A day after the Bloomberg/Washington Post GOP debate, media pundits and political consultants are still buzzing about how the candidates presented themselves, about who the winners and losers were, and generally, about how the public might perceive the front-runners in the race now.

Pundits and self-declared experts aside, a look at several tools that help visualize what people are saying and asking about the candidates online (and by proxy, what they’re thinking) reveals some surprising facts about what Americans are looking to know from their primary candidates.

Headscratchers

If questions asked into the vast everythingness of the world wide web can be considered a proxy to what people are saying about the candidates, Rick Perry’s image consultants should be telling him to make out with his wife in public. A popular Web site that allows people to visualize what the most popular questions asked on Google are, reveals people are quite curious about Perry’s sexuality and marital status.

As noted on the “Web Seer” project, the most popular questions typed into Google starting in the form “Is Rick Perry…” are “Is Rick Perry gay?” and “Is Rick Perry married?”. Whether the queries are coming from people legitimately concerned about the candidate’s home life or others fantasizing about dating the photogenic presidential contender is impossible to determine. The seemingly rhetorical and most decidedly mean-spirited “Is Rick Perry dumb?” comes in at a distant third.

For Mitt Romney, questions about his religious and philosophical identity seem to be piquing Internet users' curiosity the most. “Is Mitt Romney Mormon?” and “Is Mitt Romney a Freemason?” are the most frequently Googled queries for the candidate.

As for the newest candidate to be touted as a frontrunner by the media, it seems people are somewhat confused as to his positions and the state of his campaign. “Is Herman Cain pro-life?” is the most popular demand on Google. “Is Herman Cain still running for president?”, a relatively long and specific one, is second, likely the result of the fact the candidate’s Web site seems to have a problem staying live. (After several outages over the weekend and this morning, the candidate’s official Web site was back up, as of mid-day Thursday.)

Hashtags and Clouds

Traffic on specific keywords used on Twitter in association with a candidate, a look into what people from all sides of the political spectrum are saying, can also be a good indication of what the people want to talk about. The most popularly used words in posts that mentions Mitt Romney, according to TweetCloud, are those that seem to confirm the man-to-beat status conferred on him by the media. “Endorsed,” “Inevitable” and “Hypothetical” (the latter of which is mostly mentioned when talking against a hypothetical match-up against President Obama for the general election) are at the top. There are other interesting facts that can be gleaned from the data, however. “Cain,” but not “Perry,” is commonly mentioned in the same tweet as Mitt Romney’s name, an indication of who people online might be directly comparing to the former Massachusetts governor. Also of note, while the word “jobs” is popular when Romney is mentioned, health care is not.

For Rick Perry, a lot of the Twitter chatter seems to revolve around his record as Texas governor. “Execution”, “Mandatory” and “Vaccination” are popular keywords when linked to the candidates name. In a show of how humor can be effective at slicing through the serious business of a presidential campaign, “BorowitzReport” is also a popular keyword. The unlikely phrase connection is due to an article by satirical political writer Andy Borowitz lampooning Rick Perry. (Borowitz's recent headlines include gems like “Potential Race Between Black Guy and Mormon Poses Dilemma for Bigots.”)

Herman Cain’s association to specific keywords, as the latest surging candidate, skew highly towards what’s being said right now. Earlier today, the candidate’s name was highly linked to several unflattering terms (“reactionary,” “immature,” and “cynical”) that had been used in a post by academic and writer Marc Lamont Hill.

Wiki Truths

Data from Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia used by many as a comprehensive, definitive source of information about a specific topic, can be useful in elucidating the level of discourse about a candidate, as well as the amount of fierce loyalty that candidate might possess.

Edits made to a candidate’s Wikipedia page in the last month, both a reflection of how much new information is being discussed about the person and the level of attention people are paying, are relatively high for both Rick Perry (232) and Herman Cain (254). Mitt Romney’s page is a laggard here, with 69 edits last month. Of course, the data can be spun either way, as Romney supporters might say the low amount of editing is due to the proven nature of their candidate, while detractors might point to a lack of interest as the reason.

The number of “watchers” who have signed up to be notified when someone alters the candidate’s article is also of interest. Romney’s article leads the pack here with 258. Perry comes in at 152, while Cain tallies 82.

What It All Means

While some of these facts about the trending keyword and amount of people linked to a candidate online might seem like quantitive backup to nothing more than idle gossip, the experts say otherwise.

David E. Johnson, CEO and founder of Strategic Vision, an Atlanta-based consultancy that advises political campaigns on social media, says the impact of trends born online is magnified by the fanaticism of the people who promote them.

“The people who are working within social media, looking to a candidate, putting these out are the really partisan people,” says Johnson, “Some of them are off-beat. A lot of them are very driven.”

He also notes that while “back in 2004 with Howard Dean,” the people working the online circuit were mostly young and tech-savvy, that is not the case today, so much so that he thinks “in time, the campaigns might be focusing more on social [media].”

The power of the Twitter post or blog rumor, he says, should not be dismissed. As an example, he notes the scandal that affected Dr. Rand Paul during the 2010 Republican Congressional primaries, when it was revealed he was not a “certified” ophthalmologist, started as online rumblings, “His opponents eventually jumped on the campaign and used it to say ‘Look, Rand Paul is not someone you can trust.’

If that’s the case, then the candidates, in between the shaking hands and kissing babies, have a lot of trust-building to look ahead to.