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What the 2020 candidates’ merch says about their campaigns

From Andrew Yang’s “Math” pin to “M-[peach emoji]-[mint emoji]” merch from Mike Bloomberg.

Supporters of Mayor Pete Buttigieg wear, among other gear, a “Hawkeyes for Buttigieg” T-shirt in the run up to the Iowa caucus.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

If you want to get a sense of the differences between the Democratic politicians, tech guys, and billionaires vying for the chance to run against Donald Trump, there’s no better place to look than each candidate’s online merch shop.

The T-shirts, stickers, koozies, and weird novelty products sold by Democratic hopefuls still left in the race are best understood as an extension of the campaigns and candidates themselves. Moderate Minnesotan Sen. Amy Klobuchar sells ice scrapers and T-shirts referencing her Midwestern roots; businessman Andrew Yang’s campaign briefly sold a calculator. John Delaney, who was running as a centrist alternative to Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and dropped out of the race last week, had “memory erasers” (so voters could forget “all of the pain, invective, division, and incoherent ramblings of our 45th president”) and a deck of cards featuring Trump as the joker for sale on his campaign site.

A “Bull-Schiff” T-shirt from President Donald Trump’s online store.

Gimmicks aside, each of the 2020 hopefuls is using their campaign swag to convey the same message: “I can bring people together. I’m the only one who can beat Trump” — albeit in different ways. Some candidates use the products they sell to amplify their platforms; others use merch to convey that they’re capable of building a broad, diverse coalition. A few 2020 Democrats’ products carry vague anti-Trump slogans, like Joe Biden’s “we choose truth over lies.” And Trump? The president’s campaign staffers seem to have picked up on their boss’s knack for mocking his opponents. In addition to the now-ubiquitous MAGA gear, Trump’s most fervent supporters can fund his reelection bid by purchasing everything from “Bull-Schiff” T-shirts mocking the impeachment hearings to “snowflake” gift wrap.

As with everything in a presidential campaign, merch is intended to send a message: about who the candidate is, about what they believe, about their confidence and their funding, and about who does — and in some cases, who does not — fit under their big tent. The trinkets offered by each campaign make both parties’ strategies clear. Though they can’t agree on how to do it, the Democrats know they need to expand their base if they want to beat Trump. Meanwhile, Trump just has to inflame his.

Campaigns’ merch operates as a useful shorthand for a politician’s identity. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s “Aloha”-plastered merch reminds supporters she’s from Hawaii. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose affinity for detailed plans has become a running joke, sells a day planner, notebook, and other stationery on her campaign site. Klobuchar, with her ice scraper, is the “heartland” candidate. (A spokesperson for the Klobuchar campaign told The Goods that most of the products are inspired by “the Senator’s outings on the trail” and her background.)

But the various tchotchkes sold by each campaign also reflect an ideological rift in the Democratic Party, as well as three different strategies the primary contenders are using to take on Trump: the policy approach, the identity approach, and the civility/unity approach, emphasizing the perceived need for middle-of-the-road policies and a post-Trump return to normalcy.

Sen. Bernie Sanders’s merch, for example, almost exclusively focuses on policy. The Vermont senator’s backers can buy T-shirts, mugs, and stickers expressing their support for Medicare-for-all, tuition-free college, and a federal jobs guarantee — and that’s about it. (The T-shirts are all $27, a likely allusion to the average donation amount Sanders received during his 2016 primary bid. Sanders’s campaign staff did not respond to The Goods’ request for comment.)

A “Medicare for all” mug from the Bernie Sanders campaign.

Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who is trying to position himself as the climate change and gun control candidate, sells T-shirts referencing both issues. Members of the Yang Gang can express their support for “money, math, and marijuana” (and, by extension, for Yang, who has promised to give every American $1,000 a month and decriminalize weed) with this T-shirt. Klobuchar’s campaign sells a bumper sticker that reads, “I’m not going to go for things just because they sound good on a bumper sticker” — an obvious jab at both Sanders and Warren, whose campaign sells a “Billionaire Tears” mug referencing her proposed wealth tax.

Warren’s merch isn’t all about her love of plans and her hatred of billionaires; it’s also about the identities of her supporters, a popular conceit among Democratic offerings. While the Republican Party has at best ignored and at worst embraced the rising tide of white nationalism in the US, the 2020 