RNC’s new website aims to extend reach

The new site gives programmers the opportunity to build custom tools, lets candidates connect with voters and allows the national party to tap into popular social-networking applications to keep in touch with the grass roots.

A beta version of the site launched Tuesday and came with the typical bugs that accompany many new ventures. A page titled “Future Leaders” was blank at the beginning of the day, but by the afternoon featured an appeal for nominations of the party’s rising stars.

Earlier in the day, Democrats had fun with a section on accomplishments, the last of which was a 2004 provision in an omnibus spending bill that would have given vouchers to schoolchildren in Washington.

Meanwhile, a Web video featuring Chairman Michael Steele concludes with an aide audibly telling the chairman he had done a good take. Steele’s blog, titled “What Up,” was down for much of the day, as were many pages on the rest of the site.

Internet strategists are most interested in an application that will allow programmers to build tools that party employees might not immediately think of.

The site “reflects a necessary change in the official culture of the party from closed to open,” said Mindy Finn, a principal at the GOP Internet firm Engage. “By opening the site up to the public to create content — the good, bad and ugly — they realize their vulnerabilities, but recognize that the benefits outweigh the risks.

“The most expensive, ingenious Web platform in the universe is nothing without the people who are its audience — and their various affiliations, opinions and ideas,” Finn said.

That pledge, and the larger site redesign, were key parts of Steele’s campaign to head the RNC. Steele repeatedly pledged to improve the party’s Web presence by inviting outside ideas and competition.

But, caution strategists involved in its construction, the site is only a tool, and Republicans will not fully utilize it until they teach their followers how to do so.

The site “helps you get organized. It helps you share information and organize the grass roots. It is nothing more than a tool, but it is an important tool that allows you to take advantage of it at every level,” said Saul Anuzis, the former Michigan party chairman who serves on the committee that oversaw the redesign.

“It’s only as good as people take advantage of it, so the key right now is to get everybody acclimated to it,” Anuzis added. “If we’re able to get the community to buy in and use it, it will be a very powerful tool.”

The new site will rely heavily on social-networking tools like Twitter and Facebook, reflecting new data that suggests a majority of the American electorate now get at least some of their political news online.