Sunday, April 5, 2009

Presidential Candidate Emergence: An Alternate Measure

I had this link come into my inbox the other day and it really got me thinking about using this Google search data to track presidential candidate emergence during the invisible primary.

[Image Courtesy of Click to Enlarge]

Now sure, Google itself warns against using their Labs-designated (read: not quite ready for primetime) Trends tool data for heavy duty research, which this isn't, so I couldn't help myself. The good folks at Irregular Times got the ball rolling on this in terms of tracking the 2012 Republican candidates' emergence in real time, but that only tells us a little bit of the story. Google Trends stretches back to January 2004 and that affords us the opportunity to track the fluctuations of the 2008 candidates on both sides as a baseline for comparison.

But here's the thing: I actually prefer the Google data over the Cafe Press search data. Yes, Irregular Times makes the point that Google search data pulls in all the search data regardless of whether you were looking up John McCain in 2006 in the context his 2008 presidential bid or some legislative work he was doing on the Hill. I can buy that. And while the benefits of using the Cafe Press search data (searching for actual candidate-related merchandise) are that we are gaining strength of attachment, the drawback is that we are potentially losing out on data concerning searches that while not as strong, are still related to these candidates in terms of the presidency. In other words, I'd like to take the larger view and try to narrow the scope somehow than narrow things unnecessarily right off the bat and miss something important.

[Fine FHQ, what's the point?]

This actually settles quite nicely into the realm of political science. The very first thing I thought of when I saw this data was issue evolution. The classic model constructed Carmines and Stimson (1981) looked at issue changes (such as on racial issues during the 20th century) on two planes. First, issue stances change over time, but secondly, their evolution takes place at the elite level within the party (in terms of perception and actions in Congress) and works its way down to the mass level affecting perceptions on the issues there.

This obviously has a link to the invisible primary period we are in now ahead of 2012. No, it isn't terribly active right now. Not at the mass level, at least. But there's no doubt there is jockeying going on at the elite level and that ultimately finds its way down to the masses. This approach has already seen some attention within the literature. Cohen, et. al (2003, 2005, 2008) have examined this at the elite level, tracking candidates' efforts to woo donors and high-profile endorsements. It strikes me, though, that this Google Trends data is an interesting means of tracking the level to which this permeates the masses. Now granted, the Cohen argument is that the system is set up in a way to allow for party autonomy over the nomination decision, but this data seems like an alternate means of investigating this as opposed to focusing on polling (which may have some endogeneity issues with internet searches) or waiting for vote outcomes in the primaries.

This week, then, we'll be focused on this relationship (among other things). Ideally I'd be able to roll this out in one big post, but I don't have the time tonight (and I suppose I've been sitting on this for a couple of days already anyway) to put it all together. We all may be better served having it broken down into its component parts. Regardless, this should be fun to look at.

Recent Posts:
The 2012 Presidential Primary Calendar (4/4/09)

Georgia in 2012: Back to March?

Championship Set in NPR's 2012 Bracket


Jack said...

You do realize what will happen now, right? All the Ron Paul blogs will notice that they're behind in searches to Sarah Palin. They will start writing scripts to generate massive numbers of Google searches. This will cause Google to crash, and the Internet as we know it will end. Al Gore and Ted Stevens, co-inventors of the internet, will then emerge as the Democratic and Republican candidates, respectively.

Josh Putnam said...

Well, it was a fun ride while it lasted, this internet thing.

Sarah Palin and Ron Paul offer some potential problems for doing this in real time or ex post facto later on. In both instances it may be best to drop them from consideration (or to look at each in isolation).

I didn't include Paul in my preliminary peek at 2005-2007, but I did look at Fred Thompson and searches for the former senator really began tracking upward in late 2006 and into 2007. But I'll have more on that probably tomorrow. I'm going to lead with the Democrats since that is the less interesting case and close with the GOP. There's more movement there.