Eek! There's politics in my mailbox

Mailboxes stuffed and it's not even the holidays? It must be election season.

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.

A Washington Post review of two dozen direct-mail ads sent on behalf of Obama or McCain documents a below-the-radar battle in which the public message of the candidates becomes something more spiteful.

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.

Several state Democratic Party committees are sending mailings that show the torso of man in a 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 from a politician would have been quite a novelty. No longer. If you're in a presidential battleground state, images of Obama or McCain are filling up your mailbox.

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.”

Direct mail is not cheap. Donald Green, a Yale University political scientist, 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.