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Internet Campaigning 2004

Evaluating the official websites of the top presidential candidates.

by Mark D. Johnson
February 3, 2004

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Internet Campaigning 2004_Mark D. Johnson-Evaluating the official websites of presidential candidates. Howard Dean’s campaign is said to have made the most effective use of the internet in the history of presidential politics. That’s not saying much, given that the internet has only been widely available for about a decade. But Dean’s early success among the Democratic contenders was largely attributed by many in the media to his internet efforts, particularly via the website meetup.com, which helps organize groups of people with similar interests. As of this writing, Dean has more than 186,000 members in his meetup.com group. In comparison, Wesley Clark’s group has only 66,000 members, and John Kerry’s group a mere 34,000. Dean’s Meetup bonanza has tremendously helped his online fundraising effort, but his poor performance in Iowa and New Hampshire indicates that political internet dominance does not necessarily translate into votes on election day.

There is a lot to like about the internet from a candidate’s perspective. It’s very cheap compared to television advertising and print brochures, it offers an easy way for supporters to contribute funds, candidates can expound in depth on the issues without interruption, the content can be updated frequently, and a website is always “on,” available 24 hours a day. Needless to say, the web is going to be part of every candidate’s campaign for the foreseeable future. It may not have a significant impact on an election’s outcome right now, but the impact is likely to increase every year, and someday, when we vote from our own homes, the impact will be huge. For now, having a professional website is an essential campaign tool for the fundraising and supporter-gathering aspects alone, a cost-effective way to take some of the load off volunteers working the phones and pounding the pavement.

As a professional web developer, I was curious to see what the current presidential candidates have done with their sites in attempt to attract a following and convey their message. Are they doing anything to set themselves apart from their opponents’ sites? Is there anything special about Dean’s site that shows he’s on the cutting edge in internet campaigning? The answer to both questions is “not much.” Below, I have ranked the sites of the top five Democratic candidates and President Bush’s reelection site. Some of the candidates might not be in the race for much longer, and their websites might close up shop soon after dropping out. I assure you, I have applied no personal political preference in reviewing these six sites.

Note: Candidate sites will open in a new browser window so you can toggle between the sites and this article.

Howard Dean

Design and Layout: 2 1/2 stars out of 4
View Howard Dean's WebsiteThe template (consisting of the header and left column) has some nice graphic elements, but some areas of the site stray drastically from this template. These areas of the site appear detached from the site’s main pages, presenting an inconsistent display for no apparent reason. The home page’s right column is a mess: a collection of seemingly random features and links that introduces colors outside the template’s color palette – an amateur presentation. A candidate’s site should have a cohesive design scheme throughout.

Navigation: 2 stars out of 4
The site’s main navigation in the left column features an expandable menu, allowing visitors to see a submenu upon clicking each item. This is a space-saving method, but the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. It takes two clicks to get to a submenu page, and once I’m there, the menu is back to its collapsed form. Why not leave that menu area expanded to remind us what section of the site we are in? At the top of the template are some tab buttons. Two of them are nebulous: “Get Local” and “Deanlink”. They appear to go to the same event search page that has a different template and implies that you should log in. The names of navigation buttons should be self-explanatory.

Content Presentation: 2 1/2 stars out of 4
The home page’s main content is updated regularly but it’s lengthy and the kind of content can vary – it is a multi-purpose space, which means you never know what will appear there. Today, it’s a speech Dean gave in Detroit, but previous entries are campaign news items, a call to action, or a promo for Dean’s pamphlet “Common Sense for America”. Each item is dated, with the most recent first, but as of this writing on February 2nd – the items are not in correct chronological order! It’s either an oversight or sloppiness. “Common Sense for America” is dated January 5, 2004, but I know it’s been there at the bottom of the page for months. Most of the site’s content is logically organized – why not apply that to the home page content?

Dean has what is claimed to be the first official blog, or weblog, of any presidential candidate. All of the candidates mentioned in this article now have blogs, but apparently Dean’s came first. They are latching on to the internet phenomenon of blogging, which refers to the frequently updated portions of a website that chronicle the events, observations, and anecdotes of an individual, often with links to other sites. The main problem with most of these campaign blogs is that they are usually written by more than one person, lending a certain phoniness to the whole concept. Why not have one dedicated blog writer tracking campaign events and firing up the masses? Have multiple blogs if you like, as long as there is one writer per blog. One writer gives a blog consistency and personality. For most of these candidates, including Dean, the “official blog” is nothing more than a forum posting. Dean will occasionally hand part of a stump speech to his web team to post in his blog amid all the other postings – blogs don’t get any more phony than that.

