Clinton vs. Obama: What the Web Reveals

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Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Senator Barack Obama

What people say when questioned by a pollster about their political ideology, current events and the issues of race and gender is often vastly different than how they truly feel. The problem is that, even if it's just a voice over the phone, there's another person's expectations to live up to, another person's judgment that might come raining down with the "wrong" answer.

Luckily, our search behavior doesn't lie. Here's a hypothetical based on recent events. Imagine if you polled Americans and asked what was more significant: a candidate's past use of illicit drugs, or a candidate's enrollment in a Muslim school at the age of 6? Intuition says that you'd get a more or less equal amount of concern about both issues. Search term data proves otherwise. If we look at the search patterns for 10 million U.S. Internet users over the last four weeks, the impact of the revelation of Barack Obama's elementary school's religious affiliation was significant. Of the top 20 search terms containing "Obama" 5 contained reference to his religion or his Muslim father. Not one of the top 20 terms contained a reference to illicit drug use.


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Source: Hitwise

Searches on a candidate's name throughout the campaign process tell us a lot about a candidate's mind-share and what specifically affects their popularity. Our most current data tells us that Barack Obama has a 17% margin over Clinton in volume of searches and the two candidates are the clear front-runners in search mind-share. As of this week Joe Biden experienced a surge in interest given his gaffe on Barack Obama's "clean" image (Joe Biden's top search terms included phrases such as "biden cheap," "biden on obama" and "biden racial comment"). John Edwards received less than half the searches that Barack Obama received, while dark horse candidate Al Gore received less than a third of Obama's search volume.

Looking back to October 2006, Obama had a massive but brief surge in popularity thanks to a phenomenon that has sold countless products and best-sellers and launched multiple television personalities. It's commonly referred to as the Oprah Effect. (I'll have another column on this down the road.) On October 18, 2006 Obama appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show. During that week, searches for "Barack Obama" increased 417%, the high point for any 2008 presidential hopeful.

While the Hillary camp might look to pundits and polls in the fight for "working for every vote," based on search term data she may just want to place a call to the Oprah Winfrey show. Based on the analysis of previous Oprah shows, couch-jumping would be ill-advised... but that's another story.

Bill Tancer is general manager of global research at Hitwise.