Presidential campaign websites have come a long way in the 20 years since Bob Dole debuted dolekemp96.org, a site whose gloriously preserved trappings will immediately transport you back to the days of dial-up, Netscape, and animated text. They’re now much richer in content, are actually useful as vessels for collecting donations and driving turnout, and no longer look like the kind of thing you would’ve once whipped up through Geocities. One thing hasn’t changed, though, at least to judge by this cycle’s crop: They are really, really bad.
It’s easy to overstate the importance of a good campaign website. At best, they are a clearinghouse at the center of a sprawling, multipronged online campaign strategy, which itself is just one part of an overall effort that still relies on—yes, even in 2016!—old-fashioned analog campaigning.
But this election, almost all of the candidates’ websites are terrible, the digital equivalents of an NPR pledge drive: boring, longwinded, ultimately off-putting, and indistinguishable from all the others.
Except for Donald Trump’s.
In fact, Trump’s website wins where other candidates’ fail for some of the same reasons his campaign is winning the Republican primary: It is direct, not bogged down by details, promises everything, and asks for basically nothing—except your vote.
To be fair, at first glance Trump’s website doesn’t seem all that different from his opponents’. Drop donaldjtrump.com into your Web browser and you’ll be greeted by a smiling photo of the Donald next to his Make American Great Again slogan. Above that, there’s a navigation bar providing links to Trump’s upcoming campaign events, a nonpushy donation button, and other standard campaign fare.
You’ll find a similar home page on every candidate’s website. But before you can get there on hillaryclinton.com, marcorubio.com, tedcruz.org, berniesanders.com, or johnkasich.com, you’ll be intercepted by a special landing page, which demands your money or your email. Only Trump and Ben Carson skip the preamble.
Pesky, right? “Rather than let you onto the site, the main call to action is to chip in or sign up,” Stefan Backhaus, a user-experience designer, told me. “Generally in UX, you don’t want to intercept—you don’t want to get in the way of where people are trying to go. It’s annoying.”
It’s more than annoying in today’s political environment; it’s downright damaging.
On their websites, these career politicians ask you to help them before they so much as hint at how, once elected, they might be able help you. In other words, they play into Trump’s narrative of the Donald as the wealthy, incorruptible businessman who tells it like it is, the one candidate who’s running against a cadre of craven political gasbags beholden to whoever writes the biggest checks. Sad!
Take Cruz, who cuts right to the Chase account, asking for your credit card information immediately, skipping the usual donate button–clicking foreplay. Sanders and Kasich also greet visitors to their virtual homes with a shakedown.
Clinton’s intercept doesn’t ask for money, yet comes off as the most repellent page of the bunch. Unlike most landing pages, which provide a clearly marked, fairly prominently placed option to continue onto the website without paying a cover or signing up for spam, Clinton’s continue button is disguised as her campaign logo, located on the page’s upper-left corner. Allowing supporters to sign up for campaign emails is a good thing. Tricking people into signing up, not so much. Especially when your opponents have spent the past decade or so painting you as deceitful, untrustworthy, and willing to say or do anything to win office.
Most of the websites suffer from trying to do too much. When campaign websites first started, they were little more than online versions of campaign literature: a few photos of hands shaken and babies kissed accompanying some biographical information and political positions. In 2000, websites became more interactive, soliciting feedback and recruiting volunteers. Then Howard Dean pioneered online fundraising, a tactic the Obama campaigns perfected in 2008 and 2012.
Consider the campaign website’s original purpose: providing information about the candidate. Click on Clinton’s issues page, and the first one you see is Alzheimer’s disease. Important health issue? No doubt. Important presidential-campaign issue? No.
Clinton’s issues are arranged alphabetically. Same goes for Carson and Rubio, showing a startling lack of consideration for layout. The other campaigns do lead with issues that matter most to their campaign: Cruz starts with “Restore the Constitution,” Sanders has “Income and Wealth Inequality,” and Kasich has “Electability.”
Once you click on a specific issue on any of the websites, you’ll see a few paragraphs laying out the candidate’s stance, maybe a few specific policy proposals, and perhaps a video of a campaign ad or speech on the topic.
Again, except for Donald Trump.
Trump’s issue page is one page, rather than a list of links to various pages. Instead of boring, low-energy text, the Donald gives the people what they want: videos of the Donald.
Each of the videos shows Trump trenchantly summarizing the problems facing America before explicating with exacting detail how, as president, he will solve them, supported by well-sourced facts, prevailing socioeconomic theories, and robust historical metaphors.
Nah, I’m just kidding. Not one of the videos is longer than 57 seconds; most hover around a half minute, and none seem scripted. Here is the transcript of the video explaining his stance on the military, in its entirety:
I’m going to make our military so big, so powerful, so strong, that nobody—absolutely nobody—is going to mess with us. We’re going to take care of our vets, and we’re going to get rid of ISIS. We’re going to get rid of them fast.
That’s it! Let’s compare that to just a tiny excerpt from the video Cruz posted on the Second Amendment:
As Justice Joseph Story so rightly explained in 1833: ‘The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms is the palladium of the liberties of a Republic, it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers.” We’re seeing a lot of arbitrary power nowadays.
Palladium! Let’s ignore for a second that Cruz seems to implicitly endorse armed insurrection against the government—he said “palladium”! I’m a lawyer and a graduate of the Ivy League school that once had a campus bar named Palladium, and even I had to look that up. Pedantic references to antiquity are not how you win voters, Mr. Cruz.
Trump is speaking to the voters the way that they communicate on social media: in memes, tweeted insults, and eminently replayable clips. If the medium is the message, Trump is saying “I get you.” For all his ostentatious wealth, he’s managed to come off as the most relatable.
Beyond his amazing, first-rate website—it’s so good, really, the best—Trump has leveraged social media more effectively than his foes. This will be the first truly social media–driven presidential election: Only 25 percent of adults used social media back in 2008. Now, 65 percent do. Importantly, growth in social media usage has grown most between 2012 and now among older Americans. Fourteen percent of Americans get their political news from social media now, a figure bested only by cable news—another medium dominated thoroughly by Trump.
All of Trump’s grotesque gallimaufry and acerbic asides aren’t gaffes: They’re ways of ensuring his message gets rebroadcast on the news, shared on Facebook, and retweeted countlessly.
With the exception of his confusing refusal to immediately denounce David Duke and the KKK (though he later kind of took it back), Trump’s purported missteps have actually been anything but. By insulting war hero John McCain, by calling Mexicans rapists, by supporting war crimes, by saying all of these horrifying things, he has bolstered his credentials as the anti-PC candidate. And by rebroadcasting his seemingly spastic remarks ad nauseam, cable news is playing into Trump’s game.
Not coincidentally, one of Trump’s issue videos attacks political correctness. No other Republican lists political correctness on his issues page. That might be because ending a social phenomenon at the intersection of race, gender, politics, and linguistics isn’t exactly something a president can do by executive order, but such trivial technicalities are beside the point. Trump’s shouted and simplistic message is resonating with voters because it is shouted and simplistic. And his website, through and through, echoes that.
I don’t think Trump’s success can be credited to his superior website, or even his manipulation of mainstream and social media. Rather, they are both effects of the same cause: Trump has been a better politician than his opponents so far. That’s true at his rallies, it’s true on debate stages, it’s true on Twitter, and it’s true in your browser.