The rapid growth of the U.S. Hispanic community is perhaps the most important American demographic story of the 21st century. At 15 percent of the U.S. population today, Latinos are now America’s largest “minority” group and will make up 30 percent of the population by 2040.

Not surprisingly, this profound population change is shifting political alignments. Democrats enter the 2012 elections with residual strength in this community, but as history has proved, this allegiance is shallow and can shift.  

George W. Bush’s success with Latino voters was critical to both of his presidential victories. In 2005, however, the national Republican Party repudiated the modern, successful Hispanic strategy of Bush and his chief strategist Karl Rove, and adopted an anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic approach. This shift was instrumental in swinging Hispanics back to the Democrats and increasing their turnout in the 2006 elections.

The 2008 cycle saw a continuation of this dynamic. This swing of Latino votes—as it was for George Bush in 2000 and 2004—was critical in electing Barack Obama to the White House. In six battleground states—Colorado, Florida, Indiana, New Mexico, Nevada and Virginia—increases in Hispanic turnout and a significant vote swing to Democrats helped put these states in the Democratic camp. 

Thus, for any Democratic candidate running in 2012 it is important to understand two basic things about the Hispanic electorate: First, it is a Democrat-leaning swing vote, not a base Democratic vote. And second, the population is growing, changing and moving. It is now a very dynamic part of many communities, an unsettled and very critical part of many districts and one that will need to be better understood and aggressively courted every two years.  

Some keys to effectively reaching and communicating with Hispanic voters in 2012:

Do your research. Given the dynamic nature of Hispanic communities and electorates across the country, it is critical that candidates do their demographic and attitudinal research at the beginning of every cycle. And within the community, generations, gender, date of arrival in this country and socioeconomic status are all fault lines. 

Consider this: According to a 2008 exit poll conducted by Bendixen & Amandi, Cuban voters in Miami-Dade voted for John McCain over Barack Obama 65 percent to 35 percent. But among 18-29 year-olds, the numbers were inverted: 65 percent say they voted for Obama, only 35 percent for McCain. Although Cubans overall went for McCain, Democrats found a pocket of support among younger voters. 

Speak In Spanish. While each district and state will have a different composition of Spanish-dominant immigrant voters, it is critical to note that a majority of Hispanic adults are immigrant and native Spanish speakers. Studies have shown 75 percent of Hispanic adults consume some degree of Spanish-language media on a regular basis; and up to 4-5 percent of the national Hispanic electorate is Spanish dominant.  Up to 50 percent of the Hispanic electorate today is Spanish dominant. 

Campaigns targeting Hispanics must have bi-lingual and bi-cultural staff to help design and implement any campaign geared toward reaching today’s Hispanic electorate. And the notion that Spanish-speakers are not voters must be rejected as old think.

Use radio. Even though radio listenership is in precipitous decline across the country, it is becoming an ever more powerful part of the mobile, immigrant and heavily domestic/blue collar/construction work oriented Hispanic community. At many job sites with majorities of Hispanic workers, the radio is on all day. When it comes to advertising, it’s also relatively inexpensive, and it allows you to target regionally. 

In addition to paid media, granting interviews to local Spanish-language affiliates and targeting individual communities—Puerto Ricans in Orlando and multi-generational Hispanics in Northern New Mexico, for instance—is an easy way to deliver the right message to the right people on a culturally competent platform.   

Simon Rosenberg is president of NDN, a progressive think tank. Alicia Menendez is a senior adviser at NDN. Follow them on Twitter: @simonwdc @aliciamenendez @NDN_NPI

Also on Campaign Insider: Republican strategist Hector Barajas on why the GOP has reached crisis level with Hispanic voters. Read it here.