What Our Google Habits Reveal About Our Voting Habits

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During election season, journalists, pollsters, and pundits spend a lot of time asking independent voters, undecided voters, and swing state voters how they're feeling about candidates. But Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, doctoral candidate in economics at Harvard, says that if you really want to know what the average American is thinking about when it comes politics, don’t ask them — ask Google.

Among the things you may be surprised to learn? "Paul Ryan shirtless" gets Googled nine times more often than "Paul Ryan budget."

"A big problem with surveys — not just the small sample sizes, that a lot people don't respond to them — people lie to surveys, they don't tell the truth," Stephens-Davidowitz says. With the "Paul Ryan shirtless" search, for example, though most people tell pollsters they want more substance from the candidates, Google tells a different story.

But aside from revealing the superficiality of the American electorate, what can these Google searches really tell us that polls can't?

"A big thing that search can help us on is predicting turnout," Stephens-Davidowitz says. It's something that polls are notoriously bad at predicting. "If we look at where people are searching for things like, 'where to vote,' 'how to vote,' 'voting locations,' you can strongly predict where turnout is going to rise or fall."  

Another thing one can see in this data is how last minute rumors can affect the electorate, regardless of how unfounded they might seem.

"If you look at the 2008 election, if you see where Obama underperformed the polls," Stephens-Davidowitz says. "These places are overwhelmingly places that searched for 'Obama Muslim' very often, and those searches were going way up in the final few days of the campaign." 

Look out for last minute ad campaigns in the swing states to see if either candidate has made a strategy of this phenomenon.