A map of Google searches for political issues across every county in the United States feels like a periscope. It pokes above the political rhetoric and media coverage and peers straight into the nation's subconscious.
Crisis after crisis washes over the country. Attention rises and ebbs. We're left wondering what issues have enduring impact.
Health care does, it turns out. There are a few issues in the politics of politics, there is one obvious pattern. In almost every county almost every month for the past year, health care topped the charts. Medicare and Medicaid were perennially popular, as was mental health.
Geographic patterns emerge. Or at least they will. Bear with us.
We had nine issues that had strong political ties, heavy interest rates and issues of relevance across the political spectrum. Choosing required a few Issues can overlap, and each of our selected topics consisted of dozens or even a Google algorithm has been determined to be related. The algorithm combines searches in all languages.
To understand the maps, let's review for the Confederacy. At first glance, the results for this search were random. Searches for Confederate issues had surprisingly little relation to the Confederate States of America. It's a weird map.
Then, rather than filling each county equally, we scaled the circles by population. We would have preferred search volume, but Google could not provide that data. We found that the difference between the North and the South, but between populous urban areas and less-populous rural ones. The tiny rural dots become harder to see, but the trend becomes apparent.
Searches for the Confederacy does not just top the list in the Deep South, but also in rural parts of states like Colorado, Michigan and New Hampshire. In urban parts of those states, like Detroit and Denver, search searches did not crack the top four. Here, we show April 2018 – when searched during the controversy over Confederate monuments. October's search pattern is similar, but muted.
Other issues with higher search traction in rural communities since September include: agricultural subsidies, the Dakota Access pipeline, fracking, voting age, electoral fraud and flag desecration. Issues with high search traction in the most-populated fifth of counties included: the Patriot Act, free trade, political corruption, the Paris climate agreement, safe spaces and vaccine controversies.
We're taking the long-term view here. You can find real-time maps, including many that compare politicians head to head, at Google's midterms site. Click on specific states for details. Here's Texas.
Of course, Google search comes with many limitations. We can compare some of them and compare numbers nationwide by isolating issues that rank highest in each county. There is one significant distortion from population density: "Less likely to search traffic in less-populated counties. But where are they available, a Google representative said they'll be consistent.
Here are a few other maps. Each shows the issue at its peak in the past 12 months, as well as in October. Right now, the map is blanketed by two evergreen issues, immigration and health care. We do not have any grand conclusion. We just wanted to step back, on the eve of the midterms, and see which issues broke through and where.