Raab on Forbes: Google Trends and the Government Shutdown

As published on Forbes.com.

As Friday, April 8, 2011 turned to Saturday, April 9, the Washington Post reported, “Congressional leaders agreed late Friday to a compromise that will keep the federal government funded for the remainder of the fiscal year — averting a government shutdown less than an hour before it was set to start.”  A 2011 government shutdown had been avoided.  In the lead up to this crisis-averting agreement, the public turned to the web for information.  Google Trends, a real-time index of the volume of Google searches for particular keywords, reported a noticeable uptick in traffic among Americans searching terms related to “government shutdown.”  Beginning a few days before the compromise, interest approximately doubled each day.  We had been warned the government might shut down, and so we looked to figure out what was going on and what a shutdown might mean.

Predictably, a high percentage of this 2011 traffic came from Washington, DC, Virginia, and Maryland, areas disproportionately impacted by the federal government’s powering down.  Google Trends does not divulge the exact traffic numbers but rather shows this index on a scale of 0 to 100.  So a number of 50 within a specific time frame would represent half the relative volume as 100.  On the week of the crisis-averting vote, the District of Columbia set the standard at 100.  Just a few states broke 60.  But most were near or below 30, meaning they had one-third the relative traffic of the Capitol.  The day after the vote, Saturday, interest was still high but had begun to decline.

Fast-forward to 2013 and the data tell a different story, one of widespread but belated interest that eventually eclipsed anything in 2011.  Put the graphs next to each other.   The blue line represents 2013; the red line is 2011.

A Google Trends graph showing relative, day-by-day public interest in a shutdown in 2011 and 2013 for the week surrounding the moment of potential crisis. The blue line shows the abrupt spike in 2013. The red line shows a more gradual climb. From Google Trends.

The high point of 2013 is the peak to date of the blue line (it could easily go higher). This is Tuesday, October 1, the first day of the shutdown, and it sets the comparative high point of 100 (data for later dates is not yet available).  The high point of 2011 is the peak of the red line, Friday, April 8, 2011, which was the eve of a potential shutdown.  This number is less than one third of its peak this year.  But the spike in 2013 is abrupt, as if the American people were caught off guard.  It occurred the day after the vote, when Americans realized that a shutdown had already occurred.  The day before, interest was just one-fifth of that number and one third less than its counterpart in 2011.   Americans turned late to the issue but when they did, they turned en masse.  While the numbers from more recently in 2013 change slightly within a limited range as Google Trends synthesizes and posts more data, the trend remains.

This time around, the crucial days beforehand occurred over a weekend.  Since on Saturday and Sunday search volume tends to be lower, this might account for some of the diminished traffic, but not all of it.

What does all this tell us?  Did we simply not believe a government shutdown would happen in 2013 until it had already done so?  After so many false alarms, this seems reasonable.  And the data help support it.  Delve deeper, and you can see that 2013 makes 2011 look like a regional affair, but not until late in the game.  If Washington, DC this year also establishes the 100 mark, as it did in 2011, nearly every state broke 40, many broke 50 and at least 10 broke 65.  But these numbers only moved to match and then beat 2011 once Americans realized that Washington had failed to find a solution and much of the government was closed.

Expand your search and you can see how terms like “government shutdown” and “debt ceiling” are relatively new entrants to the public vocabulary.  They rarely surfaced during the George W. Bush presidency.  The blue line represents public interest in the “debt ceiling” dating back to 2004.  There is barely a blip until 2011.

A Google Trends graph showing the public interest in "debt ceiling" dating back to 2004. From Google Trends.

No such centralized research tool exists to analyze the past historical record. Google Trends goes back only to 2004. It gives insight into what people care about and what information they need as Google sees it.  Such data can be used to track all sorts of information, from disease outbreaks to budding political movements.

But what if it had existed as a political and historical research tool in the past?  Is it a leading or a lagging indicator?  Maybe both.

This year, the public seems to have reacted to the shutdown already under way.  But what if before the Civil War both sides could have tracked the growth in the level of antipathy in the other? Would this have avoided any confusion or misinterpretation over each side’s intent or seriousness?  Could it be used to craft policy?  Imagine being able to track similar data during the Great Depression.  This could have allowed policy makers to see the growth of poverty and where it was the most pressing problem.  It might have shown what was working and where.  What could we have learned during World War II?

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