Obama’s Web Designer Breaks Down the 2016 Candidates Based on Their Websites

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Obama’s Web Designer Breaks Down the 2016 Candidates Based on Their Websites

We’ve come a long way since Ross Perot ‘96.

With each passing cycle, presidential elections get more tech-savvy, making the task of raising funds and rallying support on all fronts—both online and off—dependent on new strategies and tools, like increasingly sophisticated web presences.

In the 2012 election, President Barack Obama's campaign alone raised $690 million through digital sources—more than half of its record-breaking $1 billion total. Josh Higgins, who was the design director for Obama's 2012 re-election campaign, said the message this ratio sends is clear: "I would imagine that we should see more investment in social and web this time around—and I think the folks that don't are going to pay for it."

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Having a clear, concise web presence is crucial, Higgins told me, because the alternative makes the candidate look inept and unqualified for the job.

"What dated design says about the candidate is big," Higgins said. "Especially when what they say is not matching with the visual language of the site. There is a disconnect and further puts question into the viewer's' mind."

A candidate's web campaign is especially important for courting younger voters, many of whom are only reachable through the internet. A good site, Higgins said, should therefore be able to convey the message and tone of a candidate's campaign immediately.

A spokesperson for Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley's presidential campaign agreed, and said engaging voters and familiarizing them with the candidate was the main thrust of their web campaign.

"It's a top priority to be engaging with people so they get to know the governor's record of new leadership and his vision for rebuilding the American Dream in any way we can—through Snapchat, social media interactions and more traditional digital platforms like our email program and website," the spokesperson said.

Higgins further broke down the job of a campaign website into three phases: fundraising, swaying undecided voters, and getting voters to turn out.

With more than seven months until the Iowa caucuses, most sites are still firmly in the first phase, meaning they're almost exclusively dedicated to getting donations. Sites like Mike Huckabee's make this clear, with large splash pages that ask users to either donate or sign up for an email list for future solicitations before they get to the full page. While this strategy can be successful, Higgins said it's important for design teams to toe the line between assertive and pushy.

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"Everyone in America knows that it takes money to run a campaign, so I don't think it's that shocking that there's a huge donate button," Higgins said. "But I think it's a balance of displaying information about your views as well as how to donate."

That balance, Higgins said, means avoiding "roadblocks"—poorly designed splash pages that make it difficult or impossible for users to access the site's content. He said a few of the candidates, including Rand Paul, had more or less impenetrable pages, which would lead users to ask, "why would I donate to something where I don't even know what's happening?"

Other common mistakes included poor mobile optimization on sites like Bernie Sanders', videos like Rick Perry's that autoplay "on landing"—making it difficult for voters with slower connections to access the site—and campaigns that rely on outside firms for unreliable, unfocused web design.

With the web becoming increasingly instrumental for running a successful campaign—and a few web-related gaffes already making headlines—we had Higgins share his thoughts on what messages each candidate's site conveys:

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (Republican)

Was hard to find through Google; there are lots of websites for him. Looks good though, although the logo is small and lost in the photos on every page. It is clear and easy to navigate. Mobile experience is better than the desktop.

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Nice and simple. Navigation seems unresolved and needs more work. The mobile experience is pretty nice as well although I feel the navigation should be below the header of his name. I click on the words of header thinking it might be a link.

Former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee (Democrat)

This site has the right elements but the design and layout feels unresolved. Mobile experience is very cluttered.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (Democrat)

This site is clear, looks good, and lets me know what actions they want me to take. Mobile experience is nice as well.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (Republican)

I am a little shocked that a video is autoplayed on landing. This does not consider lower-end devices or folks with lower bandwidth. From a design perspective, the elements are horsey and unrefined. Type and elements are huge and have little relation to each other. Different messaging, "Telling it like it is" and "Real. Honest. Direct." = Confusing.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz (Republican)

Very cluttered and manic. Have no idea what action I should take. Mobile experience is the same.

Former IRS Commissioner Mark Everson (Republican)

The design of the site is a little unresolved and manic but I did like that his team used an already exciting website template that is built for desktop and mobile. This is a better decision that building a less successful site from scratch.

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Also nice and simple. But the site functions very poorly. Clicking through the navigation it is a jarring experience. The mobile experience is nice but the menu placement is odd and not intuitive; could get lost on smaller phones.

South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham (Republican)

I like the simplicity. Navigation position is a bit cumbersome especially for small browsers but the site is nice overall. Mobile experience is not as successful as the desktop.

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee (Republican)

Not sure where to start. This site is so manic and not user friendly. Kind of fails on all fronts of web design. The mobile experience is no different.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (Republican)

Pretty nice site overall. From a design perspective, the elements are a little unrefined but the information is easy accessible. Mobile was also considered.

Ohio Governor John Kasich (Republican)

Horribly long URL to try to find him. Also very cluttered, clunky and not concise. The mobile experience is much better, though.

Former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley (Democrat)

Nice and simple. A little clunky but overall a nice design. Mobile experience is also nice.

Former New York Governor George Pataki (Republican)

Very clunky and cluttered. Hard to tell what they want the user to do. Poorly designed. Mobile experience is much better than the desktop. Simpler, better layout.

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Could not get through the road block of asking for personal info and to donate. So not good.

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry (Republican)

Logo is unresolved. The video playing on land is not considering all users. The mobile experience is big and clunky.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio (Republican)

The roadblock was bad, but once through the site was nice and simple. It's clear what they want me to do. Pretty nice, although the logo is unresolved [not 100 percent clear what the design is saying]. The mobile experience also had a road block, but once in, the site was not bad.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (Democrat)

Seems unfinished. Navigation placement is very odd. Also clunky. Mobile experience is very manic and not laid out well. The store link is at top of page. Is that the most important info? I hope not.

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum (Republican)

The video playing on land is not considering all users. Design is very messy and clunky. The Mobile experience is no better. There is no hierarchy of information.

Businessman Donald Trump (Republican)

Trump's website looks like it was done in 1980, and the message that that sends is crazy to me. It's like hearing him speak and looking at his website are two different experiences. It's pretty easy to get around the site, but it does not feel very forward or convey progressiveness. The mobile experience is simpler, but still very dated.

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Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (Republican) [Exploratory Committee site]

Could not get through road block without signing up but the roadblock was well designed. The mobile experience was the same.

Former Virginia Senator Jim Webb (Democrat)

The URL is confusing. He goes by Jim, but the URL is James. Very dated aesthetically and hard to navigate. The mobile experience was the same maybe even a bit worse.