CLEVELAND, Ohio — What might Google’s search data reveal about this year’s elections in Ohio? Cleveland.com’s politics team is working with the tech giant to try and find out.
As part of its News Lab project, Google has custom-built for cleveland.com a more targeted, politically focused version of its public Trends tool. We are using it to inform and enrich our coverage, and we hope it will help us provide insights to our readers that they won’t get anywhere else.
The public Trends tool takes all of Google’s search data, anonymizes it (no individual accounts are identified) and aggregates it, identifying trending topics in real time. You can filter it down to see what people are most interested in on the state level or even individual cities.
The custom Ohio tool shows how frequently, broken down by county, people are searching for information about the main candidates for governor and Senate, and more broadly, what Ohioans are typing in when they do so. Each county displays a rating, which fall on a scale of 1 to 100, measuring the volume of searches, as a proportion of total searches, related to each individual candidate.
Again broken down by county, it does the same for a handful of what Google has identified as the hottest political topics, including health care, immigration and abortion.
We’re still figuring out how to interpret the data when it comes to candidates. But look below to see what it looks like. As of Friday, it shows that search interest in Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown significantly exceeds that of his Republican opponent, Rep. Jim Renacci across the state.
In the governor’s race, it’s a little more even, but Democrat Richard Cordray seems to have a slight edge over Republican state Attorney General Mike DeWine.
Time will tell what this means. For what it’s worth, public polling in June found Brown held a comfortable margin over Renacci among registered voters in Ohio, while Cordray had maybe a slight edge.
But as an experiment, we checked different key terms, including the candidates’ names, for Tuesday’s special election in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District.
By plugging in Troy Balderson, Danny O’Connor and Donald Trump — and limiting our search to the Columbus area — it’s pretty clear that interest in Balderson increased significantly on Aug. 4, the day the president visited the district. (This was performed using the public version of the Trends tool.)
We can also see that search interest in O’Connor, as a proportion of all searches in the Columbus area, consistently lagged search interest in Balderson leading up to the election. Generally speaking, the same goes for Zanesville, Balderson’s hometown, which is in a more rural area of the 12th District.
This would seem to support the political calculation behind Trump’s visit — that doing so would generate media attention and public awareness of the race, which would in turn drive turnout that presumably would benefit Balderson. Axios reported Friday that Trump’s political team consulted Republican National Committee polling data for Trump’s approval rating in the district, which was slightly higher than Balderson’s share of early votes, and concluded sending him there could help boost Balderson.
As it turns out, Balderson, in final but unofficial results, won the race by a razor-slim 0.8 percent margin. This was especially dramatic because the district has a strong Republican lean, having voted for Trump in 2016 by an 11-point margin.
Google’s custom-filtered data also gives us an idea which political issues are most important to people. Overwhelmingly and across the state, it shows Ohioans are most interested in health-care related topics. (This is reinforced by a June survey from Quinnipiac University, the respected pollster.) Based on this, we’ve already begun brainstorming on how we can incorporate more health-care related angles into our political coverage.
Simon Rogers, a data editor for Google, in an interview said Ohio’s interest in health care is typical of what he’s seen across the country this year.
“We’ve seen in numerous special elections now that … health care is what people are searching for,” Rogers said. “No matter what the candidate might campaign for, they might campaign on tax reform, or the president or whatever, [health-care topics] are the bread-and-butter issues that people care about day to day, and you can absolutely see that in the data.”