Stung by so-called spam scandals in the past, candidate supporters are no longer sending bulk email messages in attempts to sway voters. Instead, they're getting friends to do it for them.
In an eleventh-hour push, Democratic Party staff members said, some 30 million people will send emails on Gore's behalf between now and Nov. 7.
"We ask for only a few hours of your time each day for the next six days," Cortland Coleman of the Arizona Democratic Party wrote in an email sent to one recipient earlier this week. "Here's what you can do...Forward this email to everyone in your address book--and ask them to help get out the vote for Al Gore!"
For its part, the Republican National Committee (RNC) has accumulated an email list of more than 80,000 addresses of party faithful. "We are using that core community to forward out emails to friends and family," said Larry Purpuro, the committee's deputy chief of staff.
Taking a cue from an age-old advertising technique known as viral marketing, these supporters are canvassing their cyberspace neighborhoods, getting out the vote message. Victory in the election hangs by a thread, according to polls, meaning that even a few extra supporters could decide the winner.
Still, political consultants question whether the tactic will work in a national presidential election.
"It's a desperate measure," said Peter Markel, director of strategic marketing at Evote.com. "It'll only make a difference if you can really target the groups that normally have low voter turn out, and those people probably don't have emails."
Spam without the spam?
If viral campaigns remain unproven, politicians have come a long way in understanding the ins and outs of stumping on the Net. Few now resort to spamming, for example, a reviled marketing technique that targets thousands of random email addresses with unwanted messages.
Such methods were quickly proven ineffective as political campaign tools.
Georgia state Sen. Steve Langford, a Democrat who ran for governor in 1998, learned his lesson the hard way. He sent bulk unsolicited emails to some 500 voters and the next day was forced to apologize after receiving dozens of angry complaints.
Nonetheless, the power of email did not go unnoticed when in 1998 Jesse Ventura was elected Minnesota governor as a third-party candidate. He used email to organize his campaign.
And this year, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., raised more than $2 million for his failed presidential primary bid and recruited 26,000 volunteers--successes credited largely to his email strategy.
Marketing experts agree that the key to effective email campaigns is reaching the appropriate audience.
"Targeting is crucial," said Michael Mayor, vice president of sales at New York-based NetCreations, an email marketing company. "To make the emails pay off, you have to fine-tune the formula to get the right audience. Once you do that, you can email the message all day long."
Viral campaigns are supposed to achieve that by putting friends in touch with friends who share the same political views. The goal is not necessarily to persuade someone to vote a different way, but simply to motivate a candidate's supporters to hit the polls.
Voter apathy is notorious in U.S. politics; even the presidential election can be expected to draw only about half of all qualified voters. A small boost could be enough to tilt the balance in the current campaign, which is expected to be so close that it may be impossible to call on Election Day.
As a result, email campaigns may be most active in a handful of swing states, where no clear leader has emerged, including Pennsylvania, Washington state, Minnesota and Florida.
Web ads dry up
The last-minute email marketing pushes stand in stark contrast to the candidates' limited use of the Web as an advertising platform. Neither party has spent significantly on banner ads since the party conventions were held months ago, according to a recent report by research company Jupiter Media Metrix.
In addition, neither of the campaigns' official sites, AlGore2000.com and Georgewbush.com, are attracting a lot of visitors. Jupiter Media Metrix, one of the Web's top audience measurement companies, tallied 350,000 unique visitors to the Gore site in August; 467,000 people were newcomers to Bush's site during the same period.
In a report about online political advertising earlier this year, Jupiter Media Metrix measurement analyst Anne Rickert said the lack of interest in Web advertising may have been a lost opportunity.
But, as millions of email users may discover in the next few days, both parties appear to value direct personal messages as the Internet's killer application.
"We believe that...electronic word of mouth is the best form of political communication," said the RNC's Purpuro.
News.com's Gwendolyn Mariano contributed to this report.