The Secrets of Debate Swag


Oh, the games campaigns play with political merch. They may surprise you.

Whatever happens at the first Republican presidential primary debate on Aug. 23, whatever revelations emerge from the melee of eight (count ’em) contenders, whatever slings and arrows are thrown, and whoever is declared the winner, one thing is certain: There will be a viral moment or two; a riposte that becomes a meme. Campaign staff will be watching. And before you can say “in my prime” or “too honest,” it will end up on a T-shirt in a candidate’s store.

These days, retail politics has a whole new meaning. At a point in the electoral cycle when candidates are desperate to distinguish themselves and have only minutes onstage to do so, being able to deliver a zinger that will play on via swag is a key advantage.

Ever since the inauguration of George Washington, voters have been participating in the electoral process by means of merch. Back then, it was fancy commemorative buttons that were sewn onto clothes (and were, largely, accessible only to the well-off).

Over the years, the “store” — effectively an alternate way for candidates to elicit small-dollar donations and add to their supporter base by appealing to consumer culture — has grown in importance as technology has transformed our ability to make stuff, sell stuff and mine data. Now, almost as soon as presidential contenders declare their candidacy and their websites go live, the shops go live with them.

“It’s one of the biggest changes over the last 20 years,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist and a founder of ROKK, a public affairs firm.

By their stuff ye shall know them. Or at least know something about their strategy. It’s no longer just bumper stickers and baseball caps with a candidate’s name and the electoral year, but a constantly evolving stream of purpose-made product.

And because of that, by their merch they are also finding new ways to know you.

Hannah Fingerhut/Associated Press

Campaign store offerings have essentially become Rorschach tests for the electorate: What people buy, the slogans that get their shopping juices flowing, help determine how the candidates sell their ideas.

“It’s a way to trial how candidates market themselves and how people respond to that,” said Claire Jerry, a curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, who had been scouting the landscape at the Iowa State Fair.

Which is why campaign store offerings are getting so, well, tailored, the better to put their own spin on the popular conversation. Not the one taking place about policy among talking heads, but the one taking place on Instagram, X (the platform formerly known as Twitter) and TikTok. It’s a bona fide trend.

Just in time for the debate, Vivek Ramaswamy’s team rebranded his main product stream (he offers about 65 total SKUs, as stock-keeping units of an item are called) to move away from his original focus on woke-ness, or anti-wokeness, to a new “Revolutions” theme., including what Tricia McLaughlin, a senior adviser on the campaign, called “Thomas Paine-style” campaign literature and slogans, with 18th-century script and sepia tones.

At the Iowa State fair, Nikki Haley (about 70 SKUs), who has had great success with products featuring the slogan “In Her Prime” — a reference to Don Lemon’s much criticized comment that she was past her prime — modeled her “Underestimate me, that’ll be fun” T-shirt, which became its own talking point.

Doug Burgum, the governor of North Dakota (about 40 SKUs), has “Doug Who?” shirts, playing up his underdog status. When Casey DeSantis wore a leather jacket with an alligator on the back superimposed over a map of Florida with the words “Where Woke Goes to Die” on it, the image went viral — and ended up on a quarter-zip sweatshirt in the store. The DeSantis campaign boasts it is the fastest selling of its more than 70 products.

Clockwise from top left, candidate merchandise that exploits a moment from Vivek Ramaswamy, Nikki Haley, Mike Pence and Doug Burgum.

And when the federal indictment against Donald Trump was opened and included a quotation from Mr. Trump calling Mike Pence “too honest” for insisting there was no constitutional basis for rejecting Biden electoral votes in the 2020 election, the Pence campaign jumped on the phrase and made it the centerpiece of his store.

This kind of quick reaction “allows you to meet people where they are, rather than trying to drag them over to where you are,” Ms. McLaughlin said. (The “Dark Brandon” phenomenon, which President Biden’s team has appropriated to great success, is a prime example.)

Arguably, where people are — in the middle of cancel culture, locked in their own social media echo chambers — is not the most positive place, and making it into merch is a cynical move to exploit our factionalism and us-versus-them mentality. But then, fashion is often the locale where culture and politics meet. Swag just makes it obvious.

