Entering digital age an expensive proposition for GOP


The Republican National Committee shelled out $1.4 million dollars over the last six months for Web sites and services, much of which was spent on GOP.com, the party’s major Web presence that was unveiled this month, new Federal Election Commission expense reports show.

The figure is far higher than what experts estimate it should have cost, and five times the amount its Democratic counterpart spent to host and maintain Democrats.org.

The biggest disparity seems to be bandwidth costs–the RNC paid Smartech Corp., a Republican-focused hosting firm, more than a million dollars, plus $22,000 to Eloqua, compared to the DNC’s $203,000 to Sprint, Switch and Data and Servint Corp.–despite the fact that the two sites’ traffic, which determines bandwidth usage and, largely, hosting costs, was the same.

But the design of the site itself was costly, too. In the months prior to the October 13 launch of GOP.com, the committee paid $328,000 to 11 firms for Web development. (The Democrats, which did not completely overhaul their site during that time period, spent $45,000 on Web development.)

And when the GOP’s graphics-laden product was unveiled, many of the main sections appeared missing or broken, including one advertised as listing future party leaders, which showed up blank.

“It feels as though too much focus has been placed on flashy features to the detriment of usability,” said Jamie Newell of Washington-based 7AZ Web Design. The site’s reliance on a mish-mash of technologies make it inaccessible to some, including those on mobile devices, he added, “making it impossible to navigate the site and ultimately hindering the message they are trying to deliver.”

The text that fills the site, indeed, seemed almost an afterthought. The second-to-last item on the accomplishment page ends in 2004, where one of the last items is “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

“Considering the significant resources they invested, more focus should have been placed on the quality of the content,” Newell said.

For all the funds poured into GOP.com, not all of the features lasted more than a day. A blog by Michael Steele titled “What Up?”–whose first entry on the belated Web presence read, “The Internet has been around for a while, now”--was abruptly renamed, having becoming the subject of mockery on the Web. Visitors to the home page were originally greeted by a miniature Steele making a video introduction, but that, too, was soon removed.

The site features a plethora of technology-related buzzwords, but not always in their appropriate context. It touts itself as an “open platform” and solicits “volunteer coders” to contribute features to the Web site, but submitting a volunteer contact form yields no response.

“If they had anyone familiar with technology on the inside, they could have told them that much money wasn’t necessary,” a Democratic National Committee source who works with new media said. “It’s lots of money for a small return.” And they seem to have created a Web presence not so much to advance specific policy goals, but for the sake of having one, he added. “I can’t see how this would build their long-term organizing efforts. They don’t have a strategy for actually providing knowledge and creating value with this stuff.”

Smartech declined to provide details on its million-dollar bill. The RNC did not respond to repeated requests for information.

Party Committee Web Site spending, April-September 2009

Republican National Committee
ELOQUA $22,500 Hosting
BEP INC. $127,065 Design
CD INC $84,165 Design
3 NEXUS $7,000 Design
ZURI GROUP, LLC $5,000 Design
OUTLAW MEDIA, LLC $4,362 Design
PC GROUP $4,159 Design
APP DEFENSE $2,625 Design

Democratic National Committee
SPRINT $139,365 Hosting
SWITCH AND DATA $43,673 Hosting
PAIR NETWORKS, INC. $1,131 Hosting
THOUGHTWORKS $44,565 Design