Political behavior

As Americans settle in tonight to watch the final presidential debate of the 2012 campaign, millions of them will be using a second screen to search for more information on topics discussed by the candidates, and to post real-time reactions to the candidates’ comments on Twitter and Facebook. The campaigns themselves, meanwhile, along with armies of researchers and political pros, will be monitoring the social-media conversation closely to see what political insights can be gleaned from all that chatter.

The 2012 campaign will go down in history as the first real Big Data election, as candidates and campaigns tapped the fire hose of data from social media platforms and other sources in an effort to better target individual voters with political pitches. The jury is still very much out on how effective such targeting has been to date. But the real data-driven disruption in how politics is conducted is just getting underway.

While social media has been a treasure trove for political operatives and analysts, the actual content of most social media chatter is really just another form of public opinion polling, from a non-random sample of the public. While people might say, like, or retweet something on a social media platform that they would not say to a pollster over the phone, providing a useful counterpoint to traditional polling data, it still represents a sampling of what people say.

As the economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz argued in a provocative essay in this Sunday’s New York Times, researchers are just beginning to figure out how to apply behavioral data gleaned from online sources to answer political questions.

“Despite the ubiquity of Google searching, and searchers’ demonstrated willingness to share their true feelings and unbridled thoughts on Google, what Americans are typing when they search remains surprisingly underutilized in political analysis,” Stephens-Davidowitz wrote. “But Google can often offer insights unavailable elsewhere.”

For instance:

How frequently people in a state searched for “Obama jokes” almost perfectly predicted the vote share of Mr. Obama’s 2008 opponent, John McCain. “Romney jokes,” which typically focus on his wealth, are popular in Iowa and Ohio, two swing states in which Mr. Romney has struggled to connect with working-class voters. Never mind favorability; maybe what we need is a jokeability index.


Comparing the timing of our Google searches to outside events is often intriguing. Searches for “McCain life expectancy” rose to unprecedented levels the day of his controversial choice of the Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. They rose again after Ms. Palin’s poorly received interview with Katie Couric.

Google is just one source of such behavioral data available to researchers. And as Stephens-Davidowitz acknowledges, “the methodology [he is] using is new and subject to many caveats.” But once political operatives begin to figure out how to make use of what people do, rather than merely what they say, the real revolution in politics will be on.