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Why Matt Drudge might be more powerful now than ever before

Matt Drudge. (Lucian Perkins)

Matt Drudge is running a "poll" on his Web site — it's the Drudge Report, if you have paid no attention to politics for the past 17 years — that asks readers to choose their preferred 2016 Republican presidential candidate. As of 3:15 p.m. Eastern Time Monday, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was dominating with 47 percent (more than 84,000 votes) followed by Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) at 14 percent and Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) at 13 percent. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who has been anointed by the party establishment as the front-runner in the race, takes 5 percent.

Who cares, you might ask? A totally non-scientific poll — you can vote as many times as you want! — on a conservative link site. Blah. It's so 1990s.

Except that Drudge — and his Web site — remains a decidedly relevant player in the political world, particularly with a crowded Republican presidential field on tap and Hillary Rodham Clinton set as the de facto Democratic nominee in 2016. David Freedlander, in a piece titled "Who Will Win the 2016 Matt Drudge Primary" at the Daily Beast, writes of Drudge:

(The piece also has the "Is Drudge dead" speculation that I've been hearing since at least the 2008 election.  The reality — as someone who has followed the Drudge Report closely for the better part of the past decade — is that while the site looks like crap, predicting Drudge's demise is a fool's errand.)

Drudge's importance to 2016 is threefold:

1. As suggested by Freedlander's piece, Drudge is an ideal landing place for hard-hitting opposition research on one of your political opponents. He's more likely to simply take it and post it rather than looking for where the holes are — as a more mainstream site would do. And, because of Drudge's traffic, which isn't just big but also influential (think reporters, cable TV bookers and other campaigns), everyone you want or need to see it will see it. When you have 20-plus people running for the Republican nod, there's going to be lots of dirt to drop.

2. Drudge (and his small crew of editors) use the influence of the site to push what they believe to be overlooked stories within a campaign. And, as Freedlander notes, Drudge tends to have a storyline (or two) that he grasps onto and stays with for weeks or months. In 2008 (and 2012) that was how Mitt Romney was stronger than many people gave him credit for. (That coverage was attributed in no small part to Drudge's close working relationship with Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades.) So far in this cycle, Drudge has been hard on Bush (highlighting lots of stories that suggest the former Florida governor isn't all that conservative) and quite kind to Walker. Here's the current lead of the site:

If Drudge continues to push Walker, it will matter in terms of how the Wisconsin governor is regarded by Republican politicos. Ditto Bush — although to a lesser extent because Bush is such a known commodity in Republican circles. (Ask any nascent campaign for the GOP nomination whether having Drudge "like" them matters. If they say anything but "yes," they are lying.)

3. Hillary Clinton. Drudge's site rose to notoriety in the late 1990s by revealing many of the details about Bill Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky.  Since then, the site has had a fascinating relationship with Hillary Clinton. During much of the late 2000s Drudge (and the site) seemed favorably inclined — as much as a conservative site could be — to her. But, since Clinton has emerged as a likely 2016 candidate, Drudge's coverage of Clinton has taken a turn — focusing almost exclusively on her health and questioning whether she is up to another run for president. Drudge lacks the influence with the left that he retains on the right, but the sheer volume of eyeballs he gets means that if he wants to push a negative story on Clinton (and he will) it will make its way into the general news stream in some form.

Drudge isn't all-powerful. But, 2016 is shaping up as a race in which he will have as much — and, likely, more — influence than he has ever had before. With such a crowded Republican field, the candidate — or candidates — that Drudge chooses to favor will benefit. And those on whom he turns negative will rue the day and wonder what they could have or should have done differently.

All of the Republican campaigns (and maybe even the Clinton campaign) will fear him — and have a strategy on how to deal with him. That, in my book, is real influence. And Drudge has it.