Some people amuse themselves with books and magazines, in-flight movies or a few hours of shut-eye, while making the transcontinental trip from San Francisco to Boston. Crammed into my coach-class seat I'm entertaining myself as only a true data geek can by perusing a massive spreadsheet containing Internet users' unique searches for each of the front-running presidential candidates. United Airlines, you may keep your complimentary headset, thank you. I have no interest in watching John Travolta in drag in Hairspray (who picks these movies?) when someone in the Hitwise sample has searched for "Rudy Giuliani cross-dressing avatars."
Though there's a science to using search-term data to predict reality show outcomes, that same kind of data is probably too confounding to provide any real insight into which candidates will get nominated or who will ultimately win the 2008 presidential race. Still, there's no harm in guessing or in taking a look at what the American public really wants to know. In a previous article, I revealed the most popular searched-on issues in relation to each of the presidential hopefuls. Now, somewhere over Colorado, I'm sifting through thousands of these one-off searches, hoping to draw a connection, like a word-association game, between what gets searched online and what goes through a voter's mind once the curtain on the voting booth has been closed.
I created my flight-time diversion by downloading a list of all the Web searches from our U.S. sample over the last four weeks that contained a presidential candidate's name. Take Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton: While there are multiple searches on Hillary's stance on the issues health care, specifically along with various scandal-related searches, it appears as though several Internet users are fascinated with "Hillary Clinton's casserole," "Hillary Clinton recipes," and "Hillary's hairstyle." Maybe Clinton will do well in the Leave it to Beaver belt after all?
Meanwhile, Rudy Giuliani, the Republican front-runner according to the latest polls, was the subject of the fewest searches. This probably has no bearing on his popularity; it's most likely due to the fact that people can't spell "Giuliani." The most common Giuliani searches focus on his stance on taxes and the war. Beyond that, however, there's an odd obsession with finding images of "Rudy Giuliani in Drag," perhaps fueled by some circulating photos from a 2000 political roast. It's just weird.
Most people searching on Barack Obama want to read his bio; many other queries focus on his religious beliefs, likely spurred by the allegation that he attended a radical Islamic madrassa during his childhood, which was later revealed to be false. A deeper look at the search-term data unearthed a wide interest in the American flag pin that disappeared from Obama's lapel last month.
It looks like Internet users are also trying to predict their favored candidate's success in the upcoming election by searching on head-to-head comparisons with their likely competition: "Clinton versus Giuliani," or "Fred Thompson versus Barack Obama." (Searches on Fred Thompson, by the way, are as popular as searches for pictures of his wife.)
If nothing else, one thing's clear from the search-term data: Voters' minds are a virtual soup (or casserole, depending on your ideology) of both relevant and bizarrely irrelevant issues. I can't tell you who will win, or why, but I hope our next leader will be elected on the basis of his or her foreign and domestic policies, rather than dish seasonings or cross-dressing skills.
Bill Tancer is general manager of global research at Hitwise