Around lunchtime each day, the latest missives promoting or pillorying Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney arrive in Diane Ouradnik's mailbox. Before long, they're in her trash.
Tearing and tossing has become routine for battleground-state voters drenched in caustic mail ads from the presidential candidates, political parties and their allied groups.
Television commercials may be king, but millions of dollars a week are fueling the pinpointed mail ads: Gun owners are told Obama is a threat and Romney is "the clear choice." Bilingual ads going to Latino voters are questioning Romney's commitment to opportunities for "regular people." Senior citizens are getting dueling pieces from Obama and Romney casting the other as detrimental to Medicare.
"I don't even read it. It's just too overwhelming. It's too much — from all sides," says Ouradnik, a customer service representative in this lakeside Wisconsin city. She voted for Obama four years ago but is leaning toward Romney this time because she feels the incumbent has let her down and is too willing to blame others.
Political mail at all levels is big business. Some 1.8 billion political mail pieces were sent in 2010, resulting in $338 million in revenue for the U.S. Postal Service, a spokesman said. The Postal Service expects to significantly surpass those marks in 2012.
In Romney's corner, the super political action committee known as Restore Our Future sank more than $1 million into its direct mail efforts in the past two weeks alone. Another $1 million was spent last week on anti-Obama mail by Citizens Awareness Project Inc., a new group that hasn't disclosed its donors.
Aiding Obama, the AFL-CIO has sent tens of thousands of candidate contrast fliers to union households in battleground states. A healthy share of NARAL Pro-Choice America's $1.1 million of independent spending on the race has been on bulk mail.
Strategists count on voters to at least scan what they get. In the best case, people hand the ads off to undecided neighbors or carry them to the voting booth for reference.
In a presidential campaign dominated by a focus on jobs and the economy, the mail ads often tackle peripheral issues important to niche voters.
A tri-fold flier from the pro-Romney group Crossroads GPS pans Obama as weak on border security and in favor of a plan that "rolls out the red carpet for illegal immigrants." The New Hampshire Democratic Party has a piece charging that Romney would give too much power to employers and insurance companies to deny coverage of contraceptives. A group called Catholics for Ohio addresses the birth control debate from the opposite angle with a mail piece saying Obama "wants to tell the Catholic Church what to do."
The mailers are typically more cost-effective than television ads, with some pieces costing a dime or less. And they have a more scientific reach.
"It's the difference between using a rifle and a shotgun," said Randy Borntrager, political director of People for the American Way, which is sending anti-Romney mail into Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. "With a shotgun you have a pretty widespread approach, with a more targeted rifle approach you can aim at a target at who you think is going to be persuadable."
Within the battleground states, the pieces are more likely to be steered to people with a regular history of voting. Groups like the National Rifle Association and the AFL-CIO feed off their well-honed lists. Organizations hoping to convert 2008 Obama voters have concentrated on geographic areas that backed the president four years ago but a Republican gubernatorial or congressional candidate two years later.
The Ending Spending Action Fund, a conservative super PAC bankrolled by billionaire Joe Ricketts, was on pace to send out nearly 2 million mail pieces in the month before the election, mostly in the presidential race. The group is focused on Iowa, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. In one mailing, Obama is slammed for rising debt, nagging unemployment and higher dependency on food stamps. "Obama made things worse," it says.
Brian Baker, the group's president, said the mailers are a key part of a "surround sound campaign" to also drive the same message over the airwaves, on doorsteps and through email.
On the political left, People for the American Way is directing its mail efforts at pushing up the Latino vote, a crucial bloc for Obama. The group's mailers are printed in English and Spanish, and they portray Romney as an elitist whose policies would squeeze funding for Head Start, special education and college Pell Grants. "No dejes que te enganen — Don't be fooled — Mitt Romney is not for us," one ad concludes.
There are drawbacks to the mail pitches. Mail takes more time to develop and distribute, so pieces prepared for the stretch run won't pivot off late-breaking moments in the same way radio and television spots can. And there's no denying that even mail can reach a saturation point.
Outside Cleveland, Jean Gianfagna has days when six or seven political mailings come in — occasionally four versions of the same one for herself, her husband and her college-age son and daughter. The Ohio marketing consultant knows the power of mail persuasion, but even she questions whether the investment is worth it at this stage.
"At some point you reach burnout and everyone I know is completely burned out in this election. We see hundreds and hundreds of ads," said Gianfagna, who is backing Obama but getting mail from both sides. "At some point you just tune it all out."