Taking a peek at political trends ahead of our Florida debate

Wednesday, September 21, 2011 | 2:51 PM

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With our Fox News GOP Presidential debate less than 48 hours away, we thought it would be useful to once again look at Google search trends to see which candidates users are searching for.

We last looked at search trends and the GOP presidential race in early August just ahead of the Iowa Straw Poll. From former candidates (Tim Pawlenty) to new candidates (Texas Governor Rick Perry), the dynamics of this race have changed dramatically in the past 4 weeks. This time around, we found:

1. Since joining the field in August, Rick Perry has jumped out to be the most searched front-running candidate nationally.
2. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann is still very much in the search race - contrary to media reports, our data shows this may not a two-person contest between Rick Perry and Mitt Romney!
3. Past debates generated interest among Google users on hot-button issues like HPV and Social Security.
4. Which state searches most for Ron Paul? Montana. (I didn’t predict that either!).
5.  Search queries mirrored the results in the NY-9 Special Election recently.

Rick Perry takes the lead
[Rick Perry] has taken the lead in searches on Google. As more and more Americans hear, read, and talk about him, they’re looking to the web to discover more about the issues, his positions, and his background. Since joining the race, he’s held the lead among the front-running candidates in terms of overall search numbers.

Bachmann hanging tough
Back in early August, we learned that Michele Bachmann was the most searched candidate both in Iowa and across the country. Heading into the Iowa Straw Poll, we showed her with a commanding lead in search volume and when all the votes were tallied, she won. A peek at our search trends shows that, despite some recent claims, the GOP race is not a two-person race. Rather, it might still be a three-person race. Although Bachmann has dropped behind searches for [Rick Perry] across the country, she is still more searched than [Mitt Romney].

Debates Drives Interest in Issues
Tomorrow at our debate with Fox News, we’ll be looking to user-submitted questions and search data to help frame the debate and prompts given to the candidates. The issues that Americans care most about will take center stage. In a blog post yesterday, we showed that the top-ranking categories are Government Spending & Debt and Jobs & Economy. These issues will dominate the evening. However, if past debates are any measure, there could be a breakout issue that isn’t on anyone’s radar ahead of the program. Resulting from recent debates in Florida and New Hampshire, two hot-button issues emerged and voters turned to the web to discover more on the topics. With the perceived-frontrunner Governor Perry being pressed on his positions, his opponents shed light on his stances. As a result, in the days after the debates, searches for [Social Security Ponzi Scheme] and searches [HPV Rick Perry] and [HPV] vaccines - saw major increases as voters turned to the web to discover more and get to the truth of the matters.

Montana is Ron Paul country
Some of you may be wondering where Congressman Ron Paul is in all of this search activity. Having accurately predicted his second place finish in the Iowa Straw Poll - based on search trends - we’ve noticed that over the summer, the state with the highest interest in Ron Paul is Montana. Surprised me, too! Other top states include early states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and Florida, so perhaps this data bodes well for some key primaries.

NY-9 Results
Finally, we thought it would be useful to walk through some of the ways that our search data has served as a good proxy for offline behavior - and in this case - elections. We’ve already showed you above how search data in Iowa showed a Bachmann - Paul finish in the Iowa Straw Poll in August, but more recently we saw parallels in search data and election results in the special election for 9th Congressional District which pitted Republican [Bob Turner] against Democrat [David Weprin]. The search trends show Turner pulling away to a lead in the days leading up to election day. He went on to win.

Like most of you, all of us on the Google Politics and Elections team will continue to be keeping a close eye on the race and tomorrow night’s debate promises to be a great moment in the campaign. Stay tuned here for more search trends as the race heats up.

Posted by:  Jake Parrillo, Politics and Elections Project Communications Team