In the days leading up to Tuesday's Pennsylvania primary, Web users in the Keystone State went to their computers and searched for information on dueling Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. But while both candidates were searched for, the type of information potential voters were looking for slightly differed.
While Obama has consistently generated the most buzz on the Internet of any Democrat—the candidate has more Facebook friends, more people have watched his videos on YouTube, and he is also more heavily searched for on Yahoo—when Pennsylvanians looked into him in the weeks preceding their primary, they linked his name to the much-talked-about Clinton-Obama debate in Philadelphia and also his "bitter" comments about small-town voters.
According to Yahoo News Search Buzz, the top three searches in Pennsylvania on Obama were for his name and biographical information. The fourth-most-searched term was the debate, and the fifth dealt with "bittergate." When it came to Clinton, it was more about the issues. And users often paired the senator from New York's name with the search term "healthcare."
"It's really interesting because the searches for Obama were about him and who he was," said Jess Barron, the director of programming for Yahoo News. "Perhaps some of the campaigning [Clinton]'s been doing made them focus on Obama's character." In addition, because Clinton has been in the public spotlight for many years as first lady and a senator before running for the presidency, Barron thought that perhaps people already knew her and thus tended to search for her biographical data less frequently.
Nationally, negative searches about Obama accounted for 7.6 percent of all searches that contained his name, while linking Clinton to a negative term accounted for only 1 percent of her searches on Yahoo.
In addition, during the week preceding the Pennsylvania primary, searches related to Clinton increased by 25 percent in Pennsylvania. A similar increase in online interest and searches occurred in New Hampshire days before Clinton decisively won the primary there, even though many polls showed her trailing Obama after his big Iowa win. In Pennsylvania, however, Clinton's win wasn't out of the blue, as she had been consistently ahead in the polls.
And while Web data often correlate with votes after the fact, the information generally can't be used to predict them. "You have to keep it in the context of the Web," explained Josh Levy, the associate editor of the website TechPresident, which measures how presidential candidates are using the Web. "This is not predictive of anything. What it is, is a snapshot of the enthusiasm of online voters and potential voters." Internet users aren't an accurate cross section of the American public, he added.
Though having buzz on the Internet could help a candidate's cause.
"A lot of activism will eventually spread this stuff beyond the Web," Levy said. "[It could] inspire people who are not plugged in."