Home Using the Web to Predict the Next President: So Far, 50/50

Using the Web to Predict the Next President: So Far, 50/50

Yesterday, we wrote that if the web were an indicator of political results, Ron Paul and Barack Obama would likely be squaring off in the US presidential elections next November. But with the first state contest out of the way, it looks like the web was only half right (any maybe didn’t have much to do with it at all). Obama, who was in a statistical tie with Hillary Clinton and John Edwards according to pre-caucus polls, convincingly defeated his rivals. Paul, however, finished fifth — exactly where he was polling (I incorrectly used his national poll average yesterday as his Iowa poll numbers), and still no where near the winner, Mike Huckabee, who collected 34% of the vote to Paul’s 10%.

Some tech pundits were impressed by Ron Paul’s 10%. “He beat the original odds on favorite to win (not the caucus, but the nomination) Rudy Giuliani. […] That’s pretty darn impressive, in my book,” wrote Mark Hopkins. Perhaps, but polling data predicted that as well. The final pre-caucus Iowa poll average at Real Clear Politics had Paul ahead of Giuliani, and actually, it more or less predicted the results of the caucus exactly (McCain and Thompson swapped positions, but both finished in a virtual tie — as they had been polling).

On the Democratic side, the web looks to have been a little better at predicting the results of the election. Obama, who was far and away the most popular Democratic candidate on the Internet, captured 37% of his party’s state delegates, easily beating Edwards and Clinton. So why is it that the web was so reliable at predicting the winner on the Democratic side, but so out of touch with the Republican side? We can piece together the answer from exit polling and other data by figuring out just why each candidate won.

Why Obama Won

We’ll tackle Obama first. According to exit polls, most of Obama’s support came from the 17-44 age group, which made up 30% of Democratic caucus goers. In the 17-24 age bracket, which made up 17% of the total turnout, Obama won 57% of the vote. It’s clear that Obama resonated with young voters in Iowa — precisely the type of people who would be most likely to follow politics via the Internet. What’s more, he (and the Democratic party) were able to motivate young voters to caucus.

Obama also won a plurality of independent and first-time caucus goers. Clearly, the Internet helped Obama a great deal. He was able to mobilize young voters online and actually translate that support into results at the polls. Further, as we noted earlier this year, Obama’s online popularity has helped him out-fundraise his rivals.

But Obama also used that money to far outspend other Democrats in Iowa. He reportedly spent $9 million to run nearly 11,000 television ad spots in Iowa — nearly $2 million more than Hillary Clinton. Obama also made 186 campaign stops in Iowa since July 1, 2007 — not the most among Democrats, but still indicative of a strong campaign in the state.

The data suggests that though the Internet clearly helped Obama by rallying support among young voters who actually turned up to vote, it was likely traditional offline campaigning that won the state for the Illinois Senator.

Why Huckabee Won

Huckabee’s numbers are more curious. He was outspent in Iowa (Mitt Romney — who finished second — spent $7 million on TV ads to Huckabee’s $1.4 million), and though Huckabee saw a surge of Internet support in the past couple of months, the exit polling showed that young voters made up only a small fraction on the Republican side, where the large majority of caucus participants were over the age of 45.

The exit polls do point to a reason for Huckabee’s run away victory, though: 60% of Republican voters identified themselves as “born-again or evangelical Christians,” and 46% of those voted for Huckabee. Huckabee, who is an ordained Southern Baptist minister, is generally seen as a champion of the Christian right.

It seems likely, then, that Huckabee owes his Iowa victory to a grassroots support movement among evangelical Christians — one that likely did not take place on social networking sites and YouTube, but rather in Churches and at small town hall meetings. Huckabee did make 120 visits to the state, the second most of any Republican candidate.

Why Ron Paul Didn’t Win

The same exit poll numbers that attribute Huckabee’s win to a strong evangelical Christian showing, also demonstrate a poor youth turnout that likely hurt Ron Paul. Most of Paul’s votes came from the 17-29 year old crowd, but that only accounted for 11% of the total caucus participants on the Republican side. Where Obama was helped by a strong youth turnout (the 17-29 age group made up 22% of Democratic voters), Paul was hurt by a weak youth turnout for the Republican caucus. It is interesting to note, as well, that Huckabee still crushed Paul in that age group, taking 40% of the under 30 vote, to Paul’s 21%.

Paul may also have been hurt by not running a very strong traditional campaign in Iowa. By mid-December, Paul had only bought radio time in Iowa, while his competition was spending up a storm to the tune of 8,500 TV spots for Romney and 1,800 spots for Huckabee. Paul also visited Iowa the least of the top 6 Republican candidates — only 37 times since July 1. Compared to 144 visits from Romney and 120 visits from Huckabee, Paul was a relative ghost in Iowa.

This could indicate that Paul conceded Iowa to the front-runners and plans to spend his massive war chest elsewhere (perhaps, as many have speculated, to run as an Independent — note: I am not well versed in campaign finance law, so I am not totally sure if it is legally plausible to spend money donated for a party primary run on a general election as an Independent). Or it could indicate what many of us have suspected, that the Internet can make a vocal minority appear to have much more momentum than they actually do.

The grassroots movement that has sprung up around Paul is spearheaded by a very web-savvy bunch. They have organized around tools like email, message boards, Google News, and Technorati, such that if something is blogged about Ron Paul, or submitted to Digg, or Reddit, they descend on it and make sure their collective voice is heard. But I think poll results — and I suspect election results as well — will continue to indicate that Paul’s vocal online minority is still just that: a minority.

And as for beating Giuliani? As I mentioned, the traditional polls predicted it would happen, and it’s really not a surprise considering Giuliani abandoned Iowa and New Hampshire weeks ago to focus his attention on later primary states, such as Florida (which votes on January 29) or those that vote on so-called Super Tuesday (February 5). Still, 10% of the vote is better than he was polling and is impressive. I don’t think it will be enough to carry him to the nomination, but the Internet did make Ron Paul relevant enough to get the mainstream media talking about him, which likely helped him gain some supporters.

I think the most interesting scenario for the future is an Independent run by Ron Paul (let’s face it, he’s not going to win the Republican nomination, and his politics line up more with the Libertarian party anyway — whom he represented in the 1988 presidential election). Ron Paul might still not have a realistic shot at winning the general election as an Independent, but with his fundraising prowess, he could make sure he was heard and might draw enough votes away from the major party nominees to have a real impact on the results.

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