also help create an even larger pool of Latinos who could just as easily vote for a Democrat.
Either way, the Latino vote is going to rapidly grow. About 18 million Latinos are under the age of 18, and about 93 percent of them are American-born, meaning they will automatically become eligible to vote one day.
About 800,000 Latinos turn 18 each year. By 2030, that number will probably grow to 1 million a year, according to Pew Hispanic.
In recent years, the number of illegal immigrants coming to the U.S has dropped dramatically, in large part because the economic recession has created a deficit of jobs, but also because of tougher enforcement at the Mexican border.