Fashion: The Next Election Frontier

By Maja Thomas ’17

Campaign television advertisements first emerged in the 1952 presidential election with Eisenhower’s Ike for President ad. Over the following six decades the medium has been expanded and constitutes a major recruiting and advertising opportunity for candidates. Now it seems another medium for recruiting voters has found its way into the political medium: apparel. Apparel has certainly been sold in past elections, and the wide array of campaign-related merchandise was made exceedingly popular in during the 2008 presidential election. However, in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, there has been a significant expansion of merchandise stores and their incorporation directly into candidate’s websites.

The stores show marketing preference towards key demographics the candidates hope to attain. Hillary Clinton’s store is composed of stylish apparel marketed specifically towards younger voters, a demographic she failed to attract during the 2008 primary while running against President Obama. She shows her support for the LGBTQ community as well as women voters, including a “pride” section of her store and a throw pillow stitched with “a woman’s place is in the White House.” Bernie Sanders also vends pride-themed bumper stickers, though has less expansive and sophisticated apparel than his opponent. Marco Rubio’s store features a selection of “Marco Polos,” a quirky pun on his name that seems to be marketed towards the higher-income individuals that constitute a key component of the demographic make-up of the Tea Party, which helped him gain his seat in the Senate. Ted Cruz, another Tea Party favorite, also has various polo shirts, coffee mugs, and a sleek new logo. Rand Paul has an entire section of anti-Hillary gear in his shop, as well as a “Don’t Drone me, Bro!” shirt, marketed towards younger voters (a strategy shared by his possible Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton). Paul has other “fun” apparel, including an oversized birthday card, a beer stein, and a corn hole game. Huckabee’s store is filled with “I Like Mike” gear, a nod to Eisenhower’s branding despite their ideological differences. The store of Rick Perry includes select merchandise, mainly baseball caps and a single t-shirt, with a logo reminiscent of an all-American baseball team.

However, not all candidates have immediately jumped on board. Rick Santorum does not currently have his store available, though he had one initially and has said it will reopen shortly. Scott Walker’s is currently under construction, although he has yet to make his candidacy official. Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Donald Trump, Lindsey Graham, George Pataki, Carly Fiorina, Martin O’Malley, and Lincoln Chafee do not currently have stores associated directly with their campaign webpages. However, merchandise for all presidential hopefuls can be found on various other sites, including Café Press.

Not only does having a store allow supporters to become walking advertisements for their candidate, due to FEC regulations it also allows candidates to extract valuable data. Purchases are treated as donations since candidates are not allowed to make personal profits off of their campaigns. Because individuals are now making donations instead of purchases, the FEC requires additional information including the submission of an employer and occupation. In addition, those that make more than one purchase are alerted to a campaign as a potential volunteer. Furthermore, the choice of retail informs candidates of who their main supporters are. At this point, any intelligence campaigns can obtain is valuable. The more elaborate and sophisticated the selection of merchandise, the more that can be extrapolated from the sales data. Stores owned by Sanders and Perry have limited options besides the traditional stickers and t-shirts, which will not lend itself as particularly helpful in tracking demographics. If the efforts thus far are any indication, it seems that this election cycle will see an increase of products sold, especially as other candidates realize the value in opening their own stores.