Presidential Websites

While waiting for the Wisconsin and Hawaii primary results to drip in, I thought I would have a look at the various presidential candidate websites:

Its striking how similar they all are in layout. Indeed, the sites for Clinton, McCain and Obama are so alike I thought they might have been created using the same software, but this isn’t so. All have the candidates name and logo in the top-left corner of the site (in common with most websites these days), an e-mail sign-up form in the top-right, and a donate button right below that. All have horizontal menus, a three column layout, with a large graphic element accorss the first two columns, below the menu. While this might demonstrate to some people that the candidates are clones of one another, I’m inclined to see it as proof that all the politicians recognise the value of good design. Following a recognised and established layout allows users to navigate the site quickly and efficiently.
There is, I think, a cliche of the ‘Presidential Candidate Logo’. The surname, of course, coupled with the year digits and then some flag-like representation in red, white and blue. Joe Biden and Dennis Kucinich come close, but its Hillary Clinton who takes the prize for the most obvious logo in the field. What’s quirky about Senator Clinton is that her logo is derived from her first name.

Perhaps that’s a New York thing, because ex-Mayor Guiliani chose a similar tack.
Without exception, the candidates employ a ‘Web 2.0’ aesthetic. By that, I mean the slightly 3D effect recognisable from popular ‘killer applications’ such as YouTube. Obama’s logo is an index case of this particular look, combining drop shadows and reflections… but all the sites employ similar techniques.
The use of bold colour with gradients is familiar and widespread example, and also a part of the Web 2.0 school of design. The presidential sites are riddled with examples.
Reflections are popular too, with Fred Thompson the most prominent enthusiast. John Edwards and Bill Richardson are united in failure, and the “Thank you” sites they now offer are identical, with a signature providing an interesting graphic element to punctuate the face-saving prose.
The Kings of online fundraising are Barack Obama and Ron Paul. Note the prominent social networking logos on both candidates sites. As MK previously pointed out, its actually rather stupid to have so many sites duplicating the same information, but that’s not the candidates’ fault. Part of the problem of living in this era is the relatively unsophisticated way in which different technolgies may be linked. The candidates use of the web is similarly unsophisticated, with many sites nothing more than virtual noticeboards. Those presidential candidates who do ‘get’ that interactivity is important are still constrained by the technologies available. Future decades will see much more integration, and much better ordering of information.
In all these respects, the crop of sites we have on offer are very much representative of their time, good and typical examples of Late Noughties web aesthetic. All are still essentially routed in column like, textual information, more like newspapers (or newsletters) than anything else. Where other media is featured, its cordoned off in its own box, or segregated on another page. The campaign sites for 2012 will be much more dyanamic, more like TV channels than newspapers.
Meanwhile, if you look under the hood, and some sites utilise positively medieval methods of getting the information onto the page. The prime offender here is John McCain, who uses HTML tables to force a layout onto the page, when he really should be employing CSS (mea culpaLiberalConspiracy still uses tables too). McCain also drops all his JavaScripts into the HTML code as well. These snippets of code (which cause the buttons to change colour when you roll your mouse pointer over them) really should be hidden away in a separate file somewhere. Nowadays, web designers like to keep their design, structure and scripts in separate files, where they can be more easily manipulated. Its odd that the folks who put Senator McCain’s site together were happy with the cluttered source code they produced. Personally, it would have driven me mad.
As does an out-of-date site. Mike Gravel has the worst site. He is apparently still in the race, yet his site has not been updated in weeks. He also appears to have uploaded a video in the wrong aspect ratio. I’m sure that his speech is pefectly audible, but that sort of error shouldn’t be happening in 2008. Nightmare.
Obama does have the best site. I am a sucker for the kind of typography he employs. Nothwithsatnding the lack of integration between different digital technologies, he does at least employ everything from YouTube to mobile phones, and I think this fearless jump into pop culture is at the root of his popularity with young people. He also employs some nifty domain ecology to link everything together, and has the best stocked online store.
Does any of this matter? With all the candidates presenting a similar online face, probably not a great deal this time around. Much like the advertising budgets of multi-national soft-drink companies, would be Commanders-in-Chief have to spend a certain amount of money just to stand still. To not employ the latest web tools on your page will be interpreted as being out-of-touch, so candidates will always be a hostage to their web advisors, shrieking about the latest essential feature. There is very little radical thinking on any of the pages, and where Obama has led the way, it is not due to any leap of imagination on his part, more that he has the confidence to embrace what people in other walks of life have been experimenting with for years… while other candidates are still afraid of getting burned.
But if one assumes that current viewing trends will continue, and the distrust of the mainstream media continues to rise, then the web will continue to gain influence. The web, a side show for most candidates this time around, may become the crux of all future campaigns. Those who do not have a visually literate and functionally robust website up-and-running before they begin campaigning, are likely to falter and fail.
And the White House website is irredeemably dull.
(Cross posted at LiberalConspiracy)

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