There is great concern -- both within and outside of Barack Obama's campaign -- that the smear attacks suggesting that the Senator is, in fact, a Muslim, might have a lingering effect on the election. Obama himself has worked to debunk the emails, including during several prominent speeches.
Now, however, a group of politically active consultants are arguing that the issue is far more systemic than believed. DHOB, an independent consulting firm, released a statement on Tuesday morning drawing attention to a quirk in Hotmail's editing system that, they warn, could subconsciously be perpetuating the Obama-is-a-Muslim rumor.
According to Bill Hillsman, a partner at the firm, under Hotmail's system, if a user has the word Obama in his or her email, and then clicks the spell check button, the top suggested item that comes up is Osama -- as in, the leader of al Qaeda. This does hold not true for any other popular web email services, such as GMail, AOL, or Yahoo, which either don't offer replacement suggestions or suggest something other than Osama (like "Alabama").
"If there are undecided voters who are emailing things back and forth with other people, it could be a happening now or even this October, how many times are they going to see this mistake?" said Hillsman. "Over time these associations are made, and it is probably not to the benefit of Obama."
Noting that Hotmail is the most widely used of the email services, and that its clientèle tend to be young and/or independent minded, Hillsman equates the spell-check discovery to a car driver buzzing by the same billboard multiple times a week.
"The real issue here is, what damage has been done?" he says. "The Obama campaign has been contending with problems like this for months, such as negative associations with Obama's middle name [Hussein] and the false rumor that he is a Muslim. Hotmail is the world's largest free email program. Imagine the millions of false impressions this error must have created since Obama has been running for president."
There are some worthwhile caveats to Hillsman's theory that even he acknowledges. For starters, a Hotmail user would have to use the spell check function in order to see "Osama" being offered as a replacement for "Obama." There is no indication how many users actually do this. Moreover, most people who email about the Illinois Democrat would likely, it can be presumed, have pre-determined feelings about him and his candidacy. Finally, if the Hotmail user is technologically astute, he or she could simply add Obama's name to the dictionary file, thereby fixing the problem before it has an effect.
But Hillsman counters that enough studies exist to show that unconscious associations, even the most limited, could have an affect on people's buying, voting, or purchasing behaviors.
Either way, the DHOB memo underscores a seedy if not important issue that has percolated the political surface throughout the primary season: to what extent will Obama's candidacy be susceptible to misconceptions about his heritage and name. The Senator has often poked fun at the question, noting how difficult it was to have a last name that rhymed with the al Qaeda leader and a middle name that was shared by the former Iraqi dictator. But Obama has taken the issue seriously as well, recently telling a conference at the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee to ignore smear emails that had been circulating about his religion and politics
"A few of you may have gotten them," Obama said. "They're filled with tall tales and dire warnings about a certain candidate for President. And all I want to say is - let me know if you see this guy named Barack Obama, because he sounds pretty frightening."