Bernie, Ben, Hillary, and Trump:
A Campaign Copywriting Smackdown

Bumper stickers, yard signs, and door-to-door canvassing: these are the classic tools of presidential campaigns. But nowadays we spend way more time online than we spend walking around our neighborhoods or answering our doors. Campaign websites have become the new key to gathering grassroots support and winning elections.

We currently have four presidential hopefuls leading the polls — Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Ben Carson. In theory, they all know that design matters for their campaign. But I’m a user interface writer. I wanted to see how well their landing page copy would work in convincing me to take action.

So what is the primary goal of a campaign website? Do the candidates want my money? Yes. Do they want my vote? Of course. Do they want me to stick a sign in my lawn? Probably! But the action step that lays the real foundation for engagement is joining their email list.

It’s hilarious when you put it in perspective. But I supported Obama in the last two elections, and I remember feeling included when I got those messages. From a campaign manager’s point of view, the most valuable thing that you have is your email address. The campaign website is their chance to win long-term, personal access to your attention.

How did the four sites stack up? How easy and inviting was it for me to enter my contact info? Let’s take a look.

Bernie Sanders

When I visited Bernie’s site, I was immediately drawn in by the large image of his smiling, friendly self, and the empowering language of the banner message at the bottom of the page: “Stand With Bernie.” But I didn’t see anywhere I could enter my email address.

Plot twist! That slogan wasn’t at the bottom of the page. Unfortunately, the email input field and “Join Us” button beneath the slogan fell below the fold on my screen. But since there wasn’t clearly more to come, I didn’t scroll down — instead my eye bounced up to the red “Contribute” button and then to the blue “Host An Event” button. I skimmed the copy preceding it: “Host A Debate Watch Party — Meet Bernie supporters near you. Set a size limit and email guests what to bring.” This seemed like unnecessary coaching in how to plan a party for such an early stage in our relationship. I wasn’t even sure yet how I felt about Bernie for president.

So I returned to the sidebar, and decided to get to know him first. I clicked “Meet Bernie” — welcoming copy with a clear action step. (“Meet Bernie” strikes the right tone. “About” would have been flavorless; “Bio” can feel professional and cold.)

Grade? Passing. I didn’t feel super-encouraged to share my email, but at least I stayed to explore the site. Other screen sizes/shapes might not have cut off the email input field in the way that mine did. Also, it’s worth noting that the emphasis on party-planning reveals Bernie’s (rather successful) campaign focus: in-person gatherings and rallies.

Ben Carson

Ben’s campaign has chosen evocative words for his slogan — “Heal + Inspire + Revive.” They allude to his medical career but don’t alienate the everyman Republican base by touting the fact that he’s Doctor Ben Carson, M.D.

Feeling a bit inspired (if not exactly healed or revived) by the word choice, I scanned the page for my next step. My eye jumped from the red of “Revive” to the red of “Support Ben.” I recognized that as code for pulling out my credit card, though, and “Store” would clearly require the same — a step I was nowhere near ready to take.

The other most obvious call to action was the “Endorse Ben” button. As if predicting my cheapness, there was an incentive for clicking it: “Show Your Support and Get a Free Bumper Sticker.” I imagine that I was meant to feel excitement about the prospect of a free gift. Instead, having just avoided pulling out my credit card, I felt mildly embarrassed and manipulated by these words. I decided to visit “Ben on the Issues” as my first action.

UPDATE: Several days later, this central button was changed to read “Sign the Petition,” and was followed by copy about taking away the tax-exempt status of a Muslim group. I’m not going to comment on the politics of this — but will note that these new words asked me to agree with a specific policy, and didn’t direct me toward the simpler action of joining an email list.

Grade? Barely passing. I didn’t leave the site, which is good. But there were multiple calls to action, it was unclear which one mattered the most, and the copy made me feel an undue level of pressure. There was no clear path to simply enter my email address.

Donald Trump

The first thing I noticed was the big photo of Trump, smiling his signature smile, and raising his hand in a ‘victory’ sign. His slogan was cut off at the fold, so I could only read “MAKE AMERICA” across the bottom of the page.

I could tell that words had been cut off, so I scrolled down a bit to take in the whole slogan: “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” These words were clearly meant to appeal to my nostalgia for the good ol’ days — a mythical past when America, populated only by white Christians, commanded the respect of the rest of the world through superior moral fiber and guns. Instead, they further solidified my idea of Trump’s target demographic.

I saw the slogan repeated above, with his name, and then I read through the menu bar. Notably, the most highlighted call to action was the button that said “Donate,” which I found curious, since I’d heard that Trump was going to self-finance his campaign.

I felt I must be missing something … some substance. I scrolled down further, and found two equally weighted buttons asking me to “Join Us” and — again — “Donate,” along with a few news links and embedded videos.

Grade? Failing. I didn’t leave the site immediately, but the design and copy only compelled me to click on a video. After watching Trump’s cringeworthy interview from 60 Minutes, I’d had more than enough of this absurdity.

Hillary Clinton

At first glance, Hillary’s landing page felt a bit more chaotic than the others. My eye was drawn to the “H with arrow” logo, roughly in the center of the page. It’s visually simple, and said “Forward Movement” to me. It also called to mind the Obama logo from 2008 and 2012, as an iconic stand-in for the larger movement and vision of the campaign.

There was a notable difference in imagery on this landing page. For the other three sites, the main photo was a close-up of The Man Himself, isolated from everything. Here, though, Hillary was shown warmly shaking hands with a crowd of excited, flag-waving folks. Her slogan, “This starts with you,” was overlaid on the photo, meaningfully complementing it. Above the slogan, smack-dab in the middle of the page, was the email input form/“Join Us” button. Impossible to miss.

Interestingly, Hillary, Donald, and Bernie all chose the words “Join Us” for their bid for an email address. Ben’s call to action — “Endorse Ben” — felt like more of a commitment. “Join Us” is much more welcoming — but it made the most visual sense on Hillary’s page, where the photo showed Hillary with a group of supporters. Good design works best when paired with good copywriting, and vice versa.

Grade? Passing with honors. Hillary’s site design and writing are well-orchestrated, pointing me toward entering my contact info and making it easy for me to do so.

Wait, are you saying Hillary will win?

Who knows! Becoming the next POTUS requires more than a well-executed website. We haven’t even made it to the primaries, and there are still more candidates than I can count on my fingers and toes.

But over the next year, we do know that the leading candidates will be trying to win votes. And they need to win those votes by gaining the ear (read: inbox) of as many people as possible.

Clear user interface copy drives engagement — not just with the website, but with the campaign itself. If the design of the landing page encourages casual readers to stick around, but the tone or content of the writing make them want to bounce, then the overall UI is fruitless.

On the flip side, good copy is worth little if the functions of the site are broken. For the sake of the experiment, I went ahead and clicked the “Join Us” button on Hillary’s landing page. Nothing happened! There may have been a slight blip on my screen, but everything went quickly back to normal. I was left wondering if I had successfully signed up or not.

Hopefully voting won’t be this confusing. :)

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