At NPR, we know a thing or two about promotional merchandise. After all, we invented the Nina Totin’ Bag and the Carl Kasell Autograph Pillow. So, on this Black Friday, White House correspondent Scott Horsley presents the NPR guide to campaign swag.
Not long ago, President Obama’s re-election campaign sent out an email, advertising its 2012 merchandise and urging supporters to stock up for the holidays. Not to be outdone, the Republican White House candidates are hawking their own ballcaps and bumper stickers.
While the Iowa and New Hampshire contests are still weeks away, the T-shirt primary is already in progress. Americans have been voting with their pocketbooks at retail websites like CafePress and Zazzle.
“We’ve always thought that our website is really the democratization of commerce in general. With respect to election gear, we see that for sure,” says Melanie Sherk, a vice president at Zazzle, which sells thousands of customized products — many with designs promoting or attacking the various presidential candidates.
The company’s sales offer a rough indicator of which way the political winds are blowing.
“I think our sales generally track the ‘buzziness’ of the candidate,” Sherk says. “So as candidates are either surging in popularity or if there’s particular sentiment against the candidate, that’s what we see.”
The CafePress website now features an “election meter” so you can track the sales associated with candidates.
Newt Gingrich is enjoying a good run right now. But he hasn’t caught up with Ron Paul’s T-shirt sales.
Josh Neuman of Zazzle says Paul is a consistent seller there, too.
“He’s actually the second-most-trafficked candidate, after Obama,” Neuman says. “His fans are just sort of crazy in some ways. Just fanatics.”
The candidates try to grab a piece of this action themselves by selling merchandise on their own websites, though it’s often not as creative as what’s offered by independent designers. Sure, there’s a Mitt Romney hoodie. And a travel mug for the well-traveled Jon Huntsman.
But where’s the Michele Bachmann china for your own tea party? Or the Gingrich campaign ornament, designed by Tiffany’s? Or the Herman Cain Atlas of the World, priced to move at $9.99?
Obama’s campaign website offers somewhat more variety. There’s a “Fired Up, Ready to Grill” barbecue apron and a Joe Biden beer cozy. Sadly, there’s no Obama cigarette lighter. Must have been discontinued.
And what about old-fashioned brick-and-mortar retailers?
Honest Abe’s souvenir shop in Washington is just across the street from the wax presidents display at Madame Tussauds. Manager Freddie Vinoya says the souvenir store used to be filled with merchandise celebrating Obama.
“We stocked more before. After the inauguration, we got a lot of Obama-related items,” he says.
Nowadays, there are only a few presidential refrigerator magnets and bobblehead dolls on the shelves, along with a commemorative plate featuring Michelle Obama — probably meant to be a salad plate.
Vinoya just unpacked his first batch of 2012 Obama T-shirts. The “Hope” slogan has been replaced by a message about tough times requiring a wise leader, and a somber-looking picture of the president.
“Last campaign was, like, very happy and, ‘He did it!’ I don’t know this year,” Vinoya says.
Vinoya’s still waiting for his first shipment of Republican campaign gear. It’s hard to know which candidates to include from week to week.
Maybe that’s why there’s a deck of playing cards featuring candidates and also-rans with the slogan, “Every one’s a wild card.”