Inside the big business of little presidential campaign souvenirs

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Olivier Knox
·Chief Washington Correspondent
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A supporter of Sen. Rand Paul purchases campaign buttons. (Photo: Luke Sharrett/Getty Images)

Heading back to Washington from Las Vegas just days after announcing his presidential candidacy, Sen. Rand Paul (R.-Ky.) huddled with some of his top advisers aboard a Southwest Airlines flight. The candidate had to make a spot decision. It wasn’t a burning policy question, delicate staffing change or coveted endorsement that engrossed him that day but the kind of choice unique to modern presidential campaigns. Poring over an iPad that an aide had handed to him, Paul chuckled and gave the green light.

Yes, he ruled, his campaign’s online store would sell “ Hillary’s Hard Drive,” a gag item with a no-joke $99.95 price tag.

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Screen grab of Hillary’s Hard Drive, on sale at the Paul campaign’s online store for $99.95. (Image via store.randpaul.com)

The section of Paul’s online store devoted entirely to trolling the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination is certainly on message for his young campaign. But it also illustrates how modern presidential campaigns have tried to harness the inexorable rise of Internet commerce over the past two decades.

Today, presidential campaigns use their online stores to raise money, pump up their numbers of small donors, obtain the personal information of potential voters, and spread their candidates’ messages.

“In the general election, it’s a must-have, absolutely — a central part of any digital campaign,” said Matt Lira, who served as digital director for Rep. Paul Ryan when the Wisconsin lawmaker was the Republican vice presidential candidate.

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“It’s a cross-section of three of any campaign’s priorities: Fundraising, recruitment, and messaging,” Lira, who oversaw online efforts as deputy executive director at the National Republican Senatorial Committee ahead of the 2014 midterm elections, told Yahoo News.

“Plus, you’ve got to give the collectors something to collect,” Lira said with a laugh. “They gotta have buttons!”

Political memorabilia is as old as the republic itself. Some enterprising individual at George Washington’s inauguration sold buttons that read “Long Live The President G.W.,” according to Mark Evans, director of member services for the American Political Items Collectors association, founded in 1945 to “promote the collecting, preservation and study of these campaign artifacts.”

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A George Washington inaugural button circa 1789. (Photo: Don Troiani/Corbis)

Since Washington’s day, the faces and names of presidential candidates have appeared on “fans, flags, cups, saucers, plates, china, straight razors, spoons, thimbles — oh yeah, in the 1920s, when women got the right to vote, there were lots of thimbles. In the ’80s, with fears about AIDS, there were campaign condoms,” Evans told Yahoo News. “These were all made and sold by private companies, private vendors.”

But since at least 2004, when the Bush-Cheney campaign sold its own yard signs, presidential campaigns have made important changes to the system. They’ve brought the business in-house rather than letting only third-party vendors make off with the cash. In so doing, they’ve turned the purchases into campaign donations and created a personal-information-gathering effort that can then be used to help target — and turn out — voters.

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Bush-Cheney campaign signs are displayed near Kellnersville, Wis. (Photo: Stephan Savoia/AP)


“It’s probably the most obvious manifestation of the rise of e-commerce as just an easier thing to do than traditional sales,” explained Joe Rospars, the chief digital strategist for President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns.

In other words, consumers today are more comfortable shopping online than they were 15 to 20 years ago, and campaigns are imitating businesses that have also embraced all things dot-com to advertise and sell their products.

For the campaigns, this has meant “you have many, many more suppliers, with many, many more ways to get custom products, or just-in-time production,” Rospars told Yahoo. “You don’t need to have crazy inventory, and you can be more playful.”

There are challenges, though.

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“It turns out you can’t get an American-made, union-made basketball. Not regulation size,” according to a key architect of both of Obama’s online campaign stores. In order to trade on the future president’s well-known fondness for shooting hoops, he said, “we did basketball jerseys instead.”

The production rules were ironclad. The merchandise “had to be made in America, and it had to be union-made,” the aide said, on condition of anonymity, describing the workings of Obama’s online machinery.

