Last week FHQ had a look at the development of GOP presidential candidate searches in Google throughout the 2008 invisible primary period (2005-2007). When the 2008 search data is added to the full time series a much deeper glimpse at the significant jump John McCain made heading into the 2008 contests is gained. Also, Ron Paul's 2007 gains peak once primary season commences and then decay rather quickly as a McCain nomination becomes highly likely following the Super Tuesday contests on February 5.
When the Paul numbers are suppressed (see figure above), we see that the two tracks argument mentioned in the previous post (a Thompson/Huckabee track and a McCain/Romney track) breaks down as the contests get underway. Recall, that once Thompson's candidacy failed to take off, Mike Huckabee essentially filled the void entering 2008. But that more social conservative track peaks and collapses after the Iowa caucuses, leaving a two person battle (in terms of Google searches) among the moderate/fiscal conservatives on the McCain/Romney track. Until...
Super Tuesday. Once we zoom in to look at just the 2008 portion of the time series, it is apparent that (again, in terms of Google searches) Huckabee's inability to back up the Iowa win with anything prior to Super Tuesday hurt the former Arkansas governor's chances at the nomination. Romney, despite the money spent, didn't win Iowa but was able to manage victories in several states (Wyoming, Michigan Nevada and Maine) between that point and Super Tuesday. That seems to have kept him viable in Google searches until Super Tuesday when Romney bested McCain in an Obama-esque run through the caucus states while falling further behind McCain in the delegate count because of the Arizona senator's wins in larger, winner-take-all states. The former Massachusetts governor's searches plummet after that point, coinciding with his withdrawal from the race.
In that intervening Iowa to Super Tuesday period, though, the race was on that McCain/Romney track in regard to Google searches. And though Romney dropped below Huckabee upon his withdrawal, Huckabee was more an afterthought in comparison to McCain at that point anyway. We don't, for instance, see Huckabee's search levels go up following Romney pulling out of the race. And that's what we'd expect given the way these nomination campaigns have gone in the recent past: a nominee quickly emerges and everyone else falls by the wayside.
Just for a bit of perspective, let's zoom in a bit further and include just the January to August data (dropping the general election search data). McCain searches don't reach the point at which Ron Paul was at the beginning of 2008 until after the GOP convention. But what is really striking is how much that Paul presence online deteriorates as McCain is sealing the deal on the nomination (Super Tuesday to March 4). Yes, both candidates are quite similar in their search trajectories over that period, but the key is looking at where each began the year. Once the contests started McCain searches took off and Paul searches dropped precipitously.
The other thing we gain from this is that 2008 on the GOP side provides us with a case not of invisible primary candidate emergence, but of primary season candidate emergence. And that's not something that Americans have been able to witness too often in the post-reform era. It is too bad we don't have comparable data for the Ford-Reagan race in 1976.
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2008 GOP Candidate Emergence, Part 2