WASHINGTON DC, United States — This election, for democratic voters with a sense of humour, the Hillary Clinton campaign’s e-commerce site is offering “the everyday pantsuit tee,” printed with the presidential candidate’s iconic wardrobe staple, for just $30. For the more fashion conscious supporter, there’s a Clinton “campaign chic” scarf ($55) or t-shirts designed by Diane von Furstenburg and Tory Burch ($45).
Catering to customers at the other end of the political spectrum, the Donald Trump campaign’s online shop boasts a similar selection of slogan t-shirts, along with — of course — Trump’s now infamous “Make America Great Again” baseball caps and trucker hats (retailing between $25 and $30.)
Political merchandise isn’t anything new. Hopeful candidates have long been producing branded gear to sell or give away to supporters, while campaign buttons — pins, medallions or badges bearing political advertising — date back to George Washington.
But in recent election cycles, the role of official merchandise and apparel has expanded significantly. Buoyed by the advent of e-commerce — which has made it easier to sell products across the country at scale — as well as the growing importance of marketing presidential candidates as brands, political merchandise has become an increasingly important channel for fundraising, marketing and gathering data.
Over the last three elections, presidential hopefuls have been spending unprecedented amounts on branded merchandise and apparel. In 2008, Barack Obama — one of the first candidates to recognise the potential of having an online shop and raising significant funds through merchandise — spent $1.3 million producing t-shirts, posters and bumper stickers. According to campaign officials, Obama raised $37 million from branded product for his first campaign and a further $40 million during his 2012 re-election bid.
This election, by May 2016, unsuccessful Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders had spent $8.5 million on merchandise, according to federal disclosures, equivalent to around 5 percent of his campaign’s total expenditures. By comparison, at the same point in the campaign, Donald Trump had spent $4.7 million and Hillary Clinton had spent $1.4 million.
If you look at what the candidate pays for the shirt, versus what they’re selling the shirt for…that $20 goes a long way.
But how much merchandise are candidates actually selling — and how much money are they making from it? In accordance with the Federal Election Commission, presidential candidates aren’t allowed to sell anything for a personal profit. However, merchandise can be sold as part of a donation to a campaign, where 100 percent of the sale is registered as a contribution and the customer receives their t-shirt or hat as a kind of premium. “If a contributor spends $20 to buy a campaign t-shirt that cost the campaign $5, the contributor has made a $20 contribution,” explains Christian Hilland, deputy press officer at the FEC.
But, with no limit on how candidates price items, there is significant potential for campaigns to fund their political machines through merchandise. “The mark up is huge,” says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Group. “If you look at what the candidate pays for the shirt, versus what they’re selling the shirt for…that $20 goes a long way.”
Without a doubt, one of the best-selling items form this election has been Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” trucker hats. In total, during the election, the official Republican nominee has spent more than $2 million producing the hats, including $217,804 in July alone. For the month of July, Trump used just one company to make his hats: Cali-Fame Headwear, a custom headwear company based in Carson, California. Trump’s branded version of Cali-Fame Headwear’s “5 panel patriot hat” costs $25, while the unbranded version retails for $15.50 on Cali-Fame Headwear’s website.
Although the FEC doesn’t require candidates to break out money raised through merchandise, according to campaign officials, Trump had raised more than $6 million in gross revenue from merchandise sales by May 2016. By the same point in the year, Bernie Sanders had raised around $12.8 million in gross revenue. This amounted to more than 800,000 individual items, including 207,000 t-shirts, and accounted for 7 percent of total individual contributions to the Sanders campaigns, said campaign officials.
Once the expense of purchasing and producing this merchandise, documented in reports to the FEC, are offset against these gains, Sanders and Trump made around $4.3 million and $1.3 million in net revenue from merchandise respectively. The Clinton campaign has not disclosed merchandise sales, but according to Thomas Phillips, director of merchandising at Hillary for America, “revenue from merchandise provides an important source of funding,” with the majority of sales coming from Clinton’s e-commerce store.
It’s a walking billboard. It’s better than people putting signs on somebody’s yard.
Merchandising revenue has been more significant for candidates who don’t have a network of big bucks donors to rely on, but are trying to raise money through lots of little donations, says Dr. Michael Cornfield, associate professor and research director for the Global Center of Political Engagement at George Washington University. According to Cornfield, it was a “primary factor” for Trump and Sanders, who both “relied more on grassroots donations and contacts,” but for Clinton — a more established political figure — “it’s a secondary factor.”
However, merchandise revenue is small change in the grand scale of an entire election campaign, which cost candidates billions of dollars, says Bruce Newman, professor of marketing at DePaul University and author of “The Marketing Revolution in Politics.” “It doesn’t represent a large part of the revenues that are used to support the marketing of candidates,” he says.
But, selling branded apparel and accessories has another advantage that some say is more valuable than any profit made — marketing. When a supporter buys and wears a candidate’s t-shirt, “it’s a walking billboard. It’s better than people putting signs on somebody’s yard,” says NPD’s Cohen. “A real life person who is endorsing you…it increases your power to politically market yourself ten-fold.”
Products like Trump’s trucker hats have tapped into the social media-savvy electorate’s desire to advertise their views and opinions, and leveraged their willingness to wear their vote on their sleeve as grassroots marketing. “[It’s] become a way for people to announce to their friends who they do and don’t like,” explains Newman.
“When they’re wearing a shirt or a hat, they’re out there campaigning for you,” says Laura Ries, president of branding consultancy Ries & Ries.
Ultimately, the success of merchandise comes down to the strength of the brand — or the campaign — behind it, Ries says. “The merchandise doesn’t make the candidate, but the merchandise [can] reinforce the success of the candidate,” she continues, pointing to the runaway success of Trump’s hat, which had a simple slogan that was central to his campaign and resonated with supporters. The style of the hat also underlines Trump’s “bond with the sort of working class people who wear caps with the bill facing front,” says Cornfield.
“Voters look for a piece of themselves and their values in the candidates they support,” says Phillips of Hillary for America. Those values have to be reflected in the merchandise, he explains. “Voters want and expect more. It’s no longer enough to slap a logo on one of everything and call it a day.”
While selling t-shirts won’t fund you all the way to the White House, “You’ve got to be crazy not to take advantage of it,” says Cohen. “It’s going to continue to evolve and grow. Every year, we see it more and more become a tactic.”