How Google sees the race: Search data sheds light on likely voters

Nov 06, 2012 by Peter Reuell
The challenge for pollsters is that although many people may say they intend to vote, studies suggest that as many as two-thirds of those who do not vote told pollsters that they would. Credit: File photo, Justin Ide/Harvard Staff Photographer

As the dust settles after the presidential election, pundits and politicians from both sides of the aisle will begin the work of analyzing the results, trying to determine which issues tipped the scales and where the candidates went right or wrong.

All the while, another analysis will be under way, behind the scenes. Just as they do following every election, pollsters will take a hard look at how accurate their predictions were. The results of that analysis will then be used to improve the way they model everything from who is likely to cast a ballot to voter turnout, all with the goal of sharpening their predictions for the next election.

Harvard's Seth Stephens-Davidowitz says there's a better way.

Stephens-Davidowitz, a Ph.D. student in economics, uses Google Insights for Search, an for extracting data from the millions of daily searches, and then uses statistical tools to analyze the data to gain insights on who is likely to vote and on voter turnout on Election Day.

"There are a number of problems with traditional polling," Stephens-Davidowitz said. "Technically, polls are anonymous, but they don't feel anonymous, so for whatever reason, people tend to say what they think a pollster wants to hear. One of the other issues that isn't talked about much is that many polls are down to only about a 10 percent response rate, so they have had to turn to different weighting models.

"Meanwhile, Google and other are becoming ubiquitous," he continued. "I think we may have already reached a crossing point—I believe if we put our mind to it, we could do better than traditional polls."

As an example of the potential advantages Google data holds over traditional polls, Stephens-Davidowitz pointed to efforts to identify likely voters.

The challenge for pollsters is that although many people may say they intend to vote, studies suggest that as many as two-thirds of those who do not vote told pollsters that they would. People who search Google for phrases like "how to vote" or "where to vote," however, are much more likely to actually cast ballots, Stephens-Davidowitz said.

"Telling a pollster you plan to vote is pretty meaningless," he said. "But if you're Googling how to vote, that can be pretty meaningful in terms of who is a likely voter."

There is evidence that the technique works, he said. By analyzing searches conducted in the lead-up to both the 2008 and the 2010 midterms, Stephens-Davidowitz was able to accurately predict where would rise and fall with much greater accuracy than other indicators, such as early voting.

Stephens-Davidowitz warned that Google data shouldn't be seen as a perfect predictor of electoral behavior, but as another tool that can complement traditional polling techniques.

"It's a new technique—we don't have that many elections where this type of material has been available, so we may not have the perfect weighting or the perfect way to analyze the data," he said. "Still, I think it has a lot of potential, especially since turnout is such a big factor in elections.

"The advantages to this technique are that the sample sizes are much larger than traditional polls, you don't have people hanging up on you, and you have the candor of the online world," he added. "When you put those three things together, it's a powerful combination."

Explore further: Japan court orders Facebook to reveal revenge porn IP addresses

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Twitter, Facebook used to push Americans to the polls

Nov 04, 2012

Nani Teruya does not vote because she believes the United States is illegally occupying her home state of Hawaii, but people are trying to convince her to go to the polls next week via Google+ and Twitter.

Visual Imagery Technique Boosts Voting, Study Finds

Oct 19, 2006

Registered voters who used a simple visual imagery technique the evening before the 2004 election were significantly more likely to vote the next day, a new study found. It was all a matter of the visual perspective people ...

Early voting option can decrease turnout, research shows

Nov 17, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Although states are moving quickly to put in place election procedures that allow for early voting, allowing people to cast ballots ahead of Election Day often results in lower turnout, according to research ...

Recommended for you

Twitter looks to weave into more mobile apps

4 hours ago

Twitter on Wednesday set out to weave itself into mobile applications with a free "Fabric" platform to help developers build better programs and make more money.

Google unveils app for managing Gmail inboxes

5 hours ago

Google is introducing an application designed to make it easier for its Gmail users to find and manage important information that can often become buried in their inboxes.

Fighting cyber-crime one app at a time

11 hours ago

This summer Victoria University of Wellington will be home to four Singaporean students researching cyber threats. The students have been working with Dr Ian Welch, a lecturer in Victoria's School of Engineering and Computer ...

Is big data heading for its 'horsemeat moment'?

13 hours ago

There have been so many leaks, hacks and scares based on misuse or misappropriation of personal data that any thought that "big data" could provide benefits rather than only opportunities for harm may be ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Caliban
1 / 5 (1) Nov 06, 2012

This would be a fairly reliable method for predicting what the web-heavy voters intend. but there is still a very large portion of voters that don't rely upon the web to find out where their polling place is or to register or update their registration, even.

So, this would only be one tool among many, and at the same time be further incentive to commercialize user data.

I say both Stephens-Davidowitz and Google should go get married, if they love each other so much.