How Online Searches Influence Voting: Going Negative Doesn't Work

A new joint Harris/BrandYourself study released Monday shows that nearly one third of U.S. adults have looked up information about a candidate online, which puts more onus on campaigns to get their online messaging straight. Encouragingly in the face of so much negative political messaging, positive information found online seemed to be surprisingly persuasive.

The study found that of those who were searching online, what they found often made a big difference. An impressive 54% reported finding something positive about the candidate that influenced them to actually vote for the politician. A slightly smaller number of respondents to the study (51%) found information that influenced them into not voting for the candidate in question.

Seeing positive results is thus at least, if not slightly more, important as burying negative information about a politician or launching full-scale attacks on an opponent.

Who's looking at candidate info was also revealed in the study, and the demographic is about what you would expect: In terms of jobs, students did the most online searching, with 48% of students looking up politicians online. On the other end of the spectrum, the unemployed have the lowest percentage of political researchers, with just 28% reporting they would look up a candidate.

Looking at the age breakdown, with 35% of 18-34 year-olds looking up candidates versus just 26% of 45-54 year-olds looking, you might come to the conclusion that it's mostly the younger generation with the most online interest about their elected officials. But don't count out the older generation yet.

The same poll showed that in the 55+ age category, 30% of respondents were seeking online information. And in the jobs breakdown, 31% of retirees were looking for political info. If anything, the study revealed that while online interest in politics seems to wane as people get older, it picks up again in the post-retirement years.

Online Searches Matter

Whatever online searchers are finding, it's making a difference to their voting behavior.

"We know there is a tremendous amount of information online about elections in recent years, as well as social media conversation," explained Anthony Rotolo, Professor at Syracuse University School of Information Studies. "These findings show us that these online interactions are undeniably having a large impact on voters' decisions. This is significant because online strategy continues to become a central part of political campaigning, making it very important to know that searching online for a candidate has an impact."

Positive information seems have the greatest level of impact - especially on students. Some 62% of students reported getting info that leaned them into voting for a candidate, while only 41% were persuaded by negative information that caused them to not vote for someone.

Perhaps the study reinforces what many of us have suspected all along: mudslinging and name-hijacking like "santorum" may get all the attention, but that's not really what people want to see. They're looking for reasons to vote for something, not just against something else. Successful candidates will make sure they find that positive information. 

 

Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock. Chart from BrandYourself/Harris.