Web Data Offer New Slant on Traditional Horse Race
The first real "Internet election" has produced an explosion of statistics that has overwhelmed political junkies used to relying on more traditional measures of campaign success, such as polling and fund-raising.
Measuring an 'Internet Election'
"It's unprecedented," says Kevin Wallsten, a 31-year-old professor of political science at California State University in Long Beach. "We don't have the capacity to really measure and cope with it all."
Among the gusher of new data: Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, has nearly four times as many Facebook supporters as his Republican rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain. On some days in recent weeks, Sen. McCain had more blog mentions than Sen. Obama. More people overall have watched the Illinois Democrat's online videos, but on average, Sen. McCain has attracted more viewers per video released by his campaign.
But are these numbers useful?
Christine Williams, a professor of government at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., thinks they are, particularly during the nomination process when candidates struggle to emerge from the pack.
For example, one big difference between the performances of Sen. Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton during the Democratic contests earlier this year was Sen. Obama's better showing in caucuses. These grassroots affairs require more ground-level interaction with voters, who need encouragement not just to vote but to attend the more time-consuming gatherings where views are discussed.
Sen. Obama's victory in Iowa, the first contest, shocked pundits and turned the Democratic race upside down. "If people had been taking Obama's Facebook numbers more seriously, they would not have been so surprised when he won the Iowa caucus," says Ms. Williams.
She found that candidates with the most Facebook supporters and blog mentions before the caucuses -- Sen. Obama topped the list -- won the most votes. That correlation with votes was much higher than for more-traditional gauges like polling, fund-raising and media attention, her study showed. In primaries, which require less of a grassroots effort, more-traditional measures foretold the winners.
"Everyone understands that caucuses are different," says Ms. Williams. "But Hillary wasn't paying attention to what you had to do differently to win them, and that they could change the outcome of the nomination." Sen. Obama had a much larger and more decentralized organization on the ground in Iowa than did Sen. Clinton.
Political scientists think this election will change the way people look at Web-generated data, no matter the outcome. Already, the availability of these figures has spawned an industry of so-called Web analytics, whose usefulness in political campaigns is only just beginning to be understood.
TubeMogul, a Web analytics firm in Emeryville, Calif., has tracked since before the primaries the number of times official campaign videos have been watched on a daily basis. More viewers overall have watched Obama campaign videos 93% of the days since the beginning of the year, but the McCain campaign gained the upper hand for several days in early August when it made fun of Sen. Obama's celebrity, linking him in a video to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.
But perhaps more useful to campaign advisers and pundits are details about who is watching those videos. One way to assess that is to look at who is commenting on the videos at sites like YouTube. While male commenters predominate on videos for both candidates, Sen. Obama's tend to attract a significantly higher percentage of female commenters than Sen. McCain's, according to TubeMogul, a sign of the Illinois senator's strength among women voters.
Still, the meaning of some of these figures is hardly a sure thing. Watching a video about a candidate doesn't necessarily signify support for that candidate.
"How many of the viewers who watched the YouTube versions of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's speech were Obama supporters trying to understand what the fuss was about?" says David Weinberger, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. "And how many were working up a righteous anger against Obama?"
While watching a video indicates some level of interest, signing up as a supporter of one of the candidates on their Facebook or MySpace page suggests a higher level of engagement -- and possibly the first step toward volunteering for a candidate.
The Obama campaign, with its legions of organizational volunteers, "has been brilliant about taking that offer of support and turning it into something that used to cost a lot of money," says Zephyr Teachout, the director of online organizing for Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign and now a visiting law professor at Duke University.
Even things like Google searches are instructive, according to Nate Silver, whose Obama-leaning Web site fivethirtyeight.com has gained a following for its innovative use of polling data. He says such metrics are similar to nominating contests like Iowa and New Hampshire, as early indicators of candidate strength.
A paucity of Google searches about Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani suggested he "wasn't creating any early buzz online, and that was a leading indicator of his demise," says Mr. Silver.
Write to Christopher Rhoads at firstname.lastname@example.org