From ‘Bernie’s story’ to ‘Cruz gear’ – rating the presidential contenders online

Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential election campaign broke new ground in online communications.

From an office in Chicago, the Illinois senator’s young team of digital experts and enthusiasts conjured up a raft of powerful new tools and techniques.

Obama billboards were added to video games. On-message quotes and Messianic photos were spread across Facebook and other channels. A location-based app was created that gave campaign volunteers the addresses of target voters – and a script to read to them when they opened their doors.

Do any of the contenders for the Oval Office in 2016 have online campaigns similarly fizzing with ideas? I’ve picked four high-profile candidates – two Democrat and two Republican – to find out.

Let’s start with Hillary Clinton (don’t worry – I’ll get to Donald Trump in a minute).

The former US secretary of state’s official campaign site gets right down to business: an overlay panel urges visitors on arrival to join the campaign by entering their email address and ZIP code – or to ‘just go ahead and donate’.

Smaller text gives visitors the option to bypass these options and reach the home page. Yet here, too, the site doesn’t give up on its two main goals: ‘Join us’ and ‘Donate!’ are the dominant calls to action at both the top and bottom of the page.

This bold, single-minded focus on urging visitors to give up their contact details and cash continues deeper into the site. The ‘Volunteer’ primary menu link leads to a simple form titled, in huge font, ‘Sign up to Volunteer’. Click ‘Events’ and you’re greeted with the big heading ‘Host your own event’, with an accompanying ‘Get Started’ button.

Click on ‘Feed’ and the site takes a different tack – one borrowed heavily from online news site BuzzFeed. A listing of intriguing headlines and eye-catching images mixes serious topics (‘Meet a 9/11 responder whose health benefits are being threatened by Republicans’) with the not-so-serious (‘12 things you can learn from Hillary Clinton's throwback photos’). It’s interesting, fun and draws you in.

Overall, Clinton’s campaign site is bold, focused, unapologetically assertive and clever. Worth a visit for corporate web managers looking to make their site’s online forms clearer – or the news section more appealing to consumers and jobseekers.

Now to one of Clinton’s rivals for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders. The left-wing Vermont senator follows Clinton’s approach of greeting visitors to his official campaign site with a loud demand for their contact details and money. The language is sneakier, though. A headline ‘Nobody who works 40 hours a week should be living in poverty’ is followed by email and ZIP code form fields, and a button ‘I agree’ – which only changes to the more honest ‘Join us’ if you try to click on it without entering your contact details. Similarly, ‘Contribute’ is used rather than the more direct ‘Donate’.

The home page itself is of the long-scrolling variety. Like Clinton’s, it is dominated by further shouty requests to donate money, sign up to the campaign, organize events and so on.

There are a couple of nice extra features, though: ‘Bernie’s story’ is an elegantly executed interactive timeline of Sanders’ life, with some well-chosen archive images and succinct captions. ‘Democracy Daily’ is a lively grid of articles covering Sanders and his big campaign topics on external news sites.

The imagery isn’t as slick as on Clinton’s site – but this may be deliberate. Not being slick is one of Sanders’ political selling points, after all.

Onwards to Ted Cruz for President. No arm-twisting to relinquish ZIP codes or dollars before entering the site here – visitors are taken straight to the home page. Perhaps appropriately, the site is more explicitly capitalist than those of Cruz’s Democrat rivals: ‘Get Cruz Gear’ is a prominent heading on the home page – with links to a well-stocked online shop offering everything from ‘Courageous Conservative in Training’ baby clothes to Cruz-branded iPhone cases and colouring books.

Elsewhere on the site, a short survey asking visitors to rate issues in order of importance is neatly designed – but compared to Sanders’ and Clinton’s sites, pages feel cluttered, colours clash and ‘call to action’ buttons lack clarity and prominence.

If Cruz does cruise to the White House, it won’t be thanks to this website.

Last but not least, let’s visit Donald Trump. Straight to the home page again – no ‘sign up and donate’ overlay panel. Compared to the three sites discussed above, this is, perhaps surprisingly, a rather understated online presence. The inclusion of recent tweets from Trump on the home page is appropriate given the man’s prolific use of the medium. It appears to be a live feed of all of his tweets – even the rantier ones ­– which will keep the lawyers on their toes. 

The ‘In the News’ section, however, is edited with a heavy hand. It’s heavily dull, too – merely a text-only listing of articles narrowly focused on how well Trump is doing in the opinion polls.

Overall, there’s a rather crude, artificial air about the Trump site. Some would say that this was appropriate, too – though I couldn’t possibly comment.

- Scott Payton