Masters of the 2016 candidate domains
Originally published December 5, 2012
The land grab in cyberspace for ClintonCuomo.com, RubioChristie.com and other potential 2016 candidacies is already under way as speculators — and some candidates — snap up Internet addresses.
Rick Santorum already tipped his hand by buying RickSantorum2016.com, RickSantorum2016.net and Santorum2016.net. But some campaigns pay extra to mask publicly available data about Internet domain name ownership, so it’s unclear whether Christie2016.com, ElizabethWarren2016.com or JoeBiden2016.com were registered by speculators or the candidates and their allies.
On the Web, politics depends on buying the right domain name, or URL. “It’s something to easily remember to type in,” said Karl Frisch, a digital campaign strategist who worked for Howard Dean’s 2004 technologically groundbreaking presidential bid. “It’s more important for the candidate than having a year associated with it. Let’s say Jeb Bush were to win in 2016, he’s not going to use that URL in 2020. It’s better to have a URL that’s timeless.”
Data on domain ownership are publicly available on the index site Whois.com. But poking through Whois for tea leaves on who is planning a presidential run is mostly a fruitless game.
The reason why is that speculators are in on the act.
The morning after President Barack Obama won reelection, an attorney in Lyndhurst, Ohio, Andrew Samtoy, got a bright idea — and hopped online to snap up ChristieKasich.com for $10. By that point, however, he was way behind the cybersquatting curve. ClintonCuomo.com, Ayotte2016.com, RubioChristie.com, SantorumBush.com and countless other permutations of possible tickets had long since been bought, often by profiteers imagining the day a campaign operative comes a-calling offering fistfuls of cash — or maybe just a handshake from an admired candidate — in exchange for the Web real estate.
Yet in this era of smartphones and social media, such paydays or moments of personal outreach are increasingly less likely. Modern campaigns typically pick just one main domain for their campaign, usually the contender’s name if it’s easy to obtain, and brand it on everything from podium signs to bumper stickers. Once the candidate’s site is populated by volunteer information, Twitter and Facebook links, donation buttons and biographies, it easily rises to the top of Google searches to ensure people looking for it that way can find it.
“I haven’t run across a case where we were beholden to anybody,” said Josh Ross, owner of Trilogy Interactive, which handled the Web operations for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential run and Hillary Clinton’s 2008 bid. “The first thing we do before we engage the client is look at the domain name registry to see what their situation is. Smart campaigns, even if they’re not planning on running, register everything to prevent other people from doing it.”
Campaign operatives agree that the “marquee” domain — just their name, such as BarackObama.com or BobbyJindal.com — is critically important for a candidate to own. Variations that include years, names of offices and possible running mates are too infinite to proactively buy.
“These sharks are looking three or four years down the line buying the names of anyone who has even a speck of a chance of running for something,” said Vincent Harris, digital campaign manager for Allen West, Linda McMahon, Newt Gingrich and Ted Cruz. “At some point you realize that if someone wants to put up a nasty hit site on you, they’re going to find one. You can’t purchase everything.”
Harris said there’s still a healthy chunk of the public who type in the URLs to get to a candidate’s website — 24 percent of McMahon’s traffic and 33 percent of West’s came that way — but the URLs they type are ones that have been heavily marketed. McMahon’s, for instance, was LindaForSenate2012.com and West’s was AllenWestForCongress.com, domains that people only knew because they were branded on campaign materials. It would’ve been just as easy to pick something else, Harris said.
None of this stops cybersquatters from trying, especially since the price of play for an unclaimed domain name can be as little as $8 a year.
Emory University Ph.D. candidate Sharadule Shah, 27, of Atlanta, picked up several, including Ryan2016.com, Deval2016.com and even Brian2016.com — in case Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer or Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval run.
He is emboldened because he sold HuntsmanForPresident.com to a group supporting former Ambassador Jon Huntsman just before he started a short-lived bid for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.
“It’s a relatively modest investment,” Shah said. “I rack up whatever names I can get.
“The funny thing is, I bought Ryan2016.com a week before he was selected to be vice president.”
