Seiger questioned the MailFrontier survey results, noting that without knowing whether people were swayed positively or negatively by the spam messages, it remains hard to tell whether political spam has the desired effect.
Bonaparte said 2004 is the first election year in which campaigns are taking demonstrable advantage of requested e-mail to raise money, organize support and get the word out about campaign spots, so it is unsurprising that political spammers are augmenting their efforts as well.
All this contributes to an increasing deluge of spam in user in-boxes. Spam makes up a huge percentage of e-mail traffic. Of the 1.9 million e-mail messages New York-based MessageLabs Inc. processed for its clients last month, 1.4 million, about 76 percent, were blocked as spam. One of the reasons for this is that it is almost absurdly cheap to sell things through junk e-mail. Spammers have to sell their products to only a tiny percentage of recipients to make a profit, even if the vast majority find the e-mail bothersome.
Political bulk e-mail also blurs the definition of spam. Spam, technically, is unwanted junk e-mail. But spam advocating a political position is free speech, protected by the First Amendment, not illegal spam as defined by federal law.
It is also bluntly effective, according to some campaign consultants.
"One of the wonderful things about e-mail is you can tailor it about any of the client's goals," said Roger Alan Stone, president of Advocacy Inc., a Washington-based campaign public relations firm. "If you talked to me six months ago, everything was about fundraising. Now all the efforts are focused on either trying to turn out committed voters or sway undecided voters."
In the final days before the election, Stone said, his company was planning to send "tens of millions" of e-mail messages to more than 25 million registered voters.
So far this year Advocacy Inc. has sent messages on behalf of Senate candidate and current Rep. Joseph M. Hoeffel III (D) in Pennsylvania, California Rep. Fortney "Pete" Stark (D) and several others. For about 15 cents per message, Stone said his company will send an e-mail designed to fit a candidate's needs.
Stone said he informs recipients that they will receive more messages unless they send back an e-mail saying they do not want them. The "can spam" law does not require this step for political spam, but Stone said he does it as a courtesy to recipients.
RightClick Strategies, a Washington-based firm that operates e-mail campaigns for Republican candidates and conservative-leaning advocacy groups, has sent out millions of messages as well.
"In the 2004 election, political e-mail is a tactical nuclear weapon," said company President Larry Purpuro. "It is to a large extent under the radar screen, but its ability to target and to penetrate the attention of individuals makes it an extremely effective communications tool."
Anti-spam advocates warned that campaigns could send the wrong message with spam.
"I know a lot of people who, if they got spam from one of the candidates, their reaction would be to say, 'I'm never voting for that candidate,'" said Anne Mitchell, president of the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Institute for Spam and Internet Public Policy.
John Levine, author of the book "Internet for Dummies," said that political spam's impact will diminish as people grow sick of it.
Purpuro expressed skepticism over whether political spam would turn off voters, noting that in some ways it is a modern twist on years of successful campaigning through the U.S. mail. And Purpuro, for one, is exploring new options in what he sees as the future of campaigns.
"Elections beyond 2004 will be fought in recipients' e-mail in-boxes," he said. "Video e-mail will be the weapon of choice for campaign professionals in the next election."