Less than minutes after the end of Monday night’s debate, the spin started immediately: Donald Trump unsurprisingly declared victory pretty much right away, and Hillary Clinton’s surrogates were praising their candidate's performance. But there was one before/after metric that was pretty clear: while beforehand, Google trends showed Trump leading Google search terms nationally, as well as leading in 30 states, after the debate, Clinton led searches nationally and in all 50 states.
While this shouldn’t be confused as support for Clinton, nor should it be viewed as a possible November electoral college maps (I mean, in my dreams, maybe), it does give an interesting perspective into what kinds of questions the first presidential debate triggered in the electorate. The fact that more people — across the country — were motivated to perform searches about Clinton signals that they want to know more about her, and are less curious about her rival.
Of course, it should also be stipulated that searching for Clinton’s name doesn’t imply support. In fact, as of this moment, the top searched Clinton query is “Why should Hillary Clinton not be president?” I would imagine that even more outrightly negative questions — “Is Hillary Clinton dead” was the first return in Google’s autocomplete feature — would also help her numbers in Google’s measure of search terms.
The value of Google Trends data is not absolute — both figuratively and literally. The measurements provided by the service are not raw numbers of searches, but rather, how the search term performs in relative context (if you enjoy nerding out on math, this explainer of how Google Trends numbers are calculated is pretty good). What the shift in numbers does tell us is that search interest in Clinton (good or bad) eclipsed Trump not only nationally, but in each individual state as well. And while it’s possible that everyone in New York was looking up “Clinton’s sickest debate burns” and everyone in Mississippi was looking up “Is Hillary Clinton dead” (and therefore we’re just as divided as we were before the debate), something significant has changed.
What I find most reassuring about this development has to do with my experience earlier this year in the United Kingdom, when, the day following their national referendum deciding to leave the European Union, the second-most Googled search term in the UK was “What is the EU?” (This was second to “What does it mean to leave the EU?” which I think we can agree is another important question.) There was a spike of so-called “Regrexit” through Britain, realizing the day after it was too late that they should have taken the election more seriously.
Here’s hoping that America is having it’s own “Regrexit” moment in enough time to rectify the problem. Because, come Nov. 9, there’s no painkiller powerful enough to cure a bad Trump hangover.