Can Google call elections?

Can Google call elections?

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Google has published details of the levels of search interest for political candidates as election day approaches. But there seems to be little clear connection between Google hits and the ballot box.

The main advantage the web has for tracking patterns is the sheer number of people using it. For example, it sounds insane that anyone wanting to find the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) website would do anything other than try ufc.com as their first tactic. Yet the number of people who search for “UFC” and related terms in the days leading up to a pay-per-view event is nearly always a good indication of how many people will buy the event. The reason is that even if only a tiny fraction of people actually have to search for the term, it still adds up to enough people that variations over time are measurable.

Does this work for politics? Well, here’s the current levels of Google search interest among web users from the relevant state in three notable Senate races, along with predictions for the winner from polling analysis site fivethirtyeight.com (source of the image above). The first figure shows each candidate’s current share of the total searches for the listed candidates, while the second is the predicted share of the vote.

Florida: Marco Rubio 45.4/44, Charlie Crist 32.9/32, Kendrick Meek 21.7/24

Nevada: Harry Reid 54.4/47, Sharron Angle 45.6/50

Pennsylvania: Joe Sestak 51.1/48, Pat Toomey 49.9/52

So oddly enough, the race with a clear link between web interest and expected voting is the unusual three-way contest, where the breakdown between candidates should if anything be less clear-cut and predictable.

One of the big problems with the search = votes theory is that it goes a step beyond the original idea of a link, namely search = interest. For example, one of the most spectacular spikes in interest of the campaign season came when Christine O’Donnell won the Republican candidacy in Delaware. While the outcome remains to be seen, it’s certainly looking unlikely that interest translates into votes in that case.

Of course, it’s perfectly possible (though somewhat unlikely) that the pollsters have got things wrong and that Google’s search levels will prove more accurate — we’ll find out for certain next week.

This article originally appeared in Tech.Blorge.com on October 28, 2010.