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Tweeting to the people wins the race

Calgary's mayor-elect reached young voters

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Calgary mayor-elect Naheed Nenshi is likely spending this weekend mulling over his sudden come-from-behind win and prioritizing his to-do list as he prepares to be sworn in as the mayor of Canada's fourth-largest city.

But for political watchers, the great debate isn't so much that Nenshi won as much as it is how he pulled it off.

A month ago, Nenshi wasn't even considered a front-runner. On Monday, he defeated the man who was by a resounding 27,000-plus votes.

Along the way he engaged thousands of people who haven't voted in a long time, if they have ever voted before at all, including a purple army of young people who donned Nenshi's signature purple campaign shirts and went door-knocking and vote-getting on his behalf.

"We can't find records going back far enough where turnout was ever higher," said Duane Bratt, chair of policy studies at Calgary's Mount Royal University.

In fact, six years ago, Calgary was near the rock bottom of municipal electoral turnout when less than one in five people in the city cast a ballot. Three years ago, turnout improved to one-in-three registered voters, better but still nothing to get excited about. On Monday, 54 per cent of registered voters participated in the election.

Bratt said many had expected turnout around 40 per cent but to get to 54 per cent was completely a shock.

Much of the credit is being heaped on Nenshi, a 38-year-old Harvard-educated business professor and first-generation Canadian. His charismatic and energetic personality and a deep-rooted knowledge of civic issues was combined with an uncanny communications ability that used both social media and traditional media to get out his message. It meant Nenshi could put out a news release and hold a media announcement that was picked up by newspapers and TV broadcasts. But it was also posted on Facebook and Twitter where it was re-posted and tweeted by thousands of fans, reaching far more people than just traditional media watchers alone.

Bratt said he thinks a little too much has been made of the Nenshi camp's use of forums like Facebook and Twitter, noting social media is an important piece of the puzzle but not the only one. It was mixing traditional campaign tools like town halls and door-knocking that did the trick.

"The Nenshi group was very good at mobilizing media attention," said Bratt.

Among his innovations were an app for the iPhone or iPad that consolidated all the facets of his online campaign world including Facebook, Twitter, news releases and photographs into a single page. Nenshi also didn't just post policy suggestions and campaign slogans and wait for the masses to discuss them. He constantly and directly communicated with voters online, responding publicly to their queries and comments on Twitter and Facebook.

"Unlike most candidates, he didn't just use (social media) as a broadcast tool," said Jason Allen, a longtime acquaintance of Nenshi who is now part of a drive to improve civic engagement in Hamilton, Ont. "If you posted a comment on Twitter, chances are Naheed would comment right back at you. Most people, if you make comments or ask questions online, they just ignore you."

Allen said Nenshi clearly realized young people don't communicate in old-school ways and that reaching them means using digital communication. He not only is young, he looked and sounded like a real young person, not a stuffed suit or high-brow academic.

Bratt said it will be interesting to see if the momentum and voter interest developed in the Calgary municipal election will carry over into future elections at the provincial and federal level.

However, the excitement in Calgary didn't transmit elsewhere in Alberta. In Medicine Hat, turnout was a dismal 38 per cent, 10 points lower than it was three years ago. In Edmonton, it was an even lower 34 per cent. And in Red Deer, the city recorded its lowest turnout ever at just 24.8 per cent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 22, 2010 A11

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