The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

O’Rourke might have won the early money race, but Harris dominated on voter curiosity

Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), who is running for president in 2020, speaks at the Mirage in Las Vegas on March 1. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Every time a new candidate enters the 2020 Democratic primary race, the splash seems bigger than each of those that came before. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) kicked it off, then was overtaken by Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), who seemed to be overtaken by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who was then passed by former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke. It feels like a building wave, especially with the news Monday that O’Rourke had narrowly clipped Sanders’s fundraising total in the first 24 hours of his campaign.

On another metric, though, things look different. When comparing the splash each candidate made on Google after announcing their candidacies, the high-water mark still belongs to Harris.

We looked at this shortly after Harris announced, noting that the amount of Google search interest she generated after her announcement had easily surpassed the candidates who announced before her. This is a vague metric, certainly, but it seems likely that it’s the best one for getting a sense of how much interest there has been in the candidates overall. After all, if you hear about a candidate, you may be driven to go seek out more information about them. Even someone you know well, it’s faster to search Google for their campaign websites than to try to guess what it might be.

Google provided The Washington Post with U.S. search data since Jan. 1. It pools similar searches — “Bernie,” “Bernie Sanders,” “Sanders,” etc. — into buckets, which it then tracks. Search totals are relative to one another, with 100 being the peak interest in any of the candidates. That peak came with Harris’s initial announcement.

Notice that she also got another spike a few days later, corresponding with her kickoff event in Oakland. That secondary event itself generated more search interest than any other candidate except Sanders or O’Rourke.

Generally, candidates’ peaks in search interest correlated to their campaign announcements. Below is the daily search interest (again, relative to that peak for Harris) for multiple announced and possible Democratic candidates.

That’s not always the case. Sometimes a candidate’s peak comes the day after an announcement, especially if the announcement is late at night. For former vice president Joe Biden, his peak came over the weekend, after he seemed to slip up and suggest that he was running for president, even though he hasn’t announced.

For two candidates, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Maryland congressman John Delaney, their peaks came after televised CNN town halls. Buttigieg in particular got a lot of attention after his performance in the town hall — but it didn’t correspond to very much search interest.

It did, however, boost him in the PredictIt online betting marketplace. There, users can wager money on the likelihood that any candidate will win the Democratic nomination. Buttigieg is seen as a viable dark horse, moving into the top 10. But the real dark horse there is Andrew Yang, who’s moved into the top five along with Sanders, Biden, O’Rourke and Harris.

Why? His Google surge corresponded with coverage of his proposal for a universal basic income. He’s become something of a darling of the online world, which is the sort of world where people make bets on PredictIt.

(You can also watch the PredictIt horse race in real time, if you want.)

National search interest is, well, interesting. But primaries aren’t won nationally. They’re won state by state.

On that metric, more good news for Harris. In all but five states — Maine and the homes of Sanders, Warren, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) — Harris has been the most-searched Democrat.

This doesn’t mean she’s going to be the nominee, by any stretch. But it’s certainly not bad news for her campaign.