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Yikes! there's politics in my mailbox

 Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., greets supporters as he enters a campaign rally in Mesilla, N.M., Saturday, Oct. 25, 200...

McCain 2008

Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., greets supporters as he enters a campaign rally in Mesilla, N.M., Saturday, Oct. 25, 200...

WASHINGTON (AP) — Mailboxes stuffed and it's not even the holidays? It must be election season.

But no season's greetings in these mailings, though.

Democrat Barack Obama is "not who you think he is," says a piece of Republican direct mail targeting voters in Wisconsin.

Republican John McCain is "out of touch," says a labor union flier in Pennsylvania.

There's not much that is subtle about direct mail appeals. One McCain pamphlet features photographs of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Osama bin Laden and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. "Dangerous Times Demand Experience," the mailer states.

A message now arriving at Ohio homes calls Obama "Soft on crime."

Several state Democratic Party committees are sending glossy, colored 8-by-11-inch mailings that show the torso of man in a pinstriped suit reaching into an inside pocket. "He's Hiding Something He Doesn't Want us to Know," the headline says. The flip side criticizes McCain's health care plan.

Direct mail is part of the political message playbook. Its effect has been studied as far back as the 1920s, when getting a piece of mail at home from a politician would have been quite the novelty. No longer. If you live in a presidential battleground state, daily images of Obama or McCain are filling up your mailbox or stacking up in your vestibule.

So, in this day of television and TiVo, of Internet ads and text messaging, does old fashioned mail still work?

"It works if the message is compelling," said David Winston, a Republican communications strategist. "If you have a bad message, direct mail is not going to make it any better or any worse."

A sampling of presidential campaign-oriented direct mail from some of the battlegrounds reveals a myriad of messages. On the Democratic side, many criticize McCain's health care plan, his opposition to abortion or the lobbyists who have worked on his campaign.

An AFL-CIO mailer seen by Virginia and Colorado households seeks to capitalize on antipathy toward President Bush and makes a pitch to Republican voters. It quotes a school bus driver saying: "I voted for George W. Bush because he promised to change Washington. I'm not falling for the same old line from John McCain."

On the Republican side, party committees invoke national security. A Republican National Committee mailer seen in Wisconsin points out that on the day the stock market took one of its first steep plunges last month, Obama attended a $9 million Hollywood fundraiser that featured stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Barbra Streisand.

The Wisconsin Republican Party also has sent voters a mailer linking Obama to 1960s radical William Ayers, a founder of the violent Weather Underground that was blamed for a series of domestic bombings during the Vietnam era.

With a number of states voting early, several of the mailers serve a dual purpose. They impart a partisan message and provide a vote-by-mail request card already addressed to the local board of elections.

Theories about the effectiveness of direct mail abound. Some political consultants swear by a system that targets voters with mail then follows up with a phone call and then another piece of mail. Winston maintains that what arrives in the mailbox must be consistent with what voters are hearing from a candidate on the stump, seeing in television ads and reading in the newspaper.

"If your earned media strategy is going one way and your paid media strategy is going another, then you're going to leave a confused electorate," he said.

That is, if they pay attention to the mail at all.

Donald Green, a political scientist at Yale University, cited more than 50 studies on the effect of direct mail on voter mobilization.

"Nonpartisan, pure, do-your-civic-duty type mailings seem to be modestly effective," he said. "And partisan mailings seem totally ineffective, even if they're coming from groups to which the recipient belongs."

Direct mail is not cheap.

By Green's estimates, a piece of colored mail can cost about 75 cents per recipient. "You'd probably be better off just leaving a trail of dollar bills," he said.

"The advantage of direct mail is one can generate an outreach of effort that has tremendous geographic scope and one can tell in some detail one side of the story," he said. He added that the practice is more effective in less visible elections where voters may not be as familiar with the candidates.

So why do voters still have to deal with a stack of mail with either Obama or McCain staring back at them?

"No campaign consultant has ever been fired for using all the textbook tactics," Green said.