(CNN) -- In the middle of the massive effort to protect New Yorkers from the effects of Hurricane Irene last month, a colorful moment gave people an amusing opportunity to laugh and joke. It was New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's efforts to communicate with Spanish-speaking New Yorkers in their own language.
"My Spanish skills, may continue poco a poco (little by little)," said the mayor in not-so-fluent Spanish on Aug. 30 when asked by reporters about his repeated attempts to communicate in Spanish. Bloomberg never explained whether his speaking Spanish was out of a genuine concern to effectively communicate with people or a way to score political points with New York's Hispanic voters — or both.
The New York mayor is not alone. The relatively recent trend of politicians trying to communicate in Spanish also includes President Barack Obama.
Back in June, he became the first president in 50 years to make an official visit to Puerto Rico. He started his speech by greeting his supporters in Spanish. "Buenas tardes (good afternoon)" said the president to hundreds of his supporters who seemed excited to hear Obama rolling the "R."
Puerto Ricans have surpassed Cubans as the largest Latino group of voters in Florida, a swing state expected to be highly contested once again in 2012.
Some Republican presidential candidates also seem to be courting Hispanics. On Sept. 2, Mitt Romney attended a breakfast sponsored by the Republican National Hispanic Assembly in Tampa, Florida. About 100 Hispanic leaders from across the country heard Romney's speech.
The former Massachusetts governor didn't try to roll any Rs, but paid close attention to the issue of how much the economic downturn has hit Latinos. "Hispanics, as you know, have been hit terribly hard, disproportionately hard with an unemployment rate that is substantially higher than the national figures," Romney said.
Experts say appealing to the fastest-growing ethnic group in the country is crucial the year before presidential elections. Mark Lopez, associate director at the Pew Hispanic Center, says that "Latinos have played a growing and important role in the nation's presidential elections over the last few election cycles. There are now more than 21 million Hispanics who are eligible to vote and Latinos reside in some key states."
According to the U.S. Census, in the 2008 presidential election, Latinos represented 13 percent of all voters in Colorado, 14 percent in Nevada, 15 percent in Florida, and 38 percent in New Mexico. Those four states will likely be swing states again in 2012. "Even the participation rate among Hispanics in presidential elections has been growing [in those states]," says Lopez.
In 2008, 9.5 million of the nation's 12 million registered Latino voters went to the polls. Juan Andrade, president of the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute, an organization that tracks Latino voting trends, says he's expecting a dramatic increase next year.
"Our estimate is that we will probably have at least 12 to 13 million registered to vote in the next presidential election. It could be even higher," Andrade says.
In 2004, former President George W. Bush won more than 40 percent of the Latino vote. Four years later, 67 percent of Hispanic voters went for Obama. Experts say anybody getting that kind of support from Latinos next year, whether Democrat or Republican, has a good chance of winning the presidency.
"The Latino vote can prove decisive and we have demonstrated the ability to swing critical states again like we did in 2008," says Andrade.
Still, Andrade cautions that it's still too early to determine what the Latino voter behavior will be in 2012, and whether the enthusiasm of 2008 is going to be there again. "Are we going to continue to increase in voter registration and voter turnout as we have in every consecutive presidential election over the last 30 years? It remains to be seen," says Andrade.
According to the most recent U.S. Census figures, there are currently 50.5 million people of Hispanic origin in the United States, which represents 16.3 percent of the total population.