From the kitschy to the practical, Obama swag is big business for re-elect campaign

Olivier Knox
The Ticket

The president who uses a BlackBerry really wants you to buy an iPhone case. Or four.

It's not just any iPhone case: It's a $40 model from the Obama campaign's vast and growing online store, an increasingly important weapon in the cash war for public office.

A lot of thought went into this accessory: The campaign's in-house design team came up with four different designs, including, inevitably, its "rising sun" motif. Then the campaign found a company to make the cases in the United States — a rarity among iPhone custom-case makers, and a necessity for a president whose reelection pitch turns in part on helping to revive U.S. manufacturing.

The product hit the campaign store's virtual shelves overnight on Wednesday.

"Supporters have been eager and have requested an Obama iPhone case. We are thrilled that we can finally offer it," said campaign spokeswoman Katie Hogan.

Obama made political fundraising history in 2008, and now aims to break new ground in 2012 with his campaign's creative harnessing of the American public's seemingly boundless fondness for kitschy political souvenirs, from the lowly $5 bumper sticker, to the $15 "golf divot tool," the shamrock-emblazoned $25 "O'Bama" pint glasses, and all the way up to the $450 "State Lapel Pin Collector's Set" — the most expensive item in stock. There's also a "Runway To Win" store with bags and shirts made by designers like Marc Jacobs or Beyoncé and Tina Knowles. (Republicans have taken aim at this branch of the store.)

It's a serious business. Still, the campaign politely but firmly refused to say how much the store contributes to its coffers, what the bestselling items are, or describe its return on investment—amount raised vs. costs of raising it—compared to traditional fundraising means.

[ SEE SLIDESHOW: Best, worst and weirdest swag of the 2012 campaign ]

"We don't talk specifics about merchandise because we are not in the business of advertising the secrets to our online store's success, we don't talk specifics about fundraising in general," a campaign aide told Yahoo News.

So the world may never know how much the $10 "Joe Biden Can Holder" — likely not explicitly described as a beer koozie because the VP doesn't drink — pours into the Obama 2012 effort.

(Mitt Romney's presidential campaign did not respond to a request for comment on their merchandising strategy. As for Santorum, you can get your own Rick Santorum sweater vest for a $100 donation.)

It's not just a question of dollars and cents, though.  A would-be buyer eyeing that $10 car magnet featuring First Dog Bo ("I Bark for Barack") has to give the campaign a first name, last name, email address, street address, and telephone number, as well as their employer and occupation.

On its official privacy notice, the campaign says that it may use the information it collects for a variety of political goals, including emailed appeals for support, and share that information "with candidates, organizations, groups or causes that we believe have similar political viewpoints, principles or objectives." (Though buyers, of course, can opt-opt.)

And because these purchases are "campaign donations for merchandise," not simple "sales," patrons must certify that they are US citizens.

So far, independent watchdogs have taken a relaxed view of the phenomenon.

"Most of these purchases would come to less than $200, which is the threshhold for an 'itemized' donation on campaign finance reports -- one requiring the donor's name, address," said Viveca Novak, spokeswoman for the Center for Responsive Politics.

"The sale of these kinds of campaign knick-knacks probably increases the number of small donors to a campaign -- if one gets something tangible, one is more likely to give. Is that a bad thing?," Novack said. "Not necessarily; the small amounts spent by these purchasers aren't the kinds of contributions that would corrupt the system, hence the $200 reporting threshold enshrined in law."

The Obama campaign has 2 or 3 people on its design team who focus on merchandise at any moment. Early products came from "brainstorming sessions" among various aides — a process that ultimately generated the Biden can holder, which the vice president personally approved, according to a campaign aide.

The campaign then works to locate a company that can make the product in the United States, in the quantity needed and the quality desired by the campaign, said the aide. The reelect campaign relies on roughly 20 vendors nationwide.

And the iPhone case? The campaign had long wanted to produce one but struggled to find a U.S. manufacturer. And while Obama is known to use an iPad, there's no endorsement implied. "We are iPhone users, and Droid users, and Blackberry users — all forms of smart phones," said campaign spokeswoman Hogan.

To make the the accessory, the Obama campaign turned to Case-Mate, a firm based just outside Atlanta in Tucker, Georgia. The company, founded in 2006, employs roughly 130 people in Georgia and 20 more around the world, and sells its  products in some 90 countries.

"We are the only custom-case manufacturer that does this process in the US," Case-Mate Founder and CEO Shashi Reddy said in a telephone interview from London, where he was on a business trip.

"We mold them here, decorate them here, and ship from here--it's a cradle-to-grave process," said Reddy, 39.

"I'm extremely, extremely proud," he told Yahoo News when asked how he felt about having a product featured in the campaign's store. "It shows we can actually start manufacturing some stuff here in the US again."

While the campaign won't disclose how much business the store is doing, it did say that 98 percent of its roughly 1.4 million donors have given $250 or less to reelection efforts. The average donation in January 2012 was $57 dollars. And "we hit 1 million donors 6 months faster in 2011 than we did in 2008," said a campaign aide.

For more on this topic, see Yahoo News's Dylan Stableford on the "Best, Worst and Weirdest swag of the 2012 campaign."

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