Exactly how much national recognition does each member of Congress hold? Which politicians are household names and which are true unknowns? As with so many of the great questions of our time, Google may have the answer.
An analysis of search volume data using Google Adwords tools reveals an intriguing popularity hierarchy among House members. These figures represent the approximate average monthly Google searches for members from June 2013 to May 2014:
Unsurprisingly, Speaker John Boehner heads the pack as the most googled member of Congress, and one of the most searched politicians in the entire Republican Party — only Sarah Palin, Chris Christie, Rand Paul, and Ronald Reagan regularly outpace him. Leaders and polarizing figures from both sides of the aisle join him, although only two Democrats (Nancy Pelosi and John Lewis) made the list. But while Boehner’s position makes him a consistently popular search target, others are more erratic, boosted briefly by major headlines from specific incidents.
Frank Wolf saw a massive spike of 246,000 searches in December when he announced his retirement after 17 terms in the House, opening up a major battleground seat in Northern Virginia. Michael Grimm propelled himself into the upper echelon in January after footage of him intimidating a NY1 reporter following the State of the Union went viral, and prosecutors cemented his place in the top 10 after indicting him on 20 counts of fraud and other charges in April. Trey Gowdy is the newest arrival to the top 10, receiving 165,000 searches in May after Boehner appointed the South Carolina Republican to head a select committee investigating the 2012 Benghazi attacks.
After becoming the first ever majority leader to lose a primary, Eric Cantor will almost certainly climb up this list when data from June are factored in. Cantor and other members of House leadership also saw bumps in October 2013 as a result of the government shutdown. Vance McAllister also nearly made the list after a meteoric rise in April following the release of a surveillance tape showing the married Louisiana Republican kissing a staffer in his district office.
Determining the least-searched representatives is more difficult. Most Americans would not recognize the vast majority of the 435 members of the House — but who is the most anonymous of all? Google knows:
Bottom 10 (Total Annual Searches)
1. Filemon Vela: 9,200
2. Lacy Clay: 9,460
3. Pete Visclosky: 9,520
4. Mike Conaway: 9,760
5. Bob Gibbs: 10,090
6. Alan Nunnelee: 10,150
7. Robert Aderholt: 10,440
8. Lucille Roybal-Allard: 10,840
9. Brett Guthrie: 11,380
10. Larry Bucshon: 11,540
Filemon Vela, a freshman Democrat from a newly created district in Texas, has evidently yet to draw much attention nationwide. Missouri Democrat Lacy Clay has served in the House for over 13 years, but he hasn’t made much noise in recent months either. Some politicians take pride in the “workhorse” approach of behind-the-scenes productivity while the “show horses” hog the limelight, but these numbers take anonymity to an extreme.
Of course, this metric remains imperfect. Several members share a name with a more famous public figure, which can profoundly skew the search statistics. Technically, three of the four most-searched members are John Carter, Adam Smith, and Frank Lucas — but it’s safe to assume that a majority of those inquiries were intended for a 2011 Disney box office flop, a pioneer of modern economics, or a former heroin dealer portrayed by Denzel Washington in American Gangster.
To remedy this confusion, most members in that situation had to be excluded from consideration. The only exception was John Lewis — a prominent figure in his own right who just happens to share a name with a chain of upscale British department stores. As popular as the Georgia representative and civil-rights leader may be, it seems unlikely that he would receive more than 6 million Google searches per month — especially when 94.3 percent of them come from the UK. Therefore, only the 0.7 percent of searches directly from the U.S. were considered eligible.
Google is hardly a comprehensive measure of national name recognition, but the search engine can serve as a valuable indicator. “Don’t be evil,” as Google’s motto instructs — but you might see a surge in publicity if you dabble in it.