What can a Google search or Twitter mention tell us about a political race?

Search interest and social media mentions can tell a story beyond the toplines of a poll.

It’s a question the team at Echelon Insights wants to answer. Over the next several weeks, founders Patrick Ruffini and Kristen Soltis Anderson will produce the Echelon Digital Index—a measure of digital activity that includes volume of Internet searches, visits to a candidate’s Wikipedia page and engagement on social media.

In an era when fewer Americans are getting their news from traditional media outlets, Echelon wants to capture real-time data to analyze public opinion.

“Digital metrics like search interest and social media mentions by voters are an important indicator that can help tell a story beyond the toplines of a poll,” Ruffini told The Daily Signal, adding:

Which candidate is the election ‘about’? Is a challenger well known or not? Who seems to have the momentum? Is there potential instability in the dynamics of a race? Digital metrics can help us answer those questions. We think it’s important to look at these side by side with polling to tell a meaningful story about what’s really happening on the ground.

The Echelon Digital Index is tracking seven U.S. Senate races (Republicans need to win six to take control of the upper chamber). Seven charts, released at 9 a.m. today, are below.

index_ak1009 index_ar1009 index_co1009 index_ia1009 index_ks1009 index_la1009 index_nc1009

So what does it all mean?

Ruffini noted that in some cases, such as Alaska and Louisiana, Republican challengers are behind on the index but ahead in public opinion polls. That’s an indication voters are rejecting incumbents even though the challengers aren’t generating as much buzz. He’ll be watching for sudden shifts on the index as an indicator of how the dynamics of a race might change.

In unveiling the index yesterday, Ruffini cited three patterns he’s already spotted:

1) The Power of Incumbency: “Incumbents tend to have a natural advantage in their respective race index, since they are better known and re-election races tend to be a referendum on the incumbent,” Ruffini wrote. One exception is Rep. Tom Cotton, the Republican challenger in Arkansas, who has done the best job of defining himself. But in Louisiana, Rep. Bill Cassidy, who is facing another Republican in the Nov. 4 election and an advertising onslaught from Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, runs far behind in the index. Cassidy, however, maintains a lead in most polls.

2) First-Time Impressions: Echelon’s index reveals what happens when voters seek out information on challengers such as Republicans Cory Gardner of Colorado and Joni Ernst of Iowa and independent Greg Orman of Kansas. “While well-known figures tend to have an advantage in search trends; searches can spike the most when voters are learning about a candidate for the first time,” Ruffini wrote.

3) Positive Ads Create Buzz: Citing an example from North Carolina, Ruffini notes that Republican Thom Tillis, although trailing in the index and most polls, drove attention to his campaign in mid-August with a positive ad with the candidate talking directly to the camera. “[H]is first positive ads on the general election on Aug. 17 caused his index score to spike from 29 to 45 within three days and gave him a sustained 10-point bump in share of online attention,” Ruffini noted.

Echelon will publish updates to its Digital Index on Twitter (search the hashtag #EDX2014) or follow @EchelonInsights.