Social networks played an important role in the last U.S. presidential election, but the explosive growth in smartphone usage and the introduction of tablets since 2008 could make or break the candidates for president in 2012.
As the Republican primaries heat up, the major contenders show on their official websites a strong recognition of social networking and connecting in digital ways via desktop computers. But the GOP and President Obama's campaigns are not yet making many mobile-specific connections to supporters via smartphones or tablets, analysts noted.
Some campaigns have special links on their websites for getting updates via SMS to a phone, but they don't appear to have candidate-specific downloadable mobile apps on Apple's App Store or the Android Market so far.
"Smartphones and tablets are much more mainstream now, and these devices are literally driving the Occupy movement and the revolutions in the Middle East," noted Rob Enderle, an analyst for Enderle Group. "The ways we connect to one another have changed quite a bit in the last couple of years. Candidates need a good social media campaign to win, and social media done right includes mobile, because mobile allows candidates to loop in supporters in the moment and stay in touch and respond in real time. Mobile makes social networking more important. "
Smartphones are most heavily used by people under 45, and that age group increasingly sees the smartphone or tablet as a portal to Facebook and Twitter, among other social networks, Enderle said.
Enderle said it won't be enough for a presidential campaign to build a great desktop-oriented website. It will also need a mobile-oriented site that fits graphics and text or video on either a 7-in. to 10-in. tablet or a 4-in. smartphone.
"The candidates probably need content that fits the smaller screen, or that's an audience they are not speaking to," Enderle said. "Just think, a few hundred thousand people could swing a state and a lot of these elections are pretty close. Don't forget Gore and Bush in Florida. This  election could be close, so missing out of mobile will make the difference between winning and losing."
Apple's App Store lists hundreds of news and social media-related apps, but on a recent search, none related directly to a single candidate. Analysts said news organizations will probably create specialized apps to help campaign groupies follow the candidates, much the same way that professional sports leagues have mobile apps on which fans can follow scores, players and rankings. It's even possible that the Democratic and Republican parties will offer their own separate apps for the App Store or the Android Market in coming months, analysts said.
In early 2010, more than 20 mobile apps popped up for college basketball's March Madness tournament, "so why not have similar apps to track campaigns?" asked Bill Dudley, group director of product management at Sybase365. "There would be lots of mobile engagement for candidates and news organizations to track."
Dudley, a self-described mobile guru, compiled a mobile industry forecast for 2012 that included the prediction that mobile will be a "major means of trying to win votes" in primaries and the general presidential election.