In a world awash in data, we’re still often generally in the dark about what people are thinking. There are hundreds of millions of tweets a day, but evaluating the meaning and even the subject of even one of them is harder than it may seem. Other data, like many Facebook posts, are private, allowing Facebook to control interpretation of that information.
One of the better ways to evaluate the public mood is Google. Google’s Trends tool allows users to see search interest with respect to a particular topic by geography and time period, providing insight into subjects about which people are seeking more information. As the 2016 New Hampshire presidential primary approached, for example, Google noticed a sudden burst of search interest in Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) in the state. Donald Trump won the state, but search interest in the candidates broadly mapped to the election results.
Last month, Google provided The Washington Post with data reinforcing a detail of the 2018 midterm election that had been revealed elsewhere: Among dozens of political subjects tracked by Google’s team, none was more consistently popular across congressional districts than health care. There was some variation, but the pattern held almost everywhere nationwide, a potential boon for Democratic candidates.
But that was mostly before the amplification of the political fight over the nomination of Brett M. Kavanaugh to sit on the Supreme Court, a fight that captivated public attention. Did that translate into Google’s searches, we wondered? What might it say about the midterms?
We asked Google for data on popular political subjects by state over the past month and a half. Those data show that there was a surge in interest — but that it may already be fading.
Before we get to that, let’s set a baseline of what the data look like. One of the more popular political subjects in each state over time is Medicaid, often ranking among the top five most-searched political topics. There’s a broad range of interest in the subject by state over time, though, with Florida showing more consistent interest in the subject than California.
The subject of immigration is more consistently popular, but even there, certain states show more consistent interest in the subject. Immigration has been among the top five political subjects for which Nevadans are searching each week since late August.
Some subjects spike when they are a focus of public attention more broadly. During the week of Sept. 9, for example, the most-searched political subject in each state was the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, for obvious reasons.
The question, then, is which of these patterns most resembles interest in the Supreme Court: Is it a consistently interesting subject, or is it a spike like Sept. 11?
Here’s what the ranking by state for the Supreme Court looks like.
The first spike occurred in early September, during Kavanaugh’s first hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The next week, interest faded, growing again as an allegation emerged that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted a girl when the two were in high school. The week of the special committee hearing called to address those allegations, the subject spiked again.
But last week, interest faded relative to other political subjects. In 48 states, the ranking of the Supreme Court among political searches fell. That drop was occasionally significant, as in North Dakota — where Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D) faces an uphill reelection fight in which her opposition to Kavanaugh has become a central issue.
Compare that chart to the chart for health care. Health care as a political subject is consistently popular. Even during the week when interest in the Supreme Court was at its highest point, health care was a more popular search subject in 40 states.
These data are very broad: state-level searches that don’t overlap specifically with pools of registered voters. There are certainly pockets of the electorate where voters are much more motivated by the Supreme Court fight and will go to the polls specifically because of that.
But the Google data do suggest that the Supreme Court was not itself a tidal wave that completely overtook the political conversation at its peak. With Kavanaugh now comfortably seated on the bench, the extent to which it will continue to captivate voters during the month until the midterms is a reasonable question. Particularly given that interest in the subject has already faded — while interest in health care and immigration has not.