All of the candidates have a navigation button that says “En Español” as a link to the site’s Spanish-language content in effort to court the increasingly important Hispanic vote. Dean offers only a handful of pages in Spanish, and most of the links on the “Asuntos de Importancia” (Important Affairs) page do not work as of this writing (“Page not found”). Inexcusable.

One cutting-edge feature Dean does have is an interactive Flash calendar. Looks very cool, but it is painfully slow. Not worth it.

Bottom Line: The perceived king of internet campaigning might have had notable success in gathering support and funds through the internet, but his website has many, many weaknesses.

Overall Rating: 2 1/2 stars out of 4.

John Kerry

Design and Layout: 4 stars out of 4
View John Kerry's WebsiteClean and consistent design throughout. The limited color palette is easy on the eyes. Right column items are grouped in nice-looking boxes, and there is good use of white space that prevents a cluttered look. The header graphic is perhaps a little too simple, but the site’s other graphics are very nicely incorporated into the site content.

Navigation: 4 stars out of 4
Very easy to get around. Left column navigation is grouped into three main sections and easy to digest. The upper right column box with tabs is space-saving and intuitive (does not work in Netscape 4.5, but it’s time for those people to get a new browser anyway). Clicking on a tab displays more information without reloading the page. This is nicely used in several sections of the site.

Content Presentation: 4 stars out of 4
Compare Kerry’s home page center column with Dean’s. Kerry’s page offers brief summaries of each item with a “Read More” link and a small picture. Far more effective, visually pleasing, and easier to scan.

Kerry’s entire site is available is Spanish. There is also a page for each state in the country, easily accessible from the drop-down menu in the left navigation. Layout of “Issues” pages is outstanding. The blog is mostly written by one person and is well-archived and viewable by category.

Bottom Line: The Democratic front-runner’s highly-professional site is well-organized and looks great. Hands down the best of any presidential candidate.

Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 4

John Edwards

Design and Layout: 2 stars out of 4
View John Edwards' WebsiteCluttered home page overwhelms, scrolling text along the top is distracting and annoying, and the style is so five years ago. Paragraph headers on the home page are the same color as the links – bad choice.

Navigation: 2 stars out of 4
A scattered approach to navigation leaves the user unsure of where to start. There are three navigation areas: top right, top center (above the scroll), and left. The top right menu gets lost visually. Emphasis on issues in the top center navigation draws attention to why he is running for office, but it lists four issues (Jobs & Economy, Education, Security, and Health Care) plus “More…” – what about other issues that many deem important like foreign policy or civil rights? They are instantly conveyed as less important to this candidate than the Big Four. The left navigation is a little hard to read and takes up a lot of space for what are mostly redundant or minor links. Compare this to the Kerry Campaign’s grouped strategy.

Content Presentation: 2 1/2 stars out of 4
The small default font size saves space, but can be hard to read. There is an easy way to bump up the font size at the top of most pages, but not on the home page! Why on earth not? On the plus side, the home page has a very accessible calendar (though how important is it to users?), and there is an interesting Interactive Electoral Map in Flash, but it takes a minute to figure out – still, you might want to bookmark that for election night. There are readily accessible links to video clips of Edwards on the campaign trail, including network TV appearances. The blog is mostly written by one person, but there is an odd archiving method. There is another blog actually written by Edwards and his wife, though the posts are understandably infrequent. Entire site is available in Spanish.

Bottom Line: The Edwards site lacks good organization and elegant design. Kind of important.

Overall Rating: 2 stars out of 4

Wesley Clark

Design and Layout: 3 1/2 stars out of 4
View Wesley Clark's WebsiteSolid, consistent design. Some elements bear similarity to Kerry’s site, but Kerry’s design seems more pleasant. There is a little too much gray – a politician’s site should attempt to be uplifting and too much gray has the opposite effect. Kerry’s site uses some gray, but the overall mood is more upbeat. Clark’s site successfully weaves images into the content.

