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01.29.15 10:55 AM ET

Who Will Win the 2016 Matt Drudge Primary?

In the battle to win positive headlines, past favorites Romney and Clinton would seem to have an advantage—but they’re being eclipsed by new faces.

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On Wednesday afternoon, those were the stories leading the Drudge Report. And just below such lurid fodder were three headlines on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker nudging closer to a presidential run (“I don’t think it’s ever good to bet against me,” one proclaimed), another on Mitt Romney, and two more on Rand Paul (PAUL: “I’D SHOOT A DRONE OUT OF THE SKY”).

Such tallying is not merely academic; it is precisely the kind of reading of the entrails that Republican political operatives are enduring as the presidential campaign season gets under way. Because just as there are the real primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire, whose voting is nearly a year away but whose voters candidates are already courting, and just as there is the so-called Money Primary, which involves the seeking out of the money people who can bankroll such a venture, there is the “The Drudge Primary”—the battle to curry favor with the Internet’s most notorious aggregator.

Back in 2008, Matt Drudge was widely seen to be firmly in Mitt Romney’s camp, and oddly, for someone who burst on to the national scene with his reporting during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, pushing Hillary Clinton, as well. Although the website has not nearly the sway on the left that it does on the right, it was the place where the photo of Barack Obama dressed as a Somali elder first surfaced, while Clinton received such anodyne headlines as “Hillary Clinton Says Shared Prosperity Should Replace ‘On Your Own’ Society.”

In the cases of both Romney and Clinton, the favorable treatment was due in part to the relationships the campaigns developed with the reclusive blogger, with each deputizing designated Drudge-whisperers to feed the site opposition about their rivals.

In 2012, it was widely assumed that the Drudge Report was in Romney’s corner again—not so much because Drudge seemed like a fan of the former Massachusetts governor but because the site was savage about the rest of the field. “Report: Stress-Related Condition Incapacitates Bachmann; Heavy-Pill Use Alleged” read one headline; “Jon Huntsman Losing in SC—to Stephen Colbert” read another. Former Newt Gingrich aides recall with dismay that every time their candidate was on the site, he seemed to be pictured shirtless, or holding multiple plates of food.

Not that they hold any grudges.

“You do not pick a fight with Matt Drudge,” said Rick Tyler, a Gingrich campaign spokesman in 2012, who said that all of his entreaties to the blogger went unanswered. “You will lose. There is no point.”

And so which way will Drudge go in 2016, with both Clinton and Romney as potential candidates? True to form, the answer for the enigmatic Drudge appears to be neither. In the most recent series of headlines, Clinton comes off as an old, possibly brain-damaged money-grubber. Republican operatives say the coverage of Romney has been decidedly neutral. If anything, they say, new figures like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and especially Scott Walker seem to be getting the most favorable treatment on the site. It appears as if Drudge is more lukewarm, the entrails readers say, about figures like Chris Christie and Rand Paul. He still swoons for Sarah Palin but has never been a fan of social conservatives like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum.

Some Republican operatives wonder if it will even much matter, if the era of Drudge has at last past. Today, when more and more people curate their own news through their social-media feeds and news sites spring up seemingly daily, the Drudge Report might look like a dinosaur.

“One big difference between 2016 and 2008 is that there are so many new platforms curating that type of content,” said Phil Singer, a spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign. “He really came of age in the pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook era—he’s sort of like a landline.”

But if Drudge is a dinosaur—and that’s a far from certain if—he’s a rather large one. His massive traffic regularly hits around three-quarters of a billion monthly page views, and he can be a key Internet traffic driver to more mainstream news sites. Opposition researchers say Drudge is best at surfacing stories on blogs and in the local press that would not get much coverage otherwise, and that in some ways a Drudge link can be better than getting something on the evening news, as it will have a longer shelf life on social media.

Drudge today may lack some of the ability to sway the national conversation the way he did when Mark Halperin and John Harris swooned “Matt Drudge rules our world.” Still, he remains important among his core audience of older, conservative voters who are likely to vote in primaries and donate to campaigns. Although Drudge may matter a lot less to what one Republican operative called “New York media elites,” he is still believed to be the bookmarked URL of choice for talk-radio producers and a large portion of the Beltway press.

“You can draw a straight line from a Drudge link to what gets covered on cable that night,” said Kellyanne Conway, a pollster with experience in multiple presidential campaigns, including Gingrich’s 2012 bid. “Republicans are used to complaining about mainstream media coverage. When Drudge comes after you, it stings in a different kind of way.”