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Vermont's First Social Media Election

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Earlier this month, Vermont's largest city, Burlington, held a mayoral election that featured two non-incumbents vying for the top municipal job in the state. Voters went to the polls on March 6 to choose between Democrat Miro Weinberger and Republican Kurt Wright. When Weinberger won a decisive 57 percent to 37 percent victory, that ended a campaign that had run for six months and what should be described as Vermont's first social media election.

Just to be clear, other campaigns had used social media before in Vermont. And social media wasn't the only media: Classics like print and database marketing played a huge role in the campaign. No, what was different this time was the focus, engagement and the amount of activity. It's a role that will only grow over the coming years.

Social media has had a foothold in Burlington politics for three years. In early 2009, three city councilors Karen Paul (I), Nancy Kaplan (D) and Ed Adrian (D) set up Twitter accounts and started tweeting from city council meetings. It was a successful experiment. Since most of us here in town don't want to spend hours at those meetings, it gave residents a way to follow what was actually happening at these meetings from the comfort of their homes. More importantly, it gave people a chance to reach out or ask one of those councilors a question, in real time. From a democracy standpoint, it looked like a good way to increase citizen participation in municipal issues.

The act of using social media caused conflict within the city council itself. Some councilors didn't like the fact that their peers were sending social updates on their phones or computers. They felt that the social councilors were not showing proper respect to people who had actually shown up for the meetings. A number of the non-social councilors put forth a resolution banning electronics (and thus social media) from city council meetings. The resolution lost. One of sponsors of the resolution was Mayoral candidate Kurt Wright.

The mayoral social campaign started in earnest at one of the first Democratic primary debates in September 2011 when area journalists and tweeters agreed on using a singular hash tag, #btvmayor, for the campaign. What followed was a combination of reporting, campaigning, connections and tussles.

Of the six mayoral candidates (four Democrat primary contenders, one Republican, one Independent) only one had a credible presence in social media beforehand: Jason Lorber (D) who had set up and used his Twitter account as state representative (@VTJason) several years before. Once the others got into the race they, or their campaigns, quickly followed suit. For the primary months, most of the #btvmayor chatter was descriptions from the many public debates held between Democratic contenders.

Then at the Democratic caucus everything changed. The four round, single elimination primary battle between the contenders came down to the third round where, mano-a-mano, Miro Weinberger faced off with Tim Ashe. And the result was tie! The problem was that a ton of people had already left the premises, which meant that they couldn't vote in the unprecedented tie-breaking round.

Twitter and Facebook went wild. Those still in the building called out on social media, on email and on the phone to bring everyone back. Outside the building, traffic chaos ensued. In the end, the pols decided to reschedule the final round for another day. But that one, short crazy hour showed everyone that they ignored social in campaigns at their own risk.

As the two-man Weinberger/Wright campaign kicked in the social media activity ramped up (Wanda Hines was also a candidate, but she did very little campaigning, no social media work, and wound up with a very small percentage of the vote).

Weinberger's team was quick to start using and promoting its social channels. They made a big push into Facebook and used Twitter aggressively in order to dominate the #btvmayor stream. The Wright campaign jumped in too, finally setting up profiles for their candidate, although he had been an established politician on the state (representative) and local (city council) level for over a dozen years. They also started producing YouTube videos. On Twitter, the battle for hashtag dominance had begun.

The most interesting part of the #btvmayor hashtag was that it brought in people who normally weren't active or connected to the Burlington social media world. This included journalists, politically active citizen, and just regular Joes and Janes. To be clear, the political teams dominated the stream but that obscures a broader picture.

Another difference this time around was that we introduced social media as a key part to live debates. For the past three years, my organization #BTVSMB has hosted social media breakfast events here in Burlington. Now, we partnered with debate hosts to open up the social channels to increase debate participation. In the first debate we worked with the Burlington Business Association to take candidate questions from social media. In the penultimate debate, we helped the Burlington Free Press as the local paper hosted a complete social media debate where ALL of the questions came from social. That had never been done in Vermont before. I think it was the most interesting debate of the entire six-month campaign.

In the end, the candidate with the best social team won. Weinberger had surrounded himself with Internet professionals from the get-go as he realized how important online could be in his campaign. As he moved through the campaign, his staff beefed up participation from people with a strong social presence. Wright relied on a few young Web developers and interns. They faced an uphill battle online and never caught up.

Both teams desire to dominate the stream often led to pitched political battles. Most ended with personal insults and attacks. Which maybe proves the point that Twitter streams, like online message boards, are not always the best place for detailed, nuanced discussions.

What the social streams did have was the political passion and engagement that was often lacking on both the street and in the candidate debates themselves. One thing that's clear from the #btvmayor social campaign is that it did a great job in solidifying relationships within political teams. Whether it brought in any new votes is another question.

For once, though, the social media activity in the mayoral election accurately reflected the final Burlington vote tally. Perhaps that clearly points to social media moving away from early adopters and more solidly into the mainstream. At least in this little corner of Vermont.

One thing is clear though: social media as a part of major Vermont political campaigns is here to stay. And that is a very good thing.