WASHINGTON -- As Ann Romney took the stage in Michigan on Tuesday night, gleefully ginning up the crowd that had gathered to celebrate her husband's victory in the state's primary, her thoughts turned to those deserving thanks.
The campaign staff and surrogates, its endorsers and volunteers, even Donald Trump and Kid Rock were offered proverbial tips of the hat from the former Massachusetts governor's wife. Left unmentioned was one of the campaign's most significant boosters: Matt Drudge.
The long time operator of the highly influential Drudge Report had spent much of the lead-up to Michigan propping up the Romney campaign. While the rest of the national press corps hyperventilated over Romney's inability to fill even a small sliver of Detroit's Ford Field for an over-hyped economic address, Drudge avoided the matter.
His page archives underscore similarly revealing editorial choices. On the day of the primary, Drudge had a banner subtly mocking Rick Santorum for robocalling for Democratic votes. At other times during the day, he filed stories with the following headlines:
- "Santorum flips on Dems voting in Republican primaries....,"
- "RICK BEGS DEM VOTES"
- "Mitt accuses Rick of trying to 'kidnap' primary...."
- "SANTORUM SEEKS DEM VOTES"
- "Michael Moore: 'My Democratic Friends Will Vote For Santorum'...
- "BEGS FOR DEMS IN MI"
Drudge linked to a Hill report that highlighted Romney accusing Santorum of "dirty tricks" as well as a Wesley Pruden column in the Washington Times titled "The ignorance of Rick Santorum." For good measure, Drudge filed another story that day titled: "NEWT ON RICK: 'BIG LABOR REPUB'" A review of the archived headlines shows nothing negative or critical of Romney, save one piece noting that Ann had thoughts about strangling the national press corps.
That the Drudge Report tilts favorably toward the Romney campaign is hardly a secret. When he was the anti-Romney candidate of choice, Newt Gingrich received the same type of negative coverage that Santorum faced in the lead-up to Michigan. Matt Rhoades, Romney's campaign manager, has close ties to the right-leaning web juggernaut, dating back to his days as an opposition research director of the Republican National Committee.
Even so, the extent to which Drudge has put aside any pretense of neutrality in the GOP primary has surprised -- or impressed -- some seasoned conservatives.
"Matt Drudge has done more for Romney than Romney's super PAC in my estimation," said John Feehery, President of Quinn Gillespie Communications and a former House leadership aide.
For the candidates on the wrong end of the Drudge-Romney alliance, there is little in the way of recourse. According to a New York Times story from late January, the Gingrich campaign "eventually gave up on trying to persuade the Drudge staff to spare them" the pain of routinely negative coverage. Pressed to describe the Santorum campaign's approach, an aide close to the former senator conveyed a similar sense of exasperation.
"I have made a lot of friends in this industry over the years but I wouldn't expect them to write 20 favorable headlines for me," the aide said. "There is nothing illegal about it. Unethical maybe. If someone wanted to write 20 pro-Santorum headlines we would take it all day."
"I will just boil it down to this," the aide added. "It is what the Romney campaign has been able to do after six years running for president. They are able to call on their friends when they really need them."
All of which has created a fascinating subtext to the Republican primary, at least for those who follow the nexus of politics and media. The Drudge Report has long served as a funnel for others in the press, establishing which stories will be picked up by conservative talk radio and dictating how cable news will assign its coverage. Were Romney to lose, it could accelerate chatter that the site's political influence is waning, passed by faster-moving news aggregators.
"Ultimately Drudge's impact is felt in national political circles," said Democratic strategist Phil Singer, who, as a communications aide to Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign, was tasked with the delicate assignment of influencing Drudge's coverage. "I don't think it filters down to the ground level like it did in 2000 or 2004. There are just too many competing mediums."
And yet, for all their grievances about the way the Drudge Report has operated this cycle, neither the Gingrich nor Santorum campaign were willing to offer criticisms publicly, likely out of fear that it would make things worse. When asked about Drudge during a post-Michigan conference call, for instance, John Brabender, Santorum's chief strategist, criticized only the media at large.
Romney's Michigan win, meanwhile, provided those who firmly believe in the site's muscle with yet another opportunity to marvel.
"If Santorum had prevailed [in Michigan] despite a lot of media attention being devoted to these items-- and I would argue that attention is in part thanks to Drudge's amplification of them -- it might have been read in some quarters as an indication of waning influence on Drudge's part," said Liz Mair, an online media strategist and former adviser to Texas Gov. Rick Perry. "The reality is, though, that this cycle has shown that Drudge remains very influential -- both in conservative-land, and elsewhere."