Not all cybersquatters buy hoards of names. Vineet KewalRamani, 46, of Frederick, Md., only grabbed Jindal2016.com way back in 2008 because he thought his fellow Indian-American could someday make some national noise. His prior experience was as owner of Spitzer2008.com, which he gave to the exploratory campaign for then-New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer when he was asked for it in 2007.
“My wife gets really upset with me,” KewalRamani said. “She sees the automatic payments and says, ‘Why are you doing this?’ It’s just a fun thing.”
The real headaches for campaigns come when politicians don’t own their own names. Candidates have gone on to spend thousands of dollars to buy them, and sometimes — as in the cases of PaulRyan.com and ChrisChristie.com — they’re owned by other people with the same names who are using them for their own interests.
The other Chris Christie, for instance, is a computer programmer in Wisconsin who registered his name when he was a college student in 1999 and says he would only sell it to the New Jersey governor if the price was right. Christie, who calls himself “the good twin” on his site, said he has turned down offers as high as $1,500 from other cyber-speculators, he said. Nobody from Christie’s team has approached him.
Candidates have little recourse if a cybersquatter doesn’t want to relinquish a desired domain, although in 2005 Hillary Clinton did wrest HillaryClinton.com from an Italian woman who had registered it in 2001.
The World Intellectual Property Organization, a United Nations agency charged with mediating such disputes, ruled that Clinton had a common law right to the trademark of her own name because of her public activities, even though she had never filed for a trademark. The arbitrator also found that the woman had registered the domain in bad faith with the intent to use Clinton’s fame to direct traffic to unrelated matters.
The ownership of most domains is publicly listed on several online indexes, including Whois.com. Yet anyone can pay a little extra to own it anonymously — the cyber equivalent of an unlisted phone number in the phonebook.
That makes it harder to learn what a candidate’s intentions are for running. Forward-thinking campaigns usually pay extra to anonymize the registration of whatever they buy so as not to telegraph a planned run before it is properly announced.
There is a risk to candidates in not addressing the issue of their own name early in a political career. The owner of TimKaine.com is masked on Whois, but whoever has it makes it bounce automatically to the Facebook page of Jamie Brown Radtke, who lost to former Virginia Gov. George Allen in this year’s GOP primary for Senate. Radtke told POLITICO she doesn’t know why that is the case and isn’t responsible for it.
Harris said it’s less laborious, faster and, usually, cheaper to just pay up.
“In my experience, it’s much better just to buy the domain names, even though you’re kind of giving these people a leg up,” said Harris, who helped Huntsman buy JonHuntsman.com last year. “It’s a quicker, speedier process to get it all done.”
Frequently, Ross said, owners want more than the name is worth. After then-North Carolina Sen. John Edwards was picked as Kerry’s running mate in 2004, Ross tried to acquire KerryEdwards.com from a person named Kerry Edwards who had it. They offered “thousands of dollars” but the owner wanted more; the campaign eventually dropped the effort and never used the domain.
Many squatters claim they buy domain names to prevent mischief-makers from doing so.
“I became a fan and bought that domain on a whim just in case Romney didn’t win,” said Chris Morris, 46, of Nashville, who owns McDonnell2016.com. “My intention was to reserve it for [Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell] or drive traffic to his site.”
Some squatters have been waiting a long time for payouts or attention that likely will never come. Allen Craddock, 44, a lawyer from Austin, Texas, paid $1,000 from another squatter for HillaryForPresident.com in 2004 and spent the 2008 campaign season expecting an offer from her campaign. It didn’t happen.
“I thought it would be a good investment,” Craddock said, noting he still might hear from them if Clinton runs in 2016.
Similarly, several cybersquatters who grabbed Romney variants are equally disappointed. Joe Decesare, 31, of Jensen Beach, Fla., went on a $500 buying binge in 2010 and snapped up Mitt2012.com among others.
“I contacted the Romney campaign but they already had MittRomney.com so they didn’t respond to me,” he said. “I haven’t had any political candidates contact me, actually. But, yeah, I think it’s got to have some value to somebody possibly.”
Decesare, by the way, owns Jeb2016.com.