By: Ben Smith
June 12, 2011 07:06 AM EDT
The Drudge primary has begun, and Mitt Romney is winning.
The former governor of Massachusetts may be the punching bag of the conservative media, ridiculed on blogs and talk radio as a Plasticine, untrustworthy flip-flopper and the grandfather of the hated Obamacare.
But on the Drudge Report, Matt Drudge’s no frills but enduringly influential website, Romney is simply the front-runner (“Romney Wins N.H. Straw Poll”), the “Billion-Dollar Man” and the president’s most implacable foe (“Romney: First Thing I Would Undo Is Obamacare”).
A survey of the past 13 months of Drudge headlines found only one debatably negative reference to the 2002 Olympics CEO (“Bachmann Outraises Romney”) — and a survey of aides to his rivals found a rising level of frustration at what one described as “favoritism” by one of the most important, if also one of the quirkiest, referees.
“One of the mysteries of Drudge is how he continues to be such a mystery. Never clear how or why he leans for or against candidates. But there is a lot of behind-the-scenes, very quiet and secretive mojo that goes on,” said Mark McKinnon, who, as a top adviser to John McCain in 2008, watched with dismay as Drudge gave top billing to questions about the Arizona senator’s health.
“It looks like someone in Romneyland has figured out the secret code,” McKinnon said.
Frustrated rivals think they know the secret: a low-profile, hard-driving Republican operative named Matt Rhoades, who is Romney’s campaign manager. Rhoades met Drudge, as POLITICO Editor-in-Chief John F. Harris and co-author Mark Halperin reported in their book “The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008,” when he became research director of the Republican National Committee and was introduced by his predecessor on a special trip to Miami. Rhoades has since been seen as a pipeline to the reclusive Drudge, who now has two veteran Washington reporters working on the site as well.
“No one has displaced Matt Rhoades in the Republican firmament as the go-to Drudge guy,” said a top GOP operative who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid angering the powerful online entrepreneur.
This is no academic question for the likes of Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Jon Huntsman and Michele Bachmann — all elbowing for the cascading attention Drudge can bring.
“It’s no secret that Matt Drudge has a high-level friend inside the Romney camp, but his favoritism puts him noticeably out of step with other conservative media,” said an aide to one of Romney’s Republican rivals. “Sometimes it’s bias by exclusion, like when conservatives universally slam Romney for his RomneyCare speech and Drudge gives him a pass.
“He’s been tough on all of Romney’s rivals,” grumbled another candidate’s aide.
Republican operatives — some of whom read Drudge with Talmudic intensity — point to other clues in Drudge’s decision to link to items, such as a poll by the liberal Public Policy Polling that found just one supporter of Huntsman in its sample of Iowans; a POLITICO item about Gingrich cruising in the Mediterranean and, briefly, a 4-year-old report about Texas Gov. Rick Perry titled “Rick Perry Signs Bill Requiring Girls to Get STD Vaccination.”
Drudge’s most important choice, though, hasn’t been to pound Romney’s rivals. Relatively speaking, it’s been to ignore them. A survey of headlines between May 1, 2010, and the end of last month found 36 mentions of Romney, 12 of Pawlenty and two of Huntsman. Gingrich, who merited 26 mentions, also has the most negative mentions of the declared or presumed candidate: five.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, though not a candidate, led the pack by a considerable distance with 106 mentions — all but nine of which are positive.
Drudge has long been key in shaping the narratives around candidates. Democrats are his typical punching bags — John Edwards’s personal vanity and John Kerry’s alleged “flip-flopping” were favored themes. But Drudge isn’t a predictable party soldier. The 2008 cycle found him a favored home, for instance, for authorized leaks from Hillary Clinton’s campaign of fundraising numbers — leaks that her aides hoped would help slot her into the favored Drudge category of triumphant diva, not avenging liberal harridan.
But any hint of a Clinton romance was displaced by a fascination with Barack Obama, his passionate supporters and his historic narrative.
As that schizophrenic history reflects, Drudge’s politics are complicated. His political impulses, to the degree they can be surmised, are populist and libertarian, salted with an interest in pure news and drama. The child of Jewish Democrats from Maryland, he burst into the national consciousness when he revealed reporters’ investigation into what would become the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Drudge’s greatest power, however, is in the Republican primary, and Romney’s GOP foes can only recall nervously the site’s navigation of the 2008 contest. Although McCain’s aides remain bitter over the intense health focus, Drudge appeared to drop any sense of neutrality as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee surged to the lead in Iowa.
That December, Drudge knocked Huckabee from every angle imaginable, unloading wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of opposition research on the lesser-known candidate as Romney pounded him with television ads. One memorable focus was a report that Huckabee had called for quarantining AIDS patients; another was a bank shot banner: “Dems Hold Fire on Huckabee; See ‘Easy Kill’ in General Election.”
As the general election approached, Democrats wondered for a time whether Drudge’s coolness toward McCain and interest in Obama would reshape the landscape of media politics.
But the choice of Palin — a pro-life conservative, a seemingly sympathetic diva in Drudge’s political cosmology, a sex symbol and a driver of traffic — seemed to end any crush Drudge had on Obama, and he spent the balance of the 2008 campaign — and the years since — hammering the Democratic nominee and president.
In keeping with tradition of such stories, Drudge and Rhoades did not respond to inquiries from POLITICO. And while reporters and operatives have long obsessed over attempting to read Drudge’s mind, his enduring power stems, in part, from how hard it can be to predict his editorial choices. Indeed, Drudge ignored Palin’s recent apparent mix-up over Paul Revere’s role in the American Revolution, even though it came as she disrupted Romney’s campaign launch in New Hampshire.
And some caution that it is easy to overread Drudge’s motives. His success has come from his news judgment, not an overt political agenda, and campaigns — like Clinton’s — that courted Drudge assiduously with leaks and thought they had a special relationship only to learn, bitterly and abruptly, otherwise.
“To talk about the Rhoades connection doesn’t give Drudge enough credit,” said a senior Republican official. “Drudge has a pragmatic side. He wants to help the guy who should be the nominee, the most electable person — that’s who wins the Drudge primary.”
The second aide to a Romney rival said he takes comfort in a simple fact.
“Romney had Drudge in 2008 and still wasn’t able to win,” he said.
Byron Tau contributed to this report.