In 2008, the Obama campaign “bought all of the American-made, union-made navy T-shirts. Like, all of them. In America,” the aide explained. In 2012, one of the hottest items was a white coffee mug with Obama’s newly public birth certificate. “We sold close to 40,000 made-in-the-USA mugs with the birth certificate graphic. We bought all of the white union-made mugs in the country.”

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A woman holds up a souvenir coffee mug printed with President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. (Photo: Rick Wilking/Reuters)

Lira echoed those sentiments. “It’s a big challenge: These things need to be made in America. And they need to be union-made if you’re a Democrat.”

“Not everyone noticed, but (Mitt) Romney and Obama both used the same color blue,” he said with a laugh. “So in October 2012, pretty much, if you wanted to buy a blue made-in-America shirt, you were out of luck.”

Lira said these self-imposed rules sometimes highlighted “sad stories” about the state of American manufacturing. At one point, the Romney team explored getting a toy version of the campaign bus, “like ‘Hot Wheels,’” he said. “I thought that’d be cool. Well, there are no American companies that do that anymore, not made in America.”

Another challenge, according to Lira, is that “Amazon sets a high bar.”

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“The challenge is, for both Republicans and Democrats, that consumer expectations have also increased — you need a better quality of products, more choices, and the speed of delivery has to be a lot better.”

Obama’s 2007-2008 store reached far beyond traditional offerings. “It wasn’t just a typical sticker or yard sign. It was products as status symbol,” Lira said.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R.-Fla.) took this approach in the first 24 hours after announcing that he would seek the Republican nomination, offering special items to his earliest online donors proclaiming that they were with him on Day One. “I think some of that comes out of the Obama experience,” Lira said.

That same experience also showed that online merchandise sales won’t displace traditional fundraising anytime soon, because big donations can add up so much more quickly.

“It’s a pretty small percentage of the overall fundraising picture,” Rospars told Yahoo News. “In 2008, 2012, you’re talking a single-digit percentage of our overall fundraising.”

Still, the anonymous Obama campaign aide said, that amount was not chump change. “We raised about $40 million in each campaign.”

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Supporters purchase buttons outside a rally for Obama, then-Democratic presidential hopeful, in Charleston, W.Va., in 2008. (Photo: Jeff Gentner/AP)

And, the aide added, “It’s an alternative revenue stream. Would you get those people to be donors otherwise?”

The store also helped the Obama campaigns with a talking point: Since all purchases are counted as donations, online merchandise sales boosted the number of small-dollar donors, a measure campaigns like to talk up in the era of the billion-dollar race and “bundlers” who scoop up millions for would-be presidents.

Monica Baltes, the president and owner of Tigereye Design, the firm that the Obama ’08 campaign enlisted to stock its virtual shelves, gave Yahoo News some hard numbers.

Between February 2007 and February 2009, Tigereye fulfilled 793,000 individual orders (aka “donations”) through the online store, 366,000 of them between August 23 and Nov. 6 of 2008.

“Orders were crazy,” she said by telephone. “Nobody expected anything to be as huge as it was.”

Baltes declined to share a dollar figure, citing the need to protect confidential client information.

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The anonymous Obama aide recalled a bare-bones beginning, with just five very traditional items — buttons, bumper stickers, and a T-shirt. “It was as basic as basic could get.”

The store went live when Obama announced his candidacy. The aide had set it up so that she would get an email confirming each individual purchase.

“We had no idea how it would take off,” the aide said. “At 7 a.m., we turned it on. By 8 a.m., my phone was dead. It couldn’t take the volume of emails.”

For the Obama campaign, it wasn’t all about the cash. The store became a peerless way to scoop up valuable personal information.

“The small items — like a car magnet or a button — could be something that you give away for free in exchange for getting more information about a supporter,” said Rospars.

“You might just have an email and a zip code. It’s probably worth the $1.50 or whatever it is to turn that email address into a full address and a phone number.”

And the kind of item selected could give the campaign a hint about purchasers’ future willingness to open their wallets. “The kind of person who’s going to buy an Obama fleece is probably the same person who’s going to give again,” said Lira.

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Interns pack up orders at the Ready for Hillary super PAC store in Arlington, Va. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

While Hillary Clinton has yet to launch a campaign store (as of this writing), the Ready for Hillary super PAC that advocated her candidacy opened one on June 25, 2013, according to spokesman Seth Bringman.

