On the morning of Election Day, Marc Fliedner took to the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side armed with a large bag of pencils. He had entered the race for Manhattan’s District Attorney just three weeks ago as a write-in candidate and on the day of the election, he passed out pencils with his name written on the side because misspellings wouldn’t count. He wore a dark green wool suit and a broad smile as he greeted potential voters but not everyone was so welcoming in return.
“Stumping can be amazingly energizing when people engage with you,” said Fliedner, 55, who was walking towards Union Square in hopes of finding more people. “But three-quarters of the people don’t stop and that’s just not fun.”
But a few blocks away, at the Everyman Espresso coffee shop, the Fliedner campaign was having no problem connecting with voters on social media. Marc Fliedner was trending on Twitter by 10 a.m., and support from his campaign was coming almost entirely from social platforms online.
“I can barely keep up with everything on Twitter,” said Breanne Thomas, the 28-year-old social media director for the Fliedner campaign. “And that’s not a bad problem to have.”
The idea that Fliedner should run for Manhattan District Attorney came from a follower on Twitter one day when the civil rights attorney was attending a book launch event. District Attorney Cy Vance, who is the incumbent and running unopposed on the ballot, was taking fire for his decision to not prosecute Harvey Weinstein in the wake of sexual assault allegations. In response, a Twitter follower suggested Fliedner run as an alternative write-in candidate; three weeks later, he was on the streets of the Lower East Side rallying support.
One of the key members of Fliedner’s campaign was his son, Dylan Hansen-Fliedner, 25. When followers on Twitter started calling for Fliedner to create a write-in campaign, Hansen-Fliedner began helping with the social media outreach. That’s when his friend Breanne Thomas offered to help, along with Noah Levinson.
On Election Day, Hansen-Fliedner, Thomas and Levinson were typing away furiously as Fliedner made his rounds on the street. The communications team retweeted high-profile supporters, posted informational videos on how to spell Fliedner’s name, and answered emails from journalists and fans. Levinson — who refers to himself as a “strategist,” as opposed to a “campaign manager” — said he found out about the campaign when it “blew up” on Twitter. He first met Fliedner in person just six days ago. Levinson, 27, has worked in politics before, including on Twitter campaigns for Sen. Bernie Sanders last year but never on a campaign that had built its support base entirely from social media.
“When we started trending on Twitter, it was really exciting,” said Levinson, “because it showed that we were doing good work, that we weren’t working in an echo chamber. That was a big, big deal for us.”
That online support peaked around 1 p.m. on Election Day as the Fliedner campaign garnered retweets from famous actors like Patton Oswalt (who has over four million followers), Debra Messing (444,000 followers), and Piper Perabo (112,000 followers). Like most of Fliedner’s supporters, Perabo discovered the write-in campaign on Twitter and decided to reach out through the platform’s direct messages to offer her help, she said.
And Perabo wasn’t the only supporter who has converted an online ‘like’ into an actual vote. Back at Everyman Espresso, another voter came in and recognized Fliedner from his Twitter account.
“I think I saw something on the internet,” said Jake Seliger, a 33 year-old technical writing consultant, when asked how he and his friend found out about Fliedner’s campaign. “We wrote him in but I think I misspelled his name.”
A few out-of-place letters in Fliedner’s name may be enough for the New York City Board of Elections to ignore that write-in vote but by the time the polls closed at the end of the day, Fliedner was no longer worried about his name being misspelled. Vance won but Fliedner’s campaign efforts led to more than 17,000 write-in votes in the Manhattan District Attorney race, evidence that online support can result in actual voter turnout. Fliedner said he doesn’t think an “old school” campaign would have made such a big impact.
“It’s a huge factor in today’s politics and anybody who’s ignoring that is missing the boat,” Fliedner said while taking a break from campaigning to walk his dog, before the results had come in. “Let’s see how far we can take it.”