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:
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:
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.