The only unimpeachably good things to emerge from the 2016 presidential election so far have been the 404 pages of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
I’ll back that up, but some context first: When a visitor follows a broken link, or a server can’t find a certain webpage, that server returns a 404 error and usually a “404 Not Found” page. This page tells the user there’s nothing there and then guides them to a search bar or a homepage. Every website has one of these. And out of all the websites from the candidates in the 2016 field, the Clinton and Sanders 404 pages stand apart.
Clinton’s features the candidate standing next to Bill, Chelsea, and Donald Duck. She wears turquoise; Bill, salmon; Chelsea, teal; the duck, a sailor suit. Their outfits, in other words, recall the ’90s (except for the sailor suit). They are also all wearing Donald Duck hats, except (again) Donald, who is wearing a conical party hat, because if he was wearing a Donald Duck hat it would be weird.
“Oops, that link wasn't what it was quacked up to be,” says the page. This is a pun on the sound that ducks make.
Bernie Sanders’s features a YouTube video of the candidate personally addressing the lost visitor, beneath the headline “A special message from Bernie.”
“Hi, this is Senator Bernie Sanders,” says Senator Bernie Sanders, his rhotacism resounding on the brick around him. “The good news is you’re on the right website and it’s a really good website. The bad news is, you’re on the wrong page.”
The virtues of these pages mirror the virtues the candidates hope to embody. Clinton’s is maternal and all-American and self-satisfied in its Nineties-ness. Sanders’s is sincere and endearing and very underfunded. But these pages are also goofy. Why is Bernie Sanders talking at me? (I’m glad he thinks his own website is a “really good website,” I guess.) Why is there a duck pun on Hillary’s page?
Contemporary national politics is weird (in an essential sense) or cheeky (in a jaunty, annoying social-media sense), but rarely is it goofy. These pages are goofy.
They are also better than every other candidates’ 404 page. And, like every other aspect of the early campaign season, it invites overthinking and the imputation of false significance. Many commentators refer to the contest that is going on right now, in which primary candidates compete for billionaires’ support and money, as the “shadow primary,” but surely the 404-off is the real shadow primary. Today’s digitally savvy voters know that good 404 pages constitute good crisis management: It’s a crisis, after all, when you’re looking for web content and can’t find it. When a URL call comes in at three o’clock in the morning, whose server do you want returning the error?
It’s a critical question, because most of the field’s 404 pages are dismal. Democrats Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee run the same text, which may be their server software’s default: “Page not found. Something went wrong.” Lindsey Graham uses something similar, as does Ben Carson. Carly Fiorina lacks an interesting one—perhaps she fired too many developers before launch?—but redirects lost visitors to a donation page, while Jim Webb sends them to his homepage. George Pataki’s forgoes body text for a big blank space, much like his policy platform. And for all the support he has found on the Internet, Rand Paul has 404 page which defaults to the blue-Arial-on-a-white-background page that seems to have been provided by his web host.
Only two Republicans pull ahead of the field. Marco Rubio’s 404 is headlined “FUMBLE! You seem a little lost.” Beneath this there is an NFL Films-inspired montage of Rubio addressing football-playing kids. Mike Huckabee’s, meanwhile, features Mike and a dog and a freshly hooked fish.
“Oops! Looks like you caught the wrong page,” it says.
Perhaps it’s the wrong page, but it’s also the finest in the GOP field. It is a little strange: The picture is bad and Huckabee looks a lot younger than he does now. Also, there is a cute dog.
If the 404 primary is any guide, Huckabee is likely to face off against Sanders (or maybe Clinton) in the general election. As this diverges somewhat from mainstream pundit expectations, we’ll continue tracking this matter closely here at The Atlantic. My colleague David Graham has already added it to our 2016 U.S. presidential cheat sheet.