Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Gingrich Paradox: "Searching" as Minority Leader and as a Presidential Candidate

Newt Gingrich is trapped in a political paradox that simultaneously animates and undermines his search for the presidency.

Gingrich's political standing is built on his assault on the Democratic House majority that culminated in 1994. Backed by The Contract with America, Republicans achieved a majority in the House for the first time since the Eisenhower administration. It was a tremendous achievement, due, in no small part, to Gingrich's decades-long efforts to identify a set of policy proposals that could win a national electoral victory over the incumbent Democratic majority.

Gingrich is a perfect leader for a minority party, especially a minority party with dim prospects for near-term success. He has an apparently boundless capacity for generating endless streams of policy proposals and a knack for shuffling and reshuffling them into clever-sounding packages (the conservative opportunity society, Contract with America, winning the future). He is, in essence, some kind of human search algorithm programed to find a policy platform that can defeat the incumbent party's status quo in a complex policy space.

This is obvious a valuable skill for the leader of a legislative party in the "wilderness." Each iteration of a Gingrich "search" for the winning platform is, in some respects, costless. The party is in the minority in a majoritarian institution, so marginal changes in the size of its minority are not especially important. As a minority leader, Gingrich can experiment over and over again until he finds the right platform, which can then be presented by locally attractive candidates in each district rather than by the prickly Gingrich himself.

The situation is obviously very different for a presidential candidate entering a race that is likely to be incredibly competitive. Republicans don't need a Gingrich search to be competitive in 2012. Sure, Gingrich's propensity for trying out new ideas might yield an alternative that defeats Obama, but it might also lead to a runaway Obama victory in a race that should have been tight. Alternatively, a candidate more committed to a set of standard conservative policy prescriptions starts off and ends in a statistical tie with Obama. The choice for GOP voters then becomes a choice between a close, winnable contest, and a long-shot lottery that hinges on Gingrich's propensity to identify a winning alternative. If a Gingrich search is less that 50% reliable (give or take), it's a bad bet in this electoral climate.

Gingrich's problem then is his fundamental riskiness. Many GOP primary voters sense Gingrich's volatility and shy away from investing in him when predictable short-run returns are much more important than the chance of a big, one-shot payoff somewhere down the road. In the end, the same thing that makes Gingrich competitive in the Republican primary---his achievement in leading the Republican Party to a House majority in 1994---was motivated by precisely the same personal qualities that work against him as a presidential candidate.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Google Insights Forecast: Romney Takes Florida with 45% of the Vote (Gingrich 2nd with 24%)

Using Google Insights search index data to track expressed interest in the GOP presidential field in Florida shows Mitt Romney emerging as the solid leader in web search volume among the remaining Republican presidential candidates. As of January 28, Romney was attracting 38% of the daily web search volume in Florida dedicated to the Republican primary field. The candidates' relative web standing since December 1, 2011 is illustrated below.

Extrapolating linear trends in the last seven days of available data forward three days through tomorrow's primary yields these final Google Insights predictions:

Romney: 45%
Gingrich: 24%
Santorum: 19%
Paul: 12%

For comparison's sake, Nate Silver's final 538 poll-based forecast is:

Romney: 45%
Gingrich: 29%
Santorum: 13%
Paul: 11%

Obviously, both predictions indicate a Romney victory of approximately the same magnitude. However, the web search data indicate a somewhat greater decline in support for Gingrich (benefiting Santorum) than the poll data. More importantly (for me), though, the web-search data continue to produce election forecasts that are roughly comparable to polling data, indicating that, in the absence of traditional survey data, web search volumes may be an appropriate proxy for support or other kinds of affective attachment to candidates and other kinds of political objects (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Moneyball Metaphor in Higher Education Administration

In a post on National Review's Phi Beta Cons Blog, George Leef writes:
Cal State trustees...think that they must increase pay levels for CSU presidents so they will “attract top talent.” Read about it here.

