How Google Searches Pretty Much Nailed the New Hampshire Primary

Real-time trending search queries foretold the outcome of the election.
Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg *** Local Caption *** Donald Trump

Google’s ability to look into the future of political contests just notched another win: New Hampshire.

Searches of presidential candidates conducted by Google users in New Hampshire on Feb. 9 corresponded closely with the voting results of the state’s primary. The top-searched Democratic candidate was Bernie Sanders, who won with 60 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, according to the Associated Press. He got 72 percent of the searches, according to Google, while Hillary Clinton got 28 percent of the queries and 38 percent of the vote.

The top-searched Republican candidate was Donald Trump, who won with 35 percent of the vote. On Google he received 41 percent of the searches an hour before the polls closed, according to the search giant. No. 2 was John Kasich, who got 16 percent of both the vote and the searches. Ted Cruz took third with 12 percent of the vote and 15 percent of the searches. The battle between Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio was close online and in real life. While Bush took fourth place at the polls, winning 11 percent of the vote, online he got just 7 percent of the searches. Meanwhile, Rubio got 10 percent of the searches and only 10.6 percent of the vote.

This is the first U.S. presidential election in which Google is releasing real-time results of trending search queries. Previously, the Alphabet Inc. unit had put out aggregated search data with a delay of a few days.

Even before news outlets began looking at the data to judge how a candidate was doing during a debate, there have been signs that the data were a window into a nation’s collective curiosity.

In the weeks leading up to Canada’s elections in October, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau became the top-searched leader in 50 percent of the country’s ridings. His party went on to win with 54 percent of the vote. Similarly, Google said in May that search trends showed wide interest in British Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party prior to last year’s U.K. general election, while polls were showing the race was neck and neck. Ultimately, Cameron’s party won in an upset.

While some academics have questioned whether Google’s trending data can predict anything, Nikos Askitas, director of data and technology at the Institute for the Study of Labor in Germany, said that in some instances search results may be a good indicator. He studied Google trends each hour during July’s Greek referendum on the euro and found it had accurately forecast the results—even when exit polls were unclear. “It was easy,” Askitas said. “The event was intense, so simply tracking yes-sayers and no-sayers sufficed. In the U.S. elections, I am planning to take a look at it, but it is not clear whether one can find such a strategy.”

Google remains coy about the power of its ability to look into the future. “We don’t make predictions, but I would say that the data is really interesting,” Simon Rogers, data editor of Google’s News Lab team, said last year in an interview. “The data gives you incredible insight to the way people are thinking.”