Tuesday, April 7, 2009

2008 Democratic Presidential Candidate Emergence: The View Through Google Trends

The other day I speculated about value of watching Google search trends as a means of tracking presidential candidate emergence. As I said in that post, it is one thing to look at that in real time, but quite another to look at how this looks over the course of an entire invisible primary period. Fortunately Google Trends has archived search data back to January 2004 and that affords us the opportunity to put this idea to the test in the context of 2008 presidential candidate emergence.

Now, keep in mind that this is an idea still very much in its infancy (and it may stay there given the limitations of the data and other complications). First of all, what you'll see below may not be tracking an organic growth and solidifying of support behind a candidate (or viability behind a candidacy) so much as a media-triggered urge to go find out something about a candidate. If we're looking for a causal chain, then, it may be something like:
endorsement/fundraising total --> news story --> internet search
In the context of a modern campaign built on social networking (via technology especially) the chain of events isn't as clear and regardless, all of the points in that chain have something of a recursive relationship anyway.

The other caveat is much more easily accounted for. Obviously, we'd expect the volume of searches to go up as a presidential election year approaches. That kicks the chain of events (in whatever order) into hyperdrive.

All caveats aside, though, how did this look in the context of the Democratic field of candidates as they emerged, announced and ran for the Democratic nomination between 2004 and 2008?

The expectation going in is that Hillary Clinton would dwarf all the other included candidates (and I just included FHQ's estimation of the top five candidates on the Democratic side) and at some point be passed by Barack Obama. And that is generally what we see in the full chart at the top. But it is easier to see Clinton's lead in search volume across all of 2005 and well into 2006 in the yearly snapshots. Around the time of the midterm elections in 2006 we see Obama's searches shoot up. The Illinois senator's numbers increased most likely because of his appearance on Meet the Press, where he discussed the possibility of a White House run. You'll also note that Edwards numbers also jump at the end of 2006 when he announced he would be seeking the 2008 Democratic nomination. There were similar spikes for Clinton and Obama when they announced during the first couple of months of 2007.

We don't see candidate emergence here so much, but we do see some candidate displacement. Hillary Clinton was very much a factor in the 2008 presidential campaign. In conversations I had here at UGA as early as 2005 the discussion centered on a Clinton-McCain general election in 2008. To some degree then, the story is more about the emergence of an alternative to Clinton. For instance, John McCain emerged as the alternative to George W. Bush in the 2000 Republican primaries. Edwards actually runs ahead of Obama through 2005 and 2006 (minus the Obama MTP blip), but once Obama announced his bid, he consistently ran ahead of Edwards for most of 2007. Obama, then, displaced Edwards as the Clinton alternative and that was solidified by Edwards opting into the federal matching funds system for the primaries in the late summer/early fall of 2007.

Now, we are limited by this data to some degree. These are weekly snapshots of the candidates' positions relative to each other in terms of their individual search volumes. Daily accounts are available and would provide us with a richer story (especially vis a vis the "which came first the news or the search" conundrum), but that's a something for another day.

Up next? The 2008 GOP candidates.

Recent Posts:
And Your 2012 GOP Presidential Nominee Is...


76,914-76,817 77,017-76,934: Murphy Tedisco Leads in NY-20


Glenn said...

Could we see the 2008 Primary season data as well, to see if the search numbers correlate to changes in standings over this period?

Also, at what point do we start having poll data to compare this to?

Josh Putnam said...

You know, I thought people would be interested in that information even as I was pressing the publish button on this post, Glenn.

I'll put that up in its own post momentarily.

Jack said...

Just looked at Google Trends with some of the other lower-tier candidates. Looking at 2007 only because I can't read the whole graph because Biden and Richardson wind up distorting it due to their spikes in 2008-9. Link.

In the second half of 2007, Kucinich consistently had more Google Trends "support" than Richardson, who ran neck-and-neck with Biden by this metric. Richardson lead the other lower-tier candidates during the first quarter of 2007. Gravel was erratic, at times surpassing all the others, at times falling behind them. Chris Dodd lost some support to Christopher Dodd and was largely a non-factor.