Navigation: 3 1/2 stars out of 4
The grouped left navigation is easy to use, and the top navigation directs users to the most important spots. A Welcome Center for first-time visitors is a good idea.

Content Presentation: 3 1/2 stars out of 4
Strong site organization like Clark’s puts users at ease and gives the impression of a competent campaign. The home page center column has a little to much going on for my liking, but is presented fairly well. A Families First Tax Calculator effectively gets the point across (but what about households without kids?). A Flash feature called Turnaround Plan for America provides an easy mouse-over glance at your state, but the calculations appear to be merely based on the proportion of each state's population to the overall goals for the whole nation like “1,000,000 more students in college” – pretty misleading. The entire site is available in Spanish. The “Community Blogs” are written by many people, resulting in a lack of cohesion – it’s more of a forum. Clark actually started a blog of his own, but the most recent entry was posted in November.

Bottom Line: A solid representation overall, though a little too subdued.

Overall Rating: 3 1/2 stars out of 4

Joe Lieberman

Design and Layout: 3 1/2 stars out of 4
View Joe Lieberman's WebsitePleasant, consistent design, and strong adherence to a simple color palette. Small complaint with some of the link color choices.

Navigation: 3 stars out of 4
Easy site to navigate. Graphics for navigation buttons, like seen here, are not as common as they used to be – text navigation loads faster and is more dependable. The “Key Events” prominently displayed under the left navigation is difficult to read and still claims to be January. Oops.

Content Presentation: 3 1/2 stars out of 4
Lieberman’s content is generally well-organized and well-presented. The issues page could use a “table of contents” of some sort to easily find his position on a particular issue. There are a few elements that convey some personality and sense of humor, terms like “MoJoe” and “Dogs for Joe” (silly, but a rare display of fun among the candidates). Official blog is mostly written by one person and not overdone like most of the candidate’s blogs – this is the most tolerable of the bunch. Limited Spanish-language portion.

Bottom Line: Professional and user-friendly.

Overall Rating: 3 1/2 stars out of 4

George W. Bush

Design and Layout: 2 1/2 stars out of 4
View George W. Bush's Re-election WebsiteA dark template header graphic along with a prominent dark navy presence – too dark! If your screen resolution is high enough you’ll get an extra column on the right of the home page, also in dark navy, highlighting the most recent blog entries – but the home page looks cluttered enough as it is. Some design elements are a little out of date.

Navigation: 3 stars out of 4
The left navigation is grouped in three sections, making it easy to get around. There is a top left header navigation that’s easy to miss, but they’re all redundant links. There is also a top navigation below the header graphic – these are issues on his agenda (Economy, Compassion, etc.) – it would be better just to highlight one link to the agenda main page.

Content Presentation: 3 stars out of 4
The Bush site home page emulates a news organization site, which is an interesting concept with potential, but could have been pulled off more effectively and with cleaner design. Today’s lead story headline: “Campaign Manager Ken Mehlman: America Faces a Clear Choice” – doesn’t exactly draw you in, does it? I like the idea of highlighting links to two editorials on the home page – why don’t other campaigns invite guests to write a feature for their sites to promote an agenda? Most campaign sites are filled with content provided by anonymous staffers – these editorials stand out and give some personality to the content. The agenda page is well-presented with images. Full site available in Spanish. Blog written by various people, some of them prominent Republicans. Better blog content than most. Purpose of home page’s “Quick Vote” feature not clear.

Bottom Line: Average, with some bright spots, but a lot of room for improvement.

Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 4

Closing Thought:
Major corporations aren’t cheap when it comes to their websites. It’s a major investment because the web is an increasingly important medium and public-relations tool. It is a highly visible representation of the company, and a bad website is a bad reflection of the company. Corporate websites with poor organization tend to be poorly organized corporations. Politicians who haven’t sealed their party’s nomination can easily run into funding problems, but providing a solid website at the start of the campaign should be a priority and, compared to other forms of advertising, comes relatively cheap. If only the message mattered, and not how it is presented, candidates wouldn’t spend millions on slick TV spots and full-color brochures. In a national political campaign, amateur camcorder commercials and photocopied fliers don’t cut it – why should amateur websites be good enough?

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