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Who and what are voters reading about online as they head to the polls?

Ahead of Election Day, do you know what Americans are paying attention to as they head to the polls? A lot has happened this fall—the Brett Kavanaugh hearing and confirmation just for starters, not to mention hurricanes Florence and Maria, and that $700 million powerball. Events like these continue to captivate newshounds, and many will likely play a pivotal role in our electorate’s decision-making come Election Day.

During my time at Slate as the Research Director and now as a Data and Analytics consultant working in political and media spaces, I am routinely struck that readers and voters do not always pay attention to campaign hot button issues as much or as long as you’d expect. For instance, the Kavanaugh hearing captivated me and everyone I know for days. The hearings rank high on the list of “in my day” stories I’ll pass along to (hypothetical) grandkids many years into the future, but even with a story this big, the news cycle kept turning.

This study considers some of the most common issues pollsters and politicos alike draw on to sway voters, in comparison with online readership habits as captured and aggregated with Parse.ly’s Currents dashboard. To add some perspective, we’ve also visualized the volume of page views to articles about these core issues against a selection of non-political national stories to provide scale.

You’ll see that attention for some hot button issues came and went, while others appear to be here to stay. Here’s what we can learn from the longevity and volume of readers’ digital attention to campaign issues and politicians—and where it doesn’t necessarily tell the full story.

People vote based on the economy, but do they pay attention to it?

As James Carville, President Bill Clinton’s campaign manager, once said “[it’s about] the economy, stupid.” So let’s take a look: are stories about the economy capturing the electorate’s attention? We’ll focus on Unemployment, the Federal Reserve and Wall Street—all three of which are getting about the same traffic, with a bit more interest on weekdays.

attention for economy-related topics

Page views to topics in Currents, August 6 – November 5, 2018

Narrowing this down to just Unemployment and Wall Street, we’ll add another layer: comparison to America’s favorite pastime—football.

economy vs. NFL

Page views to topics in Currents, August 6 – November 5, 2018

While people might vote based on the economy (as Carville once said), once football season starts, the NFL often gets bigger spikes in attention than checking on stocks, job prospects, and otherwise.

Issues that matter to seniors: Medicare and Social Security

What about the key issues for the 65 and up voters? Let’s compare Medicare and Social Security to a major news story: Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 hurricane that hit the Carolinas in mid-September. While both senior-focused topics have steady traffic, they’re quickly and easily surpassed by more time-sensitive events like a hurricane-heavy fall.

Page views to topics in Currents, August 6 – November 5, 2018

Do these attention patterns potentially relate to how certain demographics prefer to consume news? Only 37% of people aged 65 and up, for example, use social media, while 58% of this demographic often get news from cable. If online attention for health care topics isn’t as high as you might expect, it could be that people who care about these issues are staying up-to-date through other channels.

Real-time issues and events earn more attention than policy

Looping back to where we started, the Kavanaugh hearing and confirmation captivated America from early September until mid October. You can see the clear spike of traffic to articles on these topics.

Page views to topics in Currents, August 6 – November 5, 2018

But as the interest waned after the confirmation, viewership switched to other pressing topics of the day – such as the Mega Millions lottery.

Page views to topics in Currents, August 6 – November 5, 2018

This time when we compare the attention to the Supreme Court and Kavanaugh to a later news story, we see attention shift to other topics like the Lottery. But it also shows the enormous moment the hearings held. Another recent Parse.ly study found that Kavanaugh had the highest traffic of any topic related to Trump’s presidency.

Thinking again about how readership of these issues overlaps with voter motivation, take this MTV poll of young adults, which found that Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate testimony reminded 42% of respondents how important it was to vote in the midterms.

Taking a step beyond the issues, what about the people who dominate the political spotlight? Let’s take a closer look at some of the other people of politics: candidates in upcoming elections.

Candidates are holding the attention of Americans

Even when politicians aren’t currently running, they have people’s attention. Trump remains the number one topic trending more days than not. Former candidates and officeholders like Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama remain on the forefront as well.

attention for Trump, Clinton, and Obama

Page views to topics in Currents, August 6 – November 5, 2018

Looking at state races that have come receive national attention, the race for Governor in Georgia stands out. The stories about voters being removed from the polls caused spikes in attention in mid-October for candidates Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp.

Other races like the fight for the Texas Senate seat between Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke have held readers’ attention for the duration of the months leading to Election Day.

attention for Ted Cruz and Beto O'Rourke

Page views to topics in Currents, August 6 – November 5, 2018

Not only that, but local attention is high for Cruz and Beto.

geographic attention for Texas midterm candidates

Page views to topics relative to market areas in Currents, August 6 – November 5, 2018

For many of us, it can be a true trial to find light in a media environment where hashtags and heckling often supersede longer term thinking and attention spans. If this in any way describes you, as you head to the polls, remember the issues that had your attention in past months. Ask yourself, where do the candidates fall on those issues? There’s a reason certain events captivated us, even if not for long.


Anna Gilbert runs Marion Street Strategies, a Data and Analytics consulting firm where she combines her business knowledge with technical skills to help newsrooms, political campaigns, and other nimble organizations best utilize their data and achieve their long-term goals. Anna brings 8 years of Data and Analytics experience to the table, along with an MBA from the University of Maryland. Anna has been dubbed a “data evangelist” and “analytics interpreter” for her ability to bring Data and Analytics to diverse audiences. She is also a part time Data Analytics instructor at General Assembly.