The Sarah Palin Effect and Age vs. Gender

Bill Tancer is the general manager of research at the Internet-data firm Hitwise, and has appeared on this blog before. He is the author of a new book, Click: What Millions of People Are Doing Online and Why it Matters, and has filed a new guest post here.

Say what you will about the addition of Sarah Palin to the Republican ticket (here I said that most searches sought “hot” pictures of the Alaska governor); regardless of personal or political viewpoint, it is clear that McCain’s selection altered the political blogosphere.

Looking at U.S. Internet users’ interactions with political websites for the week ending with August 30, 2008 (the week of the Palin announcement), visits to over 800 campaign and blog sites grew 33.8 percent to reach the highest level of online political activity in the last three years.

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The massive surge in online political interest was also coincident with a change in the demographic composition of visitors to the category — but maybe not in the way you might expect.

Checking the demographics of visitors to political sites, I expected that gender composition would show the greatest difference pre- and post-Palin. In fact, the percentage of female versus male visitors was the least affected by the Palin announcement; age was the most affected.

If we look at the age demographics of online politics over time, the 55-plus crowd continues to be the predominant age group (39 percent at the end of 2007). In fact, if we look at online political interest by age group, there is a strong positive correlation: as age increases, so does percentage composition in political site visits.

The age group with the largest increase during the Palin surge during the week ending with August 30, 2008, was the 25- to 34-year-olds increasing to 14.4 percent of all visits from 13.4 percent the previous week (the 18 to 24 and the 55-plus age groups both decreased about 1 percent in the same time period).

Apart from overall category visits, the 25 to 34 age group also showed the greatest swing in visits to the two official campaign sites: barackoabama.com and johnmccain.com.

During the last week in August, McCain visitors in the 25 to 34 age group increased from 15.5 percent of all site visitors to 22.2 percent compared to the week ending with September 6, 2008, while Obama visitors dropped from 24.7 percent to 20.7 percent during the same week.

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, however, it’s important to remember that political site visits do not necessarily correlate very well to popular votes. In fact, one phenomenon that we’ve noticed in the past is that the closer you get to election time, the more crossover traffic happens between political viewpoints (liberals visiting conservative websites and vice versa).

Regardless of end-vote, online behavioral data indicate that recent events have ignited our interest in November’s election, especially for the 25- to 34-year-old voter.

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  1. Alex says:

    I’m sure it was an honest mistake, but Palin is the CURRENT Alaska Gov., not former. Love the Freakenomics blog, I read it all the time. Keep it up!

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  2. JoeL says:

    So, let me summarize: McCain selects an obscure, yet-to-be-known candidate for VP and the populace flocks to the mecca of easy-to-access information to educate themselves?

    Groundbreaking data, this.

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  3. PaulK says:

    Since no zooming in on August, it is hard to tell what this really is. Once both parties start having their conventions, people’s interest goes up anyway. How many people started looking at sites during/after the Democratic convention? Then, how many during/after the Republican?

    Certainly the introduction of an unknown will get more people clicking, and this is only fueled by all the scandals that seem to emanate from her (especially in light of the McCain campaign calling any questions on her record or behavior “sexist”). So, I am not sure if we can make as much of this as you imply.

    The real question is whether it has any real longer term impact now that the dust is settling somewhat (Trooper-gate may change that, but for now…).

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  4. Akhilesh says:

    Have the researchers considered the possibility that the increase in hits were due to the political conventions instead?

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  5. Thomas B. says:

    The week ending 8/30 included the entire Democratic Convention. Kind of hard to credit her announcment as the only reason for a change in traffic.

    The drop in traffic to Obama’s site could be attributed to him being on TV in primetime which was watched by the one of the largest tv audiences ever for a convention.

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  6. Cory says:

    Its true that the spike could be related to conventions in general, rather than the just Palin announcement. But considering that the specific week being discussed (week ending Aug 30) was the week of the Democratic convention, the migration of viewers to the McCain website is curious. Without the Palin factor, I wouldn’t have expected that trend until the following week.

    Hopefully this desire for information about Palin will enable people to judge her on her policies and beliefs, instead of her looks. But that might be asking too much in this popularity contest, I mean, election.

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  7. AJ says:

    Also worth consideration is the point of view of the web sites shown in STEPHEN J. DUBNER’s “Trolling on McCain’s Blog Is Apparently Okay” posted right here on Freakonomics yesterday. In that without the need for a login to post comments on McCain’s blog the chances of getting opposition traffic are much higher seeing as the site would appear to be a soap box in which conservatives are at least a little attentive.

    http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/09/15/trolling-on-mccains-blog-is-apparently-okay/

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  8. amr says:

    The fact is the Republicans had her on their radar for over a year. McCain decided now was the best time to introduce her instead of wait 4 more years.The thing is though, now the Dems want to investigate who is the real Sarah Palin and the Republicans are suing to keep her past exploits from coming to light. Your blog is an oasis and must endure!

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