“One out of three of our small-dollar donors (came) from our Ready for Hillary store,” he said in an interview before Clinton formally declared her candidacy. “We have shipped 1 million free bumper stickers to supporters across the country and have converted many of these bumper sticker requests to small-dollar contributions.”

The store is now in the process of closing its doors; any unsold items will be given to charity. One particular favorite over the past 18 months, he said, has been the champagne flute etched with a large “H” and various “ready” messages. The selection “sold out two hours after they were put on sale in December 2013.”

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Screen grab of the Raise a Toast! Ready for Hillary Bubbles Glasses on sale at the Ready for Hillary online store for $49.99. (Image via readyforhillary.com)

Campaigns can also showcase items made by supporters. Arguably the most famous image from the 2008 campaign was the Obama “Hope” poster made by artist Shepard Fairey. The campaign repurposed the image for items in the store.

More recently, the Hillary server “was an idea from a supporter,” Paul campaign spokeswoman Eleanor May told Yahoo News. The Paul campaign invites backers to share ideas for campaign trinkets, effectively reducing its need for official designers. May underlined that “it’s run as more of a J Crew web page than a campaign store,” but the political operation uses the emails it collects to stay in constant contact with potential supporters.

“I don’t know about you, but when I buy something on these commercial sites, I’m bombarded with emails from them. It’s the same philosophy,” she said.

The Paul store is nothing if not on-message. The senator has been sharply critical of government surveillance, so it’s perhaps inevitable that his campaign sells an “NSA Spy Cam Blocker.” Price tag? $15.

“That little front-facing camera on your laptop or tablet can be a window for the world to see you — whether you know it or not! Stop hackers and the NSA with this simple camera blocker,” the sales copy says.

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Screen grab of NSA Spy Cam Blocker, on sale at the Paul campaign’s online store for $15. (Image via store.randpaul.com)

As of this writing, Paul was the only announced Republican candidate with an online store. “He can’t not [have one]. Good way for him to leverage his family’s grassroots support,” said an establishment Republican who asked not to be named.

It’s somewhat the same dynamic that propelled the Obama campaign six years ago to adopt a different strategy.

David Plouffe, Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, said in his book on that race: “I suspected from the beginning we would have a core of rabid supporters who wanted Obama paraphernalia.”

While “being in the T-shirt business along with the election business is kind of a pain in the ass, and most political campaigns outsource this task to a vendor,” Plouffe wrote, “if someone felt strongly enough about Obama to buy merchandise, they would probably also be receptive to nonmerchandise solicitations, and more likely to volunteer.”

The anonymous Obama campaign aide says Plouffe’s approach reflected a campaign startup problem that the future president quickly solved: “We didn’t have any money.”

At the beginning, the aide said, “Plouffe was conceptualizing the announcement and rollout, and how that would work was at these big rallies. We wanted to give out buttons, signs, everything.”

But, the aide explained, “Plouffe realized that we didn’t have any money to pay for such things. So he asked, ‘Do you think we could sell buttons, T-shirts and stuff, as opposed to giving them out’ or relying on independent vendors who would share neither cash nor information with the campaign.”

The campaign sought out campaign finance lawyers. The verdict: “It’s legal if every single person fills out a contribution form for everything they buy.”

“It was pretty ugly at the beginning,” the aide recalled. “When you’re at a rally and you buy a button, you don’t want to fill out a piece of paper. It definitely caused a little animosity, like ‘I’m just trying to buy a button.’”

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A supporter sports a campaign button on her cap as then-presidential hopeful Obama addresses the crowd at a town hall meeting in Henderson, Nev. (Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

 People became “more responsive and more patient” when given the reason: Buying from a campaign becomes a donation, and campaign finance laws require some paperwork, the aide said. The online store automated the process. And a new model was born.

The old model hasn’t completely gone away. Tigereye, which Obama’s 2012 campaign did not work with, runs its own independent site, democraticstuff.com. And Baltes has prepared for the possibility of a major client in 2016.

“Since 2008, we have been warehousing many USA union-made navy T-shirts and hats. We have tens of thousands still here, unprinted, ready to go,” she said. “So if you know anybody who might need them, send them our way.”