Can Merchandise Make A Presidential Campaign?

Can Merchandise Make A Presidential Campaign?

The presidential running season, like the holiday shopping season, seems to get a little longer every time. The next presidential election is in 603 days. There might have been a time when we would have wondered if nearly two years is a bit long to be on the campaign trail – but we’re pretty sure the campaign has been going on for at least a year already, so 603 days actually sounds refreshingly short.

At any rate, as is often the case as soon as the town halls start popping up, the states of Iowa and New Hampshire are suddenly a lot of politicians’ favorite vacation spots, and friends and family are probably starting up some political Facebook arguments.

But, most important to us here at PYMNTS, the merchandise is out.

Need an Amy Klobuchar hat? For $29, you can have one. Harris fan? Be ready to cough up an extra 99 cents. Looking for a value? Former Housing Secretary Julian Castro’s hat sells for $25. Cory Booker has no hats – his store has stickers and T-shirts. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and businessman Andrew Yang are also hatless. Warren, however, otherwise has a very complete web store offering, with five pages of options that include a “Purr-sist” cat collar ($23), “persist responsibly” pint glasses ($20) and a range of T-shirts for $30.

Merchandise, according to the experts, is critical to the Democratic field in particular, since most of them have sworn off PAC money or large-dollar donations from certain donors.

Merchandise sales are considered campaign contributions, according to the Federal Election Commission. They also have a special power to solicit funds from those who might not otherwise cough them up, according to Bentley Hensel, president of 1776 Consulting, a political eCommerce agency.

“It allows them to activate a whole new class of donor. A lot of people aren’t willing to pay $5 or $10 in a donation, but they will pay $25 for a yard sign.”

Or a hat.

And that new class of donor can cough up some serious funds. Bernie Sanders sold over $15 million in merch during his attempt at the Democratic nomination in 2016 – far more than anyone expected.

“This has really taken off in recent years,” Larry Sabato, a top elections expert and the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, wrote in an email. “Big money is easy to collect, but small money gets campaign votes, not just cash. People who give even five bucks have skin in the game.”

And while Democrats are currently getting the most attention for their merchandise, Donald Trump is currently the board leader when it comes to selling stuff, particularly hats. Reports indicated the president has raised north of $20 million between 2016 and 2018 from their sale.

“In this day and age, you have to have a robust store,” Sean Spicer said in 2015.

The products, apart from raising funds, are also key to shaping voters’ perceptions, according to Bruce Newman, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Political Marketing and a professor of marketing at DePaul University. Newman also noted the two announced candidates – Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney – who, so far, have no merchandise offerings.

Newman noted that while the lack of presence is being widely critiqued, at this point in the race it probably makes sense, as voters don’t really know either candidate yet. People know who Warren and Trump are, he said, but “no one knows who [Delaney and Gillibrand] are. So does it really matter if someone starts using a coffee cup with their name on it? They basically have to focus on different channels, other than this one.”

Merchandise can be a good way to build out the campaign, he noted, but selling campaign merchandise is like selling anything else. People have to either go in needing the product or loving the brand – and in this case, to love the brand, they have to get to know it first.

“My sense is that they want to have campaign stores,” Newman said. “But it’s not easy.”

But then, neither is running for president – and when swimming in the big leagues with the players who are selling hats, shirts and everything else, it seems the only way to stay afloat is to get an eCommerce shop up, running and producing contributions.

And offering hats, of course.