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And the polling hamster says…

I imagine somewhere in the United States there is an elementary classroom in which a hamster or a gerbil will predict the winner of November’s presidential election.

In one corner of its cage there is probably a dish of Obama broccoli and in another there is a dish of Romney carrots. I can envision students graphing the popularity of each candidate by gauging how much broccoli and carrots the rodents consume each day.

If there is such a classroom — and there probably is — its polling would be just as useful as the newest political tracker that was introduced by Twitter a few weeks ago.

Called the Twitter Political Index, the daily index gives each candidate a score from zero to 100 based on the millions of tweets a week that mention Obama and Romney.

The folks at Twitter are careful to say that their new foray into the presidential election is not to be mistaken for an opinion poll.

The Twindex, as it is called, is more like an approval rating. Anything above 50 is a positive approval rating; anything below is negative.

One other important point from the people at Twitter is that in the Twindex the candidates are not competing against one another. Even though the website, election.twitter.com, looks just like the results you might see on election day, the numbers are totally unrelated — the numbers won’t add up to be 100. Both Obama and Romney have the opportunity to receive a 100 rating or a zero rating depending on how favorably users tweet about them.

From the hundreds of millions of Twitter messages concerning the election and the presidential candidates, Twitter sorts them by content, labeling them positive or negative, according to Twitter’s own algorithm. They then calculate each candidate’s approval rating from these tweets.

Thursday afternoon Obama’s rating stood at 34, down three points from Wednesday’s numbers. Romney’s rating dropped 10 points from Wednesday’s number to a 19.

Since the index began in May, both candidates’ numbers have stayed in negative territory most of the time.

So what does this all say about the election and where we’re headed in November?

In interviews with USA Today and the New York Times, officials from Twitter said the index gives a real-time view of the tone of the election — how twitterers feel about the candidates. A graph provided by Twitter, shows that their numbers correlate with Gallup approval ratings.

Of course, Twitter users are not a representative sample of the voting population. They tend to be younger and more technologically adept.

For someone who lives in what is called a “fly over” state that’s been red since the 1980 election, watching the polls is more entertainment than anything else. Of the hundreds of polls taken this election cycle, few if any will be taken in Mississippi.

Still, candidates are paying attention to any index and poll that could give them the slightest edge in this election. When only a few votes are really up for grabs, every indicator counts.

Who knows, they might even be watching a hamster somewhere choose between broccoli and carrots.


Ben Hillyer is the design editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or by e-mail at ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com.