Junk e-mail might be the Internet's most annoying by-product, but several 21st-century political operatives say America is developing a taste for the kind of spam that advertises candidates rather than "herbal supplements."
Still, some analysts say political spam -- at least in the long run -- is as likely to push swing voters away as pull them in, especially in a high-stakes election like today's in which small margins could prove decisive.
"The cat's out of the bag," said Anne Bonaparte, president of MailFrontier, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based anti-spam software company that commissioned the survey. "E-mail is a powerful communications tool and it has vulnerabilities that are being exploited by people who have a point to make."
E-mail is valuable, but campaigns should avoid bulk mail because it is more likely to sour voters, said Jonah Seiger, founding partner of Connections Media, a Washington-based company that operates Internet campaigns for issue groups and candidates.
"Spam is a tactic of snake oil salesmen. I don't see an advantage for a group or a candidate associating themselves with this technique," he said.
Bonaparte's statement, based on a recently released online survey of 1,000 Internet users, supports the notion that unasked-for e-mail, no matter how much people say they hate it, can help shape the American political landscape. Approximately 20 percent of the respondents said spam supporting or bashing this year's presidential candidates could affect their votes.
MailFrontier used two messages that it pulled from dummy accounts that it uses to trap spam. One message, supporting Democratic candidate Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) criticizes President Bush's performance during his first term in the White House. The message supporting the Bush-Cheney campaign directs recipients to a video criticizing Kerry's stance on Iraq.
The pro-Kerry message appears to have been sent from a computer that was hijacked by a hacker, and probably does not come from anyone affiliated with the Kerry-Edwards campaign, Bonaparte said. The pro-Bush message says it was paid for by the Republican National Committee, but MailFrontier could not pinpoint the origin of the message.
The Bush campaign says it does not send out unsolicited mail. Officials with the Kerry campaign did not return calls seeking comment on spam. The Democratic and Republican national committees also did not return telephone calls seeking comment. Both the campaigns and the committees encourage visitors to their Web sites to sign up for solicited e-mail messages.
The survey, which was held online on Oct. 18 and 19, was conducted by Internet polling firm Issues and Answers. Approximately 89 percent of the respondents were registered to vote and 25 percent classified themselves as "undecided" as to whom they would vote for today.