Over the course of the 2016 election campaign, we tuned in to the various primary debates with a particular metric in mind. Unlike the presidential election of, say, 1952, there now exists a tool called “Google,” which Americans use to answer the various random questions that pop into their heads at any given moment — questions that in 1952 would presumably have popped right back out to be replaced with statistics about Mickey Mantle’s batting average. Our thinking was this: Perhaps by looking at what information people were searching for during the debates, we might glean some information about where the campaign itself was headed.
Did it work? Well, to the extent that it tended to reflect the consensus of the moment, sort of. In the first Republican debate, for example, no one got more attention overall than Donald Trump, who went on to win the nomination and the presidency. In second was Ben Carson, who would eventually surge into second place before flaming out. The biggest spike in interest came from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), thanks to his introductory speech.
One of the things we learned by doing this was that those spikes often corresponded not to policy issues but, instead, to personal ones. So we weren’t surprised to see that the biggest spike in search interest for any of the candidates over the course of the first Democratic debate on Wednesday night went to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, after he mentioned his son Dante, who is black.
Across the two hours of the debate, according to Google Trends, de Blasio averaged the fifth-most search interest. But mentioning his son gave him the biggest pop of any candidate.
Compare that with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.). Booker had the highest average search interest over the course of the debate, with each of his early answers yielding spikes in interest about him. His biggest spike, like de Blasio’s, came from a personal comment; in his case, about gun violence in his neighborhood in New Jersey.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) had the second-most search interest on average and also the second-biggest spike. Gabbard is something of a favorite of the Internet; her campaign announcement was also one of the better-searched for the field.
Her biggest spike came when she responded to questions about past comments about gays by citing her service with gays in the military.
Spikes such as those seen by de Blasio, Booker and Gabbard weren’t the norm. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) had the fourth-most average search traffic, but most of her usually policy-focused responses yielded only small bumps in search interest.
Warren’s biggest spike came when she said that she did, indeed, have a plan for addressing Republican control of the Senate — a response that was essentially her last answer of the debate. You can see the lull that followed that reply.
(You can also see the lull just after 10 p.m. Eastern, when NBC’s audio issues prompted an extended commercial break.)
Interestingly, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke actually had higher average search interest than Warren, though his interest only spiked slightly as he gave his answers. None in particular stood out.
But this is not the only important metric, of course.
Consider former HUD secretary Julián Castro. Castro had the sixth-highest average search interest (just behind de Blasio) — about half as much average interest as Booker. His spikes were generally modest, with the biggest coming after an answer to a question about climate change.
But that’s relative to the field. Google Trends also shared another bit of data about Castro on its Twitter feed:
Relative to where he was beforehand, Castro got 24 times as much interest as he offered his answers during the debate.
That, we might guess, will be more valuable than de Blasio’s temporary spike.