How the most Googled news sources predicted how your state would vote in the 2016 election

As the dust and shock settle after the 2016 election, we’ve engaged in lots of collective finger pointing as a nation. How did the polls and the media get it so wrong? What was the role of fake news, and did it really sway the election results? And what about the Russians?

There are many questions we simply don’t have answers for—but we do have Google. And while Google can’t give us access to top-secret intelligence briefings (yet), it can tell us how people were using the internet leading up to one of the most contentious elections in our country’s history. The team at HSI (highspeedinternet.com) used Google Trends to glean data about which online news source each state trusted the most to deliver information in 2016. And as we sifted and sorted, a predictable pattern emerged (one we’ll be kicking ourselves for not noticing sooner). A state’s preferred online news source predicted the way in which that state would vote in the 2016 election with a high degree of accuracy. We submit as evidence Exhibit A, a map of the most popular online news source in each state.

hsi_news-souce-by-state-map_v9

This data is as depressing as expected. A picture of the polarized United States of America emerges, where the deep South and much of the Midwest are steeped in the staunchly conservative Fox News. On both coasts, there are long ribbons of the densely populated cities and suburbs that tune into CNN, making up the blue backbone of the country. But the story here is in the small deviations and differences, the outliers along the rust belt and in the Midwest that are getting their online news from surprising sources. It allows us to see in hindsight not just where the presidential election was won (and lost) in 2016, but also where there might be opportunity in the future to gain ground and change the political conversation in 2020.

Before we digest these morsels of insight, let’s identify the online news sources from the data and describe what, if any, political leanings these websites might have.

 

ABC News

Known largely as a television network, ABC (American Broadcasting Company) is a trusted national news source that doesn’t have a well-established political stance. Its parent company is, however, Disney.

CNN

CNN (Cable News Network) was the first twenty-four-hour news channel and has grown into a news platform, owned by Turner Broadcasting and Time Warner. It has often been accused of skewing its news coverage toward Democrat or liberal ideologies.

Fox

Fox News was established as a basic cable and satellite news channel by former Republican media consultant Roger Ailes. Fox News is owned by Fox News Corporation, which is controlled by Rupert Murdoch. It has long been considered a news source with Republican or conservative bias.

The Guardian

A British national newspaper, The Guardian is known for having left-centrist political leanings.

Los Angeles Times (LA Times)

The LA Times is an award-winning newspaper that has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize forty-one times. It operates out of Los Angeles, California, and is considered bipartisan, although California is Democrat blue through and through.

Mail Online (The Daily Mail)

The Daily Mail is a British tabloid that’s been serving up news with a sensationalist twist over the last century. Its political alignment is conservative in Britain, but US coverage may be more bipartisan. For instance, Melania Trump recently sued the publication for insinuating she once worked as an escort.

NBC News

NBC News, otherwise known as the National Broadcasting Company, is a bipartisan news network owned by Comcast/NBCUniversal.

USA Today

An internationally distributed newspaper, USA Today is owned by the Gannett Company and is a largely bipartisan source of news coverage.

The Wall Street Journal

WSJ is a business-focused newspaper operating in New York City and owned by Dow Jones & Company. It is well regarded in conservative circles and has earned the Pulitzer Prize thirty-nine times.

The Washington Post

Based out of Washington, DC, this newspaper focuses on political reporting and rose to fame as a bastion of investigative journalism. The Washington Post has earned the Pulitzer Prize over forty-seven times, but it has long been accused of left-wing bias.

Below you’ll find the favorite online news source in each state alongside the state’s political affiliation as noted by Gallup’s most recent polling. In swing states, we’ve denoted in parenthesis which party the state voted for in the 2016 presidential election.

 

State

Most Trusted News Source

Political Affiliation

Alabama Fox Republican
Alaska Fox Republican
Arizona CNN Competitive (Republican)
Arkansas Fox Lean Republican
California LA Times Democratic
Colorado CNN Competitive (Democratic)
Connecticut The Wall Street Journal Democratic
Delaware USA Today Democratic
District of Columbia CNN (Democratic)
Florida CNN Competitive (Republican)
Georgia Fox Competitive (Republican)
Hawaii CNN Democratic
Idaho Fox Republican
Illinois CNN Democratic
Indiana USA Today Lean Republican
Iowa CNN Competitive (Republican)
Kansas The Washington Post Republican
Kentucky Fox Competitive (Republican)
Louisiana Fox Competitive (Republican)
Maine NBC News Competitive (Democratic)
Maryland CNN Democratic
Massachusetts The Wall Street Journal Democratic
Michigan USA Today Competitive (Republican)
Minnesota CNN Competitive (Democratic)
Mississippi USA Today Lean Republican
Missouri USA Today Lean Republican
Montana Mail Online Republican
Nebraska CNN Lean Republican
Nevada Mail Online Competitive (Democratic)
New Hampshire ABC News Lean Republican
New Jersey CNN Democratic
New Mexico CNN Democratic
New York The Wall Street Journal Democratic
North Carolina Fox Competitive (Republican)
North Dakota Fox Republican
Ohio USA Today Competitive (Republican)
Oklahoma Fox Republican
Oregon Washington Post Lean Democratic
Pennsylvania ABC News Competitive (Republican)
Rhode Island NBC News Democratic
South Carolina Fox Republican
South Dakota USA Today Republican
Tennessee USA Today Republican
Texas Fox Lean Republican
Utah Mail Online Republican
Vermont The Guardian Democratic
Virginia CNN Competitive (Democratic)
Washington CNN Lean Democratic
West Virginia Fox Lean Republican
Wisconsin CNN Competitive (Republican)
Wyoming Fox Republican

 

Looking at the numbers, you’ll see CNN is preferred in fifteen states, just edging out Fox News (fourteen states) as the most popular online source of news in America. Let’s take a closer look at how a state’s most popular news source lines up not just with traditional political affiliation, but also with results from the 2016 election.

