Can Google call elections?

October 28, 2010

Can Google call elections?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.

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16 Responses to “Can Google call elections?”

  1. RBH:

    Interesting. I did a couple of searches on Ohio races of interest (Space/Gibbs for Congress in my district and Strickland/Kasich for governor, and the results don’t resemble what appear to be the prevailing sentiments in the two races. I’ll be surprised if both win as the Google Trends numbers would suggest, though the sample sizes for the Space/Gibbs race are very small.

  2. Timothy McClanahan:

    This might be useful if a certain segment of the population didn’t refuse to do any research to actually find out the truth about things. This will skew liberal, guaranteed.

  3. KingFlathead:

    This might be useful if a certain segment of the population didn’t refuse to do any research to actually find out the truth about things. This will skew conservative, guaranteed.

    :-]

  4. Funny_guy:

    @King Flathead, many a truth is said in jest.

  5. Dennis:

    Not only is Google going to be wrong, but this website as well.. There is absolutely no way Angle is going to beat Reid. People are upset about the economy.. but they are not crazy.. exactly how would electing the queen of all loons benefit them ?.. it won’t and she won’t win either.

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