Indeed, the shop has become so central to campaigning that not long after a group of Republican strategists created WinRed, the party’s donation-processing digital platform, in 2019, it has included support for opening storefronts available free of charge to every candidate. That helped erase any barrier to entry for a campaign that may not have the complex operations needed to design, source, produce and distribute merch. (Democrats have had a similar entity, ActBlue, since 2004.)

Every Republican candidate who has qualified for the debate on Wednesday night uses WinRed for their shop, except Chris Christie, the rare candidate, Republican or Democratic, to not have a store, viewing it as a drain on personnel resources. Donald J. Trump, who qualified for the debate but has decided not to appear, also uses the platform.

WinRed vets its recommended vendors, like Ace Specialties, “known for making the MAGA hat,” and Merch Raise, allowing candidates to state that products are “made in the U.S.A.” And all of them work on a drop-ship model, meaning they produce items only after they are ordered, so campaigns can test as many designs as they want without the expense of holding inventory.

That has allowed campaigns to be ultra-responsive to buzzword moments and to weaponize them for their own purposes. After all, sites like Redbubble and Etsy have built their business on exploiting virality, including viral political moments. Why shouldn’t the protagonists themselves profit from the give-and-take between publicity and product? Not to mention exploit our desire for stuff.

“People like the tangible sense of participating in a campaign,” Ms. Jerry, of the Smithsonian, said. And we have become conditioned to appreciate acquisition.

“If someone just asks if you want to donate, you might say no,” Ms. Jerry continued. “But if you can get a T-shirt?” Tim Scott has even sent out direct mailings asking supporters what “new piece of Tim Scott merchandise” they would like to see. (The socks are kind of fun.)

Merch turns individuals into billboards in a cycle of shopping satiation and public support. “When you see people in a crowd identified as being on your side, it creates a sense of excitement,” Ms. Jerry said. Case in point, the ocean of red baseball caps at Trump rallies, which sends a visual message that is, to many in our current environment, more convincing than any poll.

Even more significantly, merch allows candidates to see what is resonating with voters and adjust their message accordingly, much like a focus group. When you buy some merch, you are giving a candidate not just your money, email and address, but (whether you realize it or not) psychographic information that can be used to geo-target mailings and commercials. The more varied the offerings, the more information they elicit.

If you buy, say, a camo hat in the Burgum store, you may suddenly find yourself on the receiving end of lots of Second Amendment information. If you buy a “Joe Biden Makes Me Cry” baby onesie at the DeSantis store, or a “Mamas for DeSantis” T-shirt, you may be inundated with information about the battle over school curriculums and abortion. If you buy a “Faith” tee from Tim Scott, it’s understood as a signal that you care about religious freedoms.

Clockwise from top left, candidate merchandise from Vivek Ramaswamy, Mike Pence, Doug Burgum and Ron DeSantis, on what appear to be the same computer-generated bodies.

There’s only one problem: The WinRed-effected ease of shop creation, in which every candidate’s store is powered by the same platform, means that they all look pretty much the same.

Down to the structure (four horizontal squares of products), the color scheme (red, white and blue, duh, with some gray, black, white and pink thrown in for good measure) and the chubby baby torso depicted in each onesie, or the generic female and male torsos, all of which resemble A.I.-generated fake humans from a very bland heartland. It can make going from one shop to the other a bit like entering the Twilight Zone.

And, given the need to stand out from the crowd, having a storefront that looks just like the other guy’s — and is populated with the same bots as the other guy’s — can also seem less than ideal.

“I don’t think anyone notices,” said Mr. Bonjean, the strategist (he is not working for any of the candidates). Which may be true for those already decided, but given the early stage of the campaign cycle, anyone … um, shopping around for a candidate and visiting the sites may have a different opinion.

Still, the current reality has led to a situation in which, Mr. Bonjean said, not only are campaigns primed to jump on any one-liner that can easily translate into merch, but also they are likely teeing them up, seeding quips in debate responses, the better to jump-start a new political product placement cycle.

“We don’t think it’s ever going away,” Ms. Jerry said.

Watch for it Wednesday, and then see what sentiment ends up on the sleeves, socks or sunglasses strap coming soon to a voter near you.


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