Mathematician-turned-legislator Daniel Biss, now a 2018 gubernatorial candidate, represents the 9th District in the Illinois State Senate. Biss’s grassroots campaign efforts thus far have been furthered by his fellowship program, which accounts for a total of 70 fellows or volunteers – the majority of whom are students, according to Charissa Laisy, Digital Organizing Manager for the Biss campaign.
One of these aforementioned digital student fellows – Medill senior Mollie Leavitt – recently made a critical advancement of the utmost importance to help Biss appeal to millennial voters come March: she created a 404 error page for his website.
“On WordPress websites there's a PHP that is specifically for 404 pages, and ours wasn't set up yet so we thought that when we did set it up we should do it in a fun way,” Leavitt said. “I did some research, and found other examples – which if you go on certain politicians’ websites and type in random letters after a “slash” you can see what their error pages are – and it's sort of like, ‘oh that's a fun surprise’.”
The idea for the page was the brainchild of the Biss campaign’s Digital Content Manager, Jeffrey Salvadore, who noticed the prominence of these pages in the political sphere.
“I just knew that it had previously been done by other campaigns, and I thought it'd be a fun way to highlight one of Daniel's more questionable skills, which is his ability to juggle fire,” Salvadore said.
While these meme pages are becoming increasingly popular, Laisy said she doesn’t consider it to be an especially strong engagement tactic for increasing voter turnout.
“At this point it's just a ubiquitous norm that every website should have a funny and quirky 404 page; it's also just a fun way to flex your quirky muscles – which on Daniel's campaign, we're always trying to find ways to do that in a respectful and cool manner,” she said. “We don't want to detract from him as a professional guy, but he’s also this funny, relatable person and a 404 page is an obvious way to showcase that.”
The popularity of 404 Not Found pages initially began at the national level during the 2016 presidential election, as candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders set off the competition chain reaction that was subsequently dubbed the ‘404-off’ during the shadow primary.
Nevertheless, even at the Illinois gubernatorial level, the competition for the best 404 page is fierce.
“J.B. Pritzker, whatever you think of him, isn't necessarily quirky,” Laisy said. ”So a 404 page for him feels a little bit more like a stretch as he makes it more politically charged because that's more of his personal brand.”
Leavitt agreed with this sentiment, saying “[Pritzker’s] page is kinda funny too and in order to find these error pages you go to their website and type in ‘slash whatever’ and that's how you can see them if they have one.”
While it is up to voters to officially decide which error pages they endorse over others, something these Biss campaign workers seem to agree on is that having a 404 page is a given at this point in the competition.
“It would be silly and dumb for us not to have something silly and interesting on a 404 page, and I feel like it's one of those things where it's just like it doesn't necessarily add value, but if you don't have one it's like ‘well, why not?’” Laisy said.
According to Salvadore, even Biss himself found the page ‘amusing.’ For many politicians in today’s tense climate, the ability to appreciate and partake in this sort of semi self-deprecating humorous content is a major step in the right direction.
**Mollie Leavitt was a former politics section editor (winter quarter 2016) at North by Northwestern