 

Brand Name National News = Trust. Most of the time.

Most states prefer national news sources with well-known brand names that have a presence in both TV news and online. There were also pockets of the country like New England, however, that relied upon more traditional mainstream broadcasting networks, such as NBC and ABC.

 

On the coasts, local newspapers are well liked.

Hometown favorites dominated on both coasts, with The Wall Street Journal gaining an impressive following in and around New York. There were some surprises like The Washington Post in Oregon, and—most puzzling of all—Kansas. We’ll get back to that one later. These popular local online sources are also traditional newspaper publications rather than dedicated TV networks.

 

Trending regionally . . .

Much of the popular online news source data tracks in exactly the same way as political affiliation, so you’ll see some of the same patterns playing out in regional trends.

  • New England, where conservative New Hampshire cozies right up to liberal Vermont, prefers keeping things bipartisan with trusted networks like ABC and NBC News.
  • Traditionally Republican, the South stays true to its roots with Fox, Fox, and more Fox.
  • The Midwest and the Rust Belt are where the swing states live, which explains the patchwork of influences from CNN, Fox, and USA Today.
  • Conservative Mountain West states like Nevada, Utah, and Montana like their news fluffy with plenty of tabloid fodder from the right-leaning Daily Mail.
  • The blue states of the West are CNN country, but you’ll also see a smattering of local newspaper publications with liberal inclinations like the LA Times and The Washington Post.
  • Hawaii and Alaska are a depiction of our polarized United States where Democrat Hawaii trusts CNN and red-blooded Alaskans turn to Fox.

 

Politics and the Media are Definitely Bedfellows

Much of the data supports the obvious conclusion that sources of news and political affiliation are closely aligned, which is decidedly not groundbreaking news. It does lead us, however, to speculate which comes first—the chicken or the egg? Do we tend to watch news that supports our political affiliation or does the news shape our political affiliation? It is likely the answer is both.

We analyzed online news source data alongside state political affiliation as identified by Gallup. The results were exactly as you’d expect.

  • 7 out of 12 Republican states prefer Fox. 3 out of the 8 states that Gallup indicates lean Republican use Fox, and the remaining majority prefer USA Today as their favorite online news source.
  • 6 out of 11 states Gallup identifies as stomping grounds for Democrats like CNN. Gallup currently lists only 2 states as leaning Democrat, but both of those use the left-leaning sources CNN and The Washington Post.
  • Out of the 5 swing states that went Democrat in the 2016 election, 3 preferred CNN. Out of the 11 swing states that turned red, 4 preferred Fox, 3 USA Today, but surprisingly, 3 also liked CNN. These three states will look familiar as 2016 election battleground states: Arizona, Wisconsin, and Florida.

In fact, states predictably fell toward news sources that aligned with political affiliation in every instance except two. While there were no Democrat-affiliated states or liberal-leaning states that preferred Fox News, there were some puzzling exceptions on the Republican side. Kansas and Nebraska, the hub of the Midwest and reliably red states, frequented CNN and The Washington Post for their online news. This is especially shocking in Nebraska, where Omaha is listed in the top ten most conservative cities in the country.

Turns out something unexpected is cooking in the heart of America, and while Kansas and Nebraska voted Republican this time around, that might not hold true for upcoming elections. Depressed economies and unpopular Republican governors have caused a groundswell of support for Democratic candidates at the local and state government level. The potential for these states to turn blue in the next presidential election is suddenly a possibility, however remote it may be.

 

Internet Speed Matters More Than You Think

The parallel between internet speed and political affiliation is also not a big shocker, since both largely correlate with demographics such as income and education. What is interesting, though, are the exceptions.

The states with the fastest internet, as identified by the State of the Internet Report from Akamai, preferred CNN, along with other liberal sources like The Washington Post. And all voted Democrat with one glaring exception: Utah, which preferred Mail Online, is the only state ranking in the top ten when it comes to internet speed availability to go red. Interestingly, Utah also very nearly became a battleground state in the last election as wildly unpopular Trump suffered heavy losses to local independent and Mormon candidate, Evan McMullin.

The slowest states, where internet speed becomes a trickle, preferred Fox by an even larger majority of five out of nine. And most went Republican in the election with two exceptions: Maine and New Mexico, which preferred CNN and NBC. New Mexico is considered a blue state by Gallup, but Maine is still up for grabs and has traditionally been more conservative. Maine splits its electoral college votes, so while Trump scored one vote out of the second district, Clinton carried the state with three. Maine also became one of the first states in the 2016 election where an elector broke with tradition and voted for someone other than his party’s nominee. Are the salty conservatives of Yankeedom poised to turn blue? Only time will tell.

 


As Facebook continues to battle fake news and Twitter cleans up the trolls, it becomes increasingly imperative that we take a closer look at the ways in which we consume information online and how it shapes the politics of our nation, for better or for worse. Our next election and our future will be shaped by it.