The Hispanic vote represented a mere 9 percent of all ballots cast in the 2008 presidential election, but the peculiarities of the United States electoral system makes the presence of those votes in certain states crucial for the national result.

While President Barack Obama, who in 2008 won 67 percent of Hispanic votes, and hopefuls for the Republican presidential nomination calculate their chances with this bloc, Hispanic voters might feel they are little more than pawns in a much larger game.

Since a presidential election in the United States is decided in an Electoral College to which the states send delegations proportional to their population, the presence of Hispanics in some of them makes their vote crucial.

In New Mexico, for example, the Hispanic vote rose from 32 percent of the total in 2004 to 41 percent in 2008, in Texas it remained at 20 percent, in Arizona it went from 12 percent to 16 percent, and in Nevada from 10 percent to 15 percent.

In Florida the Hispanic vote is around 15 percent of the total.

But Hispanics are a diverse segment and politicians chasing their votes know that the same approach won't work with Cuban-Americans in Florida, Puerto Ricans in New York and New Jersey, Mexican-Americans in California and the Southwest, and many other immigrants of Latin American origin in Illinois and Virginia.

According to the 2010 Census, the population that identifies itself as "Hispanic" or "Latino" grew by 43 percent over the previous 10 years, a figure that dwarfs the 9.7 percent growth of the population as a whole.

Representation in the lower house of Congress is done in proportion to state populations distributed in districts whose limits are readjusted according to Census figures.

Drawing the lines has not yet been completed for the 2012 elections, but there are at least 118 existing districts where more than a fifth of the population is Hispanic, compared with 28 districts in the redistricting that followed the 2000 Census.

Out of the 118 districts where the Hispanic vote carries the most weight, more than 90 are in California, Texas, Florida and New York, the states with the most electoral votes.

According to surveys, Hispanics continue to favor Democrats in Congress and President Obama, though these politicos by no means have the Hispanic vote nailed down.

Hispanic voters were as battered as the rest of the population by the recession, but their jobless index is over 11 percent compared with 8.6 percent of the general population.

And disappointment has grown among Latinos who have undocumented family members or friends - since Obama came to the White House, nothing has been done to pass a comprehensive reform of immigration law. On the contrary, there are now more deportations than ever.

But if Hispanic voters feel less than enthusiastic about going to the polls and voting for Obama in 2012, they have real reasons to worry about any of the candidates currently in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

The only one who apparently gives a thought to the question of what to do about the 12 million undocumented immigrants already in the country, some of them for decades, is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

His proposal: some form of legalization for the undocumented who have a family, have paid their taxes, who are members of a church, good neighbors and business owners, that would allow them to work legally in the United States.

But they could never obtain citizenship - in other words, no danger that they'll ever vote Democratic.

Some analysts have mentioned another possible lure for Republicans fishing for the Hispanic vote - a vice presidential nomination for a Hispanic in the 2012 elections.

Mentioned as possibilities for the nomination are the freshman senator from Florida, Marco Rubio, and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.

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