Midterm Moodiness

What’s on the minds of voters?  Unemployment, taxes, and the tea party.  That’s according to a new analysis of Yahoo! searches from 30 days before and after the midterm election.

Throughout 2010, outsider candidates, high political drama, and quirky platforms (like “The Rent Is Too Damn High“) preoccupied voters’ attention online and off. When it came to the issues, though, the economy — and in particular unemployment and foreclosures — dominated searches and spiked in the weeks leading to Election Day. Since then, search volume for those terms dropped off to pre-election levels. In their place, focus has shifted to the tough work on the national budget. November lookups into the deficit and extending the Bush-era tax cuts more than doubled compared to the previous month.

According to Yahoo! Clues (a feature that looks at the demographics behind keyword searches), about 93% of searches for “Bush tax cut” came from people whose incomes are below $50,000. (Nationally a little over half of American households earn less than $50,000 a year.) Only 5% of these searches were from users earning between $50,000 and $75,000, and 2% were from searchers earning more than $75,000.

There may be lessons for politicians in this data. Retracting the health care bill had been a campaign promise for several Republican candidates. Yet people don’t seem interested in revisiting the debate over health care reform: Even during the height of the midterm campaigns, searches on the health care law were relatively low. And while Americans have focused on stagnant housing market, searches for “foreclosures” dropped off 43% in November.

Persistent issues: A chart of keyword searches during midterm elections

Understanding the political landscape
After Republicans won control of the House, people turned to the Internet to understand the new political landscape. They posed questions like “What is a lame duck session?”, “Who controls the senate?”, and “What is a republican?” The last time that political party control shifted in the House but not the Senate happened after the midterm election of 1930, a period when Americans were gripped in the Great Depression.

The elections did not seem to end the confusion over who and what the tea party represents.  The week of the elections, searches for “tea party” spiked more than 200% compared to the week before, then dropped by more than 500% in the week after the election. A sizable number of users who want to know “What is the tea party movement?” and “What does the tea party stand for?”

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The tea party might have caused a splash in the media, but campaign spending drove search volume the most, evident by the attention drawn to big spender Meg Whitman. The California gubernatorial candidate was the third most searched-for politician, after President Obama and Sarah Palin, in the month before the election. Searches for Whitman and Democratic opponent Jerry Brown were neck-and-neck in the month leading up to the election, but searches for Whitman increased by 60% after she lost. Most queries focused on her wealth: “How much is Meg Whitman worth?” and “How much did Meg Whitman spend?”

Ultimately, when averaged out for the year, Whitman comes in seventh on the Most-Searched Politicians of 2010. The candidate who got the most eyebrow-raising scrutiny: Christine O’Donnell, the tea party candidate who ran for Delaware’s U.S. Senate seat.

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Most Searched Politicians on Yahoo!, before and after election day

State interests
Several key state races garnered attention from the national media and in Web searches across the country.

  • Alaska: Alaskans led the nation in searches for the keyword “election,” likely due to the twists and turns in its U.S. Senate race, which ended in a showdown between a tea party favorite, Joe Miller, and Lisa Murkowski, a Republican write-in candidate.  Searches for “Joe Miller handcuffs” went through the roof nationally, after his campaign security team handcuffed a journalist at a rally.  Murkowski was eventually declared the winner, but Miller is challenging the vote count.  That race also had Yahoo! users curious about Alaska’s junior senator, Democrat Mark Begich.  Searches jumped for the term “Mark Begich high school diploma.” Begich is the only member of the Senate without a college degree.
  • California: California’s high-profile gubernatorial candidates made headlines across the country, yet many searchers focused on Proposition 19, which would have legalized certain marijuana-related activities. Searches on that proposition were three times greater than for any other proposition in the nation. In the continued focus on outsider candidates’ personal wealth, people also looked up “Carly fiorina campaign spending” (U.S. Senate race) and “Meg Whitman concession speech” (gubernatorial race).
  • Colorado: Searches soared for “Is being gay like alcoholism?” after Ken Buck, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate and tea party favorite, claimed that being gay is “like alcoholism … you have a choice.” Buck lost to Democrat Michael Bennett in a very close race.
  • Delaware:  Yahoo! users across the country wanted to know more about Christine O’Donnell’s interest in witchcraft, revealed in interviews with Bill Maher a few years ago.  The Sarah Palin-endorsed candidate attempted to deflect the issue with an ad in which she said, “I’m not a witch.” The move, as O’Donnell herself admitted, backfired: Searches spiked for “Christine O’Donnell witchcraft,” and she stayed on the radar. She received another surge of scrutiny when she doubted opponent Chris Coons’s statement about the separation of church and state being in Constitution, and sparked lookups on multiple amendments.
  • Kentucky: The state gave us the term “aqua Buddha” after Democrat Jack Conway (made references to Republican Rand Paul‘s college affiliations. Conway accused Paul, a tea party supporter, of belonging to a secret college society that worshipped a god called Aqua Buddha.

Once the votes were tallied, people returned to national matters, and focused on the president, both to delight in his “shellacking” and to see how he would maintain command with this new order. Searches for Obama increased by 56% in November. Despite the long, expensive, and sometimes nasty tone of this midterm election, Yahoo! users don’t seem to be suffering from campaign fatigue.  Some are looking forward to the big contest, asking “Who will run for president in 2012?”

–Eugenia Chien and Brendan McQuaid

–Before joining Yahoo! as a Search editor, Eugenia Chien was a reporter at New America Media in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, on KQED, and on KALW.

–Yahoo! Search Editor Brendan McQuaid previously worked for the BBC and Dreamworks as a locations manager in the UK. He currently resides in San Jose with his wife and two daughters.

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