I recently saw the movie Moneyball, in which the general manager of the Oakland Athletics (Billy Bean, played by Brad Pitt) defies the conventional wisdom that you can’t field a competitive team without spending a fortune. In view of California’s terrible financial condition, shouldn’t they at least try to find people who can capably lead universities and are willing to do so at the substantial compensation that’s already offered?
Leaving aside the issue of compensation for the California State University System's campus presidents for the moment, Leef's is merely the latest in a long string of blog posts, articles, and essays I've run into over the last few months that attempt to make a metaphor out of Moneyball for whatever the hell the person wants to spend less money on.

Look, the "conventional wisdom that you can’t field a competitive team without spending a fortune" does not really exist; it is a straw man. The lesson of Moneyball is not that cheap baseball players are just as good as expensive baseball players; that's silly.

The lesson of Moneyball is more complicated if ever so slightly less sexy. Moneyball points out that useful skills and attributes are sometimes undervalued in the marketplace, and that, when such inefficiencies exist, they can be exploited by those who are aware of the inefficiency. The Moneyball As know that OBP is much more important than either BA or SLG for actually winning baseball games even though the marketplace values the latter two indicators of players' performance more than the first. So, the As can use their limited resources to hire a roster of players with high OBP that are, as a group (in expectation), better at winning baseball games on a dollar-for-dollar basis than a team that spends more money to max out BA or SLG. (Of course, as soon as word gets out about OBP, big money teams will just buy up the high OBP players and drive poor little Oakland out of the market it discovered.)

Is there Moneyball potential in higher education administration? Maybe. It depends on whether the marketplace for university presidents, provosts, and deans systematically undervalues qualities related to performance or overvalues qualities that are unrelated to performance. For example, if universityies value hiring alumni of elite institutions as administrators but administrators' undergraduate education is unimportant for their performance, then any given university could get better value for their money by hiring administrators who went to less prestigious colleges since they, on average, command lower market wages than their tweed-clad peers while performing just as well at deaning or provosting.

The trick, of course, is the ability to identify useful metrics of university administrators' performance and to have good models of of those indicators of success. Once those are in place, potential employers can more accurately assess the prospects for any given job candidate's success and can make more objective and efficient hiring and salary decisions. A particular decision to raise or lower funds available for a particular set of university presidents, though, gives us little information about how that money will be spent and whether Moneyball principles would be applied in hiring decisions.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Gingrich Deflating in FL?

CNN's latest poll of likely Florida GOP primary voters shows some softness in Newt Gingrich's post SOuth Carolina surge. Overall, the poll indicates that Romney narrowly (and within the poll's margin of error) leads Gingrich, 38% to 36%. However, the poll's cross-tabs show Romney (32%) losing to Gingrich (38%) among those polled on Sunday (January 22), the day after Gingrich's South Carolina victory. That give Gingrich about 54% of the two-candidate, Romney-Gingrich support. Among those surveyed on Monday or Tuesday (January 23, 24), Romney wins 38% to 29%. That gives Romney about 57% of the Romney-Gingrich poll share.

The Google Inisghts search data I have been hawking (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), which is only available through Monday (January 23), shows the start of a similar Gingrich decline. The time series of the relative web search volumes attracted by Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich in Florida over the last two week are shown below.

If the CNN poll's dailies are, in fact, indicative of a downward Gingrich spiral in Florida, then I would expect to see continued relative decline in the public's interest in Gingrich expressed in web searches.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Surge in Web Searches for Gingrich in Florida

At 538, Nate Silver summarizes Newt Gingrich's surge in the polls leading up to next week's Florida primary, He also offers an updated forecast of the Florida primary based on those polls, showing Gingrich winning that state with 41.1% of the vote against 33.4% to Mitt Romney with Rick Santorum (11.3%) and Ron Paul (10.7%) splitting the remainder. This gives Gingrich about 55% of the two-candidate, Romney-Gingrich vote.

As part of my continuing efforts to figure out whether and how reliably web search volumes are indicative of positive affective attachment to a political figure or object (see here, here, here, here, here, and here), I am tracking the competition between Romney and Gingrich in Florida expressed through web search volumes associated with each candidate measured by Google Insights index scores (see here for a bit about how I use the Google data to evaluate candidates' relative standing).

