MANCHESTER, N.H. — Tim Pawlenty, the former Republican governor from Minnesota who is flirting with a bid for president in 2012, has none of the accoutrements that presidential contenders tend to have. No tour bus, campaign manager or yard signs bearing his name. Few Americans, in fact, even know his name.
What Pawlenty does have is a beat reporter from Politico assigned to chronicle every utterance and movement of his non-campaign campaign: a 25-year-old named Kendra Marr, who dutifully followed him through subzero temperatures last week equipped with a salt-coated Chevrolet Malibu rental, a laptop and a tiny hand-held Flip video camera.
The New Hampshire primary is more than a year away. The first major presidential candidate has yet to formally declare. Just don't tell that to the media outlets like Politico, Talking Points Memo and RealClearPolitics, which are already planning to smother the 2012 campaign trail in a way they could never have imagined four years ago when they had far smaller staffs of bloggers and shoestring budgets.
With an eye toward earning greater respectability, this crop of political websites is hoping for more than just page views and traffic-driving links from the Drudge Report. They want to establish themselves as the Blogs on the Bus.
"We were a garage band in 2008, riffing on the fly," said Jim VandeHei, Politico's executive editor and co-founder. "Now we're a 200-person production, with a precise feel and plan."
Politico will co-host, with NBC News and Telemundo, the first debate of the campaign season on May 2, getting a head start on a season of candidate face-offs that is already remarkably busy. (Politico edged ahead of Fox News, which scheduled a debate for May 5.)
Politico has nearly tripled its staff since 2008, when it was already a formidable if somewhat overextended presence on the campaign trail. It will start a website, 2012 Live, this weekend that will serve as a home for what VandeHei described as "tons and tons of stories" in addition to the kind of minutiae that Politico believes political enthusiasts can never get enough of — politicians' daily schedules, county-by-county demographic data in key primary states and historical voting trends.
There will be biographies in micro-detail, right down to midlevel state campaign consultants and unelected local political leaders. If you do not know who Rich Ashooh is, you will after reading Politico's new site. (Hint: He is a lobbyist in New Hampshire who reportedly has "an impressive Rolodex.")
Politico has also developed an interactive map that tracks where candidates have traveled as far back as 2008 and how many visits they have made to a particular state — a feature that resembles the Santa Tracker shown for children on Christmas Eve.
If all this sounds as if the question "How much is too much?" has never occurred to Politico, that is because it hasn't. "There probably is in theory a point where there's too much," VandeHei said. "But we certainly haven't discovered it."
Politico's mission in 2012, VandeHei said, is to carve out an even bigger place in the news media landscape. "We're trying to take a leap forward in front of everyone else."
Talking Points Memo, a political site that has been around since 2000 but only became a force outside Washington in the last few years, plans to expand its reporting staff to 15 people. In 2008, it had only one full-time reporter assigned to the campaign. According to the site's founder, editor and publisher, Josh Marshall, the goal is to create a bigger name for the blog by competing with newcomers like Politico and more traditional news outlets like The Washington Post and The New York Times.
In the 2004 campaign, Marshall said, "We were sort of a player." By 2008, the site had become "a small but significant player," he said.
But now, he said with a sense of pride, "We've already got reporters assigned to different campaigns."
"It's an entirely different game for us."
RealClearPolitics plans to more than double the number of reporters covering the 2012 campaign to at least six and possibly eight, according to John McIntyre, the website's chief executive and co-founder.
"We're going to be putting as many reporters in the field as we can," McIntyre said, adding that original reporting "is how we become part of the conversation."
For websites like RealClearPolitics and The Huffington Post, which has more than 200 employees now — up from about 60 in 2008 — one big difference in the 2012 election will be their emphasis on original reporting as opposed to aggregation and commentary. Arianna Huffington said her site planned to assign its new crop of employees — many of them just out of college — a healthy menu of political articles through 2012.
Add to that the emergence of players that were not around in 2008, like Politics Daily, an AOL enterprise that started in 2009, and the retooled NationalJournal.com, which until late last year had a small presence online and limited all but a handful of articles to subscribers.
Traffic for political news sites tends to rise and fall with the election cycle. But various independent surveys place Politico's monthly traffic around the 2010 midterm elections at 2 million to 6 million people. According to Quantcast, Politico's traffic from the United States reached just under 6 million in November and fell to around 4.6 million late this month.
At the same time, RealClearPolitics registered about 3 million to 3.5 million unique monthly visits; Talking Points Memo's traffic ranged from about a million to more than 2 million.
The proliferation of political news sites has tested many traditional news outlets, which must grapple with whether to pursue the kind of micro-scoops and quick-hit articles that political sites specialize in, or ignore them and risk losing readers.
"The world wants information quickly and instantly," said Kevin Merida, national editor for The Washington Post. "In our business, you have to shift to accommodate that. And if readers don't get what they want where they're looking, they'll go someplace else and look."
Ultimately, Merida said, he believes it is wiser for news organizations like his not to give in to the temptation to keep pace with the supersonic speed of the blogosphere. "That's what we all have to figure out: how to give people what they want, and to keep your own compass."
In some ways, political news sites have changed the threshold for what is news, and the result is often a greater emphasis on the horse race — the kind of who's up, who's down reporting that proves endlessly frustrating for candidates and many readers. Politico, for example, has published at least 36 articles in which Sarah Palin was a principal figure in the last month. In the last week and a half alone, the site has characterized her political fortunes as slipping, on Jan. 18 (the article explained her "incremental" but "significant" drop in favorability); indeterminate, on Jan. 20 (one writer cautioned those who underestimate her "do so at their own risk"); and imperiled again, on Jan. 22 (an article noted her "disconnect" with New Hampshire voters).
Pawlenty, at a Barnes & Noble last week here in Manchester, observed to a group of reporters that he was asked about polls and the horse race more than anything else. "It's like, 'OK. Now can we talk about health care or taxes?'" he said.
Marr, the Politico reporter, was not deterred. She followed up with an adroit twist on the standard horse race question: "Are you getting tired of the Sarah Palin question?" Marr then planted herself at a table in the back of the bookstore, where she filed a 500-word article that was posted on Politico's home page about an hour after Pawlenty had left the building.