The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Another sign that the central issue of 2018 is health care

Google search data shows a surge in interest in the subject.

A stethoscope sits on an examination table at a Community Clinic Inc. health center in Takoma Park, Md. (Andrew Harrer)

One of the best ways to get a sense of what Americans think about is by reviewing what they search on Google. The popular search engine provides a tool called Google Trends, which allows us to view the time, location and subject of people’s search queries.

This sort of information is useful in politics.

The company has been tracking search data for some time, cataloguing queries associated with such topics as health care and military spending. For instance, Google is featuring search trends for the midterm elections, which it launched this week.

Google provided The Post with another set of data, though: searches launched by people in particular congressional districts — an invaluable bit of information given the importance of House races in November. That data, when compared to data from the last few months of 2017, is revealing.

Data offered by Google includes searches shortly after Sept. 11. In those searches, 9/11 was the most-searched subject. After eliminating data from Sept. 11, we compared in each district the top five search terms this month.

Abortion was in the top five most-searched subjects in about a quarter of districts at the end of last year, more so in districts currently held by Republicans. Now? Barely 3 percent of districts have it among the most-searched issues.

There was a similar drop in searches for terrorism, which was prevalent in Republican districts in 2017.

What are people searching? They continue to search for Medicare and Medicaid. For 2017 and this month, those programs are among the three most-searched subjects for half of the districts.

There’s been a big spike in the prominence of health care as an issue. Notice, below, that we’re looking at places where health care is the most-searched subject (setting aside Sept. 11 in the new data).

Last year, fewer than half of the districts had health care as a top search. Now, more than three-quarters have it as a top search.

This is surprising but not shocking. We reported last week that health care was the most popular subject for political ads in August, with more than half of the ads supporting Democrats who mentioned the issue. While a greater percentage of Democrat-held districts ranked health care above all other searches last year, now Republican-held districts are slightly more likely to search for the subject above all others.

Another interesting subject is immigration. The number of districts where immigration is among the top three most-searched subjects is about the same now as it was at the end of last year, but the maps don’t really reflect it.

Why? Notice the graphs underneath. Immigration is increasingly an important search in Democrat-held districts instead of Republican-held ones, and Democrat-held districts tend to be smaller, urban districts that don’t show up on national maps. This is why those post-presidential election maps are so misleading: The heavily Democratic cities vanish next to broad swaths of mostly empty, Republican rural territory.

(We should probably also note that, yes, Alaska and Hawaii are still states. Since they include only three congressional districts, though, we restricted the visualizations here to the continental states.)

If we view the immigration maps by the party holding each district, coloring in districts where immigration is among the top three issues, the decline in interest in Republican-held areas becomes a bit more obvious.

When we apply that same coloration to the health-care map, it looks like a presidential-election map — with tons of places across the country where health care is the most-searched subject. That includes plenty of those swaths of rural Republican territory.

This is probably not what Republicans would like to see. A June Pew Research Center poll gives the Democrats a 16-point advantage on handling health care. Fox News polling has the Democrats with the widest advantage on that issue since 2006.

We can make this point more alarming for the Republicans. If we highlight those districts that are rated as in-play by Cook Political Report, we see that a number of red districts — mostly districts, held by Republicans, that might be susceptible to flipping — are included among those where people are searching for information about health care.

(On this map, the lighter-colored the district, the more hotly contested it is.)

About 44 percent of the Republican districts considered in-play had health care among their most-searched issues last year. Now, more than three-quarters do. In the handful of Democratic races considered toss-ups, the same figure applies.

Combine that with the decline in interest in bread-and-butter Republican issues like terrorism and immigration, and Republicans seem like they might have a problem.

The one bright spot? Property taxes are among the top 10 issues in a third of districts. Property taxes, for the most part, aren’t much-affected by who controls Congress.