Through Sunday, January 22, the day after the South Carolina primary, Gingrich has amassed a huge lead over Romney as an object of Florida-based web searches. The following figure illustrates the two candidate's share of their combined standing in Florida web searches from December 1, 2011 through January 22, 2012.
As late as January 16, Romney was attracting more than 80% of the two-candidate web-search volume leaving Gingrich with less than a fifth of the candidate's combined web searches. In the run up to and aftermath of Gingrich's win in the South Carolina, those figures have almost completely reversed. Gingrich now attracts almost three quarters of the two-candidate web search volume with Romney drawing only 26%.

Of course, these data end this past Sunday, so they capture the peak of Gingrich's South Carolina victory bounce without any subsequent natural decay or decline due to his sub-par debate performance or the sharpened criticisms leveled against him by his opponents. Still, these data reinforce the polling data that indicate that Romney's once-strong lead in Florida has utterly vanished and that Gingrich is now the Florida front-runner.

For me, the interesting question moving forward is whether subsequent polling and web search data show Gingrich continuing to surge upward in the polls towards the levels of relative support suggested by the web search data or whether his web-search standing declines to levels nearer his standing in the polls. Time will tell.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Google Knew About Gingrich SC Blowout: Forecasting and Assessing Public Opinion with Google Search Data

Right now, CBS News reports that roughly three quarters of South Carolina's precincts have reported results and that that Newt Gingrich has won about 41% of the reported vote compared to 27% for Mitt Romney. Gingrich is winning 60% of the two-candidate, Romney-Gingrich vote (or about 1.5 votes for every vote won by Romney). Though several recent polls had shown Gingrich pulling ahead of Romney during the last few days, none had indicated the extent to which he had displaced Romney as the South Carolina front runner.

The most pro-Gingrich poll reported by RealClearPolitics in the last week before the election was conducted by Public Policy Polling from January 18-20. It showed Gingrich up by 9% over Romney (37% to 28%), winning about 57% of the two candidate vote. (PPP's one night returns for January 20 showed with 40% to Romney's 26%, or 61% of the two-candidate vote.) Other polls showed Gingrich up by 2% to 6%.

Conventional polling was able to capture the Gingrich surge if it continued right up until the last minute, but most polling organizations had stopped rolling samples by January 18. As it turns out, though, Google Insights search index data also captured the Gingrich surge. As I have blogged about elsewhere, I have strong suspicions that web search volumes are indicative of affective attachment to political objects (see here, here, here, here, and here.) Yesterday, I posted a forecast for the South Carolina based on Google Insights search index data through January 18 predicting Gingrich winning 55% of the Romney-Gingrich vote.

Google Insights data through yesterday,  January 20, are now available. These show Gingrich's continued extension of his lead over Romney in the intervening two days' worth of data. Using the two candidate search volume data I described in yesterday's post, the relative Google Insights's standing of Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney over the preceding eight days (from January 13-January 20) is illustrated below.

The final day's results show Gingrich attracting 64% of the two-candidate web-search volume. Taking that as a forecast for today's primary yields a prediction that outperforms most individual conventional polls, poll averages, or poll-based models. (Also, it is important to remember that I am using the most crude, publicly available web-search data imagineable. If someone working with raw web-use data were so inclined, they could generate web-search volumes from users who fit profiles of likely voters, weight data from different types of users, or generally do something much more precise and sophisticated that whatever I can pull off through the regular Google Insights interface.)

The most important point, for me, is not that Google search volumes might be useful for forecasting, though that is a fun, potential implication of these efforts. For me, the important point is that web searches are indicative of public affect or political support (or some related concept) and that they, therefore, might be useful for making inferences about the public's support for or attachment to candidates or policies for which conventional survey data is simply not available, which is precisely the argument Sylvia Manzano and I advance in our forthcoming paper on Latino support for the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Justice Stevens on Colbert

Enjoy (h/t to @Bonneau_Says).

South Carolina Google Insights Forecast Through January 18

I have previously written about using web search volumes as a proxy for survey data to indicate support for political candidates or proposals as an alternative or adjunct to conventional polling data. My tentative position, that web searches indicate support, and that relative web search volumes can indicate relative levels of support (especially cross-sectionally) indicates potential for using web search volumes to forecast election outcomes. My efforts to use Google Insights index scores to forecast the GOP Iowa Caucuses produced pretty mixed results compared to conventional polling (and poll-based models).

I missed forecasting the New Hampshire primary while I was traveling, but I am back in action for South Caroline. (I also plan to go back and "forecast" New Hampshire over the next few days.) My intuition (and hope) is that search data will do better for forecasting in primaries than in caucuses (and better in open primaries than closed primaries, and better still in general elections than in primaries).

In any event, I have collected Google Insights scores from South Carolina over the past 90 days for Romney (the combined indices of "Mitt Romney" and "Romney") and Gingrich (the combined indices of "Newt Gingrich" and "Gingrich") through January 18 in order to develop a forecast of the relative vote totals of those two candidates, i.e. how well they do compared to one another (as opposed to how well they do among all votes cast for all candidates).

The first figure illustrates the combined index scores for each candidate since December 1.

The second shows the relative proportion of the total Google search volume dedicated to each candidate with the values for January 18 labeled.

As of two days ago, Romney's commanding lead in expressed interest in South Carolina has dwindled substantially. As of the 18th, he lead Gingrich by a margin of only 0.53 to 0.47. His proportion of the two web search volume has shrunk to just over half. It had been as high as 0.75 as late as January 13.

Moreover, if the recent trend in the data through January 18 has continued over the last two days, it is likely that Gingrich's web search prominence has overtaken Romney. Using data for the last seven observed days (January 12-18), a linear model predicts a decline of 0.04 points in Romney's proportion of the two candidate web search volume for each passing day, and an increase of 0.04 points in Gingrich's share. Extrapolating that estimate forward through today gives Gingrich a two percentage point lead in the head-to-head web search race, and extending it through tomorrow would give him a final advantage of 10% over Romney.

Taking that three-day extrapolation of the seven-day model as the Google Insights forecast, then, predicts that Gingrich will win 55.3% of the two candidate vote share in South Carolina with Romney claiming the remaining 44.7%. If Paul and Santorum take a combined 30% of the vote in South Carolina, this indicates total vote shares of 38.5% and 31.5%, respectively, for Gingrich and Romney. If Paul and Santorum take 20%, Gingrich and Romney's  predicted vote shares increase to  44.0% and 36.0%.

Update 4:05PM: For whatever it's worth, 538's final South Carolina forecast (based on a statistical model of polling data) is:

Gingrich: 35.6%
Romney: 32.5%
Paul: 15.8%
Santorum: 12.8%

For those of you keeping score, that forecast gives Gingrich 52.3% of the Gingrich-Romney, two candidate vote, which is 3% lower than my Google Insights-based forecast of 55.3%.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Ugly, Cheap, and Tawdry: Newsweek Goes After Santorum's Wife

I am no fan of Rick Santorum, but the various "news" stories circulating about his wife's romantic life before she met, dated, or married him are totally inappropriate. Reasonable people can disagree about how much attention a candidate for public office's personal life should receive. Yet, I see no reasonable public or journalistic purpose served by digging around into the private life---the twenty-three year old private life---of candidates' spouses. In fact, the net result of this kind of junk is that excellent people stay out of presidential politics. Rick Santorum is exactly right in saying:
It's ugly, it's cheap, it's tawdry... It has no relationship to the issues at hand in this race, and we're gonna treat it just like the ridiculous stuff that you see where you treat it for the value it is, which is zero.
So, congratulations, Newsweek, you just made me agree with Rick Santorum.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

New Conference Paper: The Public Administration of the Supreme Court: The Chief Justice, Management, and Consensus

My coauthor, Carla Flink, and I unveiled our new paper on the role of the Chief Justice on Supreme Court decision-making at last week's meeting of the Southern Political Science Association:
The Public Administration of the Supreme Court: The Chief Justice, Management, and Consensus
Joseph Daniel Ura
Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science
Texas A&M University
Carla Flink
Doctoral Student
Department of Political Science
Texas A&M University
In this paper, we draw on a prominent model of public management to develop a preliminary theoretical approach to understanding the role of the chief justice in Supreme Court decision-making. In particular, we argue that Court may seek legitimacy through greater unanimity and discuss how the leadership of the chief justice can facilitate that effort. We assess two hypotheses derived from this theory, showing that increased efficiency in the chief justice’s use of his formal powers over his tenure in office and greater agreement among the justices as the incumbent chief justice’s tenure in office increases. We argue that these results provide support for further attention to and development of a public administration-based approach to the study of Supreme Court decision-making.
The manuscript is still very much at the conference paper stage, but it is promising, and I hope we can wrap up a solid, publishable draft by the end of the spring semester. Professional comments on this version are most welcome. You may download the paper here.

Friday, January 6, 2012

100 Tennessee High School Students Suspended For Acting Like High School Students

So, in Hickman County, Tennessee, which is just southwest of Nashville and adjacent to Williamson County, where I grew up, county school administrators decided to "remand" a student to the county's "alternative school" for the remainder of the school year and suspend another 100 students for three days each for filming and participating in a video which had been posted on YouTube in which students are shown saying "bitch ass," apparently in reference to their high school principal. Here is the offending video:


Does this video merit anything stronger than a stern talking to punctuated with a, "Would you want your mom or your grandmother seeing you act this way?" These are children using some, frankly, pretty mild profanity (allegedly) to express frustration with their high school principal. (It's not clear to me that most of the students did anything more than say, "bitch ass," into the camera without any information about how the footage would be used.) Did the high school administrators who decided to suspend these kids not go to high school? Do they not remember suffering under the asinine and petty tyranny of a public high school? Do they not have more important things to do? Might the students who made and participated in this video have a point after all?


Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Google Insights Iowa Caucus Projections: Update Through January 2

Through my new Italian correspondent, I have learned that Google has updated its Insights search index data through yesterday, January 2 for Iowa. So, it's now possible to update the forecast for tonight's Caucus a bit. I will use the same assumptions that "other candidates in the Iowa race will get about 10% of the Caucus vote between them [which I now realize is probably too low] and that Google Insights scores are directly comparable to levels of electoral support, these data indicate the following vote percentages." I have, however, fiddled a little bit with the search terms used for this forecast compred to the ones I have rolled out earlier. Having now observed that some candidates last names alone, Santorum and Gingrich, return both unambiguous search results (e.g. not Katy Perry mixed in with Rick Perry when searching for "Perry") and higher Google Insights scores than the combination of all candidates first and last names (which I had been using in my previous posts).

The Google Insights scores from January 2 and the resulting forecasts are:

Ron Paul---100 (32.5%)
Rick Santorum---75 (24.4%)
Mitt Romney---49 (15.9%)
Newt Gingrich--- 31 (10.7%)
Rick Perry---22 (7.1%)

Subjectively, I think these data are over-reporting Ron Paul's standing a bit, since his supporters tend to be younger who are (probably) more likely to use the internet and under-reporting Santorum's standing since his supporters tend to be older social conservatives who are (probably) less likely to be online. Also, I am pretty sure I have over-stated the support for all of the included candidates since I have low-balled the estimate for "all others" at 10% total, but I can't include them individually since the public Google Insights tool limits users to seeking out five search terms at a time. Still, the data are consistent with my own baseless sense of how the candidates will line up when the votes are tallied: Paul, Santorum, and Romney taking the top three spots, in that order.

Web Searches and the Iowa Caucus: Update

Daily Google Insights index scores from Iowa are now available for January 1. They show that Rick Santorum has moved into 2nd place in the web search primary. Google Insights scores for the five leading Republican presidential candidates are:

Ron Paul---70
Rick Santorum---32
Mitt Romney---22
Rick Perry---15
Newt Gingrich---13

Once again, assuming that the other candidates in the Iowa race will get about 10% of the Caucus vote between them and that Google Insights scores are directly comparable to levels of electoral support, these data indicate the following vote percentages (with projections based on last week's Google Insights index scores in parentheses).

Ron Paul---41% (45%)
Rick Santorum---21% (10%)
Mitt Romney---14% (14%)
Rick Perry---9% (10%)
Newt Gingrich---8% (10%)

The figures capture both the strong surge in support for Rick Santorum which has been evident in the polls and the continued collapse of Newt Gingrich.

In contrast, polls show a much closer contest between Romney and Paul for the Iowa win, with Romney holding a slight advantage. ARG's latest poll, which concluded on January 1, indicates:
Mitt Romney leads the Iowa Republican Presidential Caucus with 22%. Following closely, Ron Paul is in second place at 17%, Rick Santorum is in third place at 16%, and Newt Gingrich is in fourth place at 15%.
Likewise, Intrade's current market for election futures indicates that Romney is the most likely winner of the Iowa Caucus. Current prices for the Iowa Caucus future indicates that Romney's probability of winning the Caucus is 51.6% with Ron Paul (27.0%) and Rick Santorum (20.4%) assigned nontrivial prospects of winning. The Intrade market has little faith in either Gingrich (0.5% chance of winning) or Perry (0.2% chance of winning) pulling off a comeback.

Update: I just found this bit from a report on Iowa State University's Poll, released December 22:
A new Iowa State University/Gazette/KCRG poll of 333 likely Iowa Republican caucus goers finds Ron Paul in the top spot among GOP presidential candidates with 27.5 percent, followed closely by Newt Gingrich with 25.3 percent. Paul's lead over Gingrich is within the poll's margin of error at plus or minus 5 percentage points.

Mitt Romney is in third place at 17.5 percent, while Rick Perry is the only other candidate to poll in double digits at 11.2.

While Paul's lead is just over 2 percentage points and easily within the poll's margin of error, it may actually be more solid than it appears.

"What our poll says is that 51 percent of Paul's supporters say they're definitely backing him," said James McCormick, professor and chair of political science at Iowa State and coordinator of the poll. "The percentage for the next two candidates is much weaker, at 16.1 for Mitt Romney and 15.2 for Newt Gingrich. Moreover, the percentage of respondents 'leaning to' or 'still undecided' in their support for these latter two candidates remains high, at 58 percent for Gingrich and 38 percent for Romney. In other words, I'm going to make the case that these numbers are still very soft for those two candidates."

"I think Paul probably under-polls," said Dave Peterson, interim director of the Harkin Institute of Public Policy at Iowa State and associate professor of political science who assisted with the poll. "His supporters are younger and more likely to reply on a cell phone, so he's probably going to perform better than his polling suggests. His supporters also are dedicated and will likely turn out on caucus night and not change their minds."
The Dave Peterson quoted is none other than Aggie PoliSci Legend David A. M. Peterson, by the way.

Political Analysis with Google Search Data: A Roundup

My friend and coauthor Sylvia Manzano pointed out this story from yesterday's Morning Edition on NPR. NPR's science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam, interviewed UNC sociologist Phil Cohen, who discussed how political web searches correlate with cultural and aesthetic web searches. Here's part of the transcript of the conversation between Morning Edition host Linda Werthheimer and Vedantam:
VEDANTAM: There's a sociologist that I spoke with at the University of North Carolina. His name is Phil Cohen. And what he did is he said can we apply this tool [Google Correlate] to politics. And so he said let me search for prominent, liberal and conservative commentators - people like Rachel Maddow and Stephen Colbert, or Rush Limbaugh.
And what he found, unsurprisingly actually, was that the places where people were doing a lot of searches for the liberal commentators tended to be liberal places. They were places that tended to vote for President Obama in the 2008 election.
WERTHEIMER: California.
VEDANTAM: Exactly. But he also found that the places which searched for the liberal commentators also tended to search for very particular kinds of foods.
WERTHEIMER: Now, that is very strange.
VEDANTAM: So let me play you a little bit of what Phil Cohen told me in terms of what the liberals who are searching for Rachel Maddow are also searching for, in terms of their food.
PHIL COHEN: On the liberal list are arugula pasta, beets nutrition, beets urine, fake meat, fennel salad, firm tofu, a variety of vegetarian cooking, vegetarian recipes. Something like a Republican stereotype of what a liberal food diet might be.
And, from my reader comments, I learned about this Italian blog, Studi e Proiezioni Elettorali (Surveys and Election Forecasts), that's been playing around with using Google Trends and Google Insights data to forecast European elections and trying different ways of weighting the these web search data to correct for some kinds of selection bias inherent in drawing inferences about the electorate from the population of internet searchers.

Some of my own musings about the value of web search data for political analysis here and here.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Santorum's Mo

Rick Santorum seems to be the latest GOP candidate to gather spontaneous momentum ahead of the Iowa Caucus. He's running a close third in the latest round of Iowa polling, just behind Ron Paul and Mitt Romney. Considering Santorum's run last May, I wrote:
[Santorum's] thinking is philosophically indistinguishable from that of President Obama and most of the rest of the Democratic Party. It boils down to a belief that people should not be free to choose, that we are too stupid or immoral to decide what's best for ourselves, and that we need government to step in to save us. Democrats and Santorumites may have different priorities about how to use government and what particular choices they want the government to make on our behalf, but there is no principled difference between government commanding us to buy health insurance in order to promote universal health care and government proscribing contraception, abortion, or consensual homosexual sex. Either you are for a limited government exercising a finite set of enumerated powers or not, and it is clear to me on which side Santorum falls.
I've neither seen nor heard anything since to change my mind.

Web Search Volumes and the Iowa Caucus

For the last couple of years, I have been musing about the meaning of web searches as an indicator of affective attachment to individual politicians and causes. My first cut at the problem was the belief that web searches are indicative of support. (In fact, Sylvia Manzano and I have an article forthcoming in Political Communication that argues as much.)

Taking that at face value for the moment, this figure shows the weekly Google Insights index scores, based on web searches originating in Iowa during 2011, for the five front-running candidates for the Republican presidential nomination.
In these data, Ron Raul has developed a commanding lead. For the last week of 2011, the candidates' Insights scores are:

Ron Paul---100
Mitt Romney---30
Rick Perry---23
Rick Santorum---22
Newt Gingrich---21

Since the Insights scores are proportional, we can translate them into fractions of overall "support." Assuming that the other candidates in the Iowa race will get about 10% of the Caucus vote between them and that Google Insights scores are directly comparable to levels of electoral support (which seems like a crazy assumption to make, but I am rolling with it for now), these data indicate vote percentages of:

Ron Paul---45%
Mitt Romney---14%
Rick Perry---11%
Rick Santorum---10%
Newt Gingrich---10%

Transforming the Google Insights scores' transformation into percentages of support draws some sharp contrasts with conventional polling of "likely" Caucus goers. Public Policy Polling of North Carolina, which seems to have the freshest poll heading into tomorrow night's Iowa Caucus, reports:
The Republican caucus in Iowa is headed for a photo finish, with the three leading contenders all within two points of each other. Ron Paul is at 20%, Mitt Romney at 19%, and Rick Santorum at 18%. Rounding out the field are Newt Gingrich at 14%, Rick Perry at 10%, Michele Bachmann at 8%, Jon Huntsman at 4%, and Buddy Roemer at 2%.
Both the poll and the web search volumes (treated as support) put Paul and Romney in the first two slots, but the poll shows the two much closer together and shows them running evenly with Rick Santorum and with Gingrich and Perry trailing a bit more.

Looking at the poll numbers and the Google Insights scores side-by-side leads me to think that, at least in the context of elections, web searches may be more usefully thought of as indicators of "stimulation" (in the Rabinowitz and MacDonald sense) than of support. Stimulation, of course, may result in support when candidates and potential voters are on the same side of the status quo policy (so long as a candidate preserves some adequate acceptability), but it can also yield opposition when candidates and potential voters are on opposite sides of the status quo.

This directional voting interpretation makes some sense in the case of Ron Paul. His strong, libertarian-ish stands have won him intense support in some quarters of the Republican Party while engendering intense opposition from other parts of the Party. Likewise, many regard him as an unserious candidate, beyond a region of acceptability, and therefore shy away from supporting him despite a policy-based inclination to do so.

In any event, moving ahead, if Ron Paul outperforms the polls and wins Iowa by any sizeable margin, we will have one more bit of evidence indicating that web searches can be a useful leading indicator of political support for cases in which traditional polling is difficult or unavailable. If not, we will have an additional reason to rethink what web search volume means, perhaps along the lines suggested above.