Can Google predict an election? Probably not.
But when it comes to contested political races, the multinational tech giant is doing what it does best: watching our every godforsaken move.
On Wednesday, Google News Lab launched a new trend-tracking page focused around the hotly contested midterm elections. With 500 U.S. House and Senate seats up for grabs nationwide, the tool allows residents to zoom around and see where the candidates are getting clicks — and where they’re not.
Also presented are trend searches on a select few political issues — healthcare, immigration, guns, abortion, minimum wage, tariffs and social security — tracking them from President Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017 to the present. The data has anonymized been and “normalized,” meaning searches aren’t weighted by county population size, but by the significance of searches within each county.
Big search engine datasets can give us a loose idea of what people care about at any given moment. The most searched political party in big blue Philadelphia over the last 12 months? The GOP. And in rural Wyoming county in northern Pennsylvania? It’s the Democrats. But these visualizations are by no means comprehensive, so they can be interpreted as hints — or not.
“If something is spiking, it might mean nothing, but it might mean something,” Simon Rogers, Google News Lab’s data editor, told Poynter.
But even the a broad-stroke picture can show us where political candidates are taking up voters’ bandwidth. Here’s a look at Pennsylvania’s political browsing history as the we approach the 2018 elections.
With less than seven weeks to election day, Pennsylvania has healthcare issues on the mind — sure to be a weighty factor in the upcoming congressional races. Over the last week, healthcare was the most highly searched issue in all but four counties, all located in central Pa. The data is updated in real time and can change by the hour, but the country’s medical system has consistently been the most searched issue since Trump took office.
Then there’s immigration. Viewing the data Thursday, three counties (Sullivan, Union and Juniata) searched more heavily for that topic than any other in the past week. Of those outlier counties searching immigration, foreign-born residents make up less than 5 percent of the local population.
Only Cameron County residents Googled abortion more than these other two topics.
Several public polls have shown U.S. Sen. Bob Casey with a comfortable lead over Republican challenger Lou Barletta. Through the Google looking glass, it appears Casey’s name is getting around the state even more this week. Remember, those could be hate searches. But this week at least, even in Barletta’s native Luzerne County, he and Casey are neck and neck in the search polls.
Going by county searches, the gubernatorial race paints a slightly different portrait. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf currently dominates searches in eastern and southeastern Pennsylvania, while his Republican challenger Scott Wagner holds a steady search lead out in the western half of the state, including Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County.
It is worth noting that Wagner’s campaign has garnered a ton of unflattering press statewide in recent weeks. Meanwhile, several polls also show him trailing Wolf by double digits. But his campaign is still sending a message across the state, searches suggest.
We’ll keep an eye on these visualizations as the races heat up in the coming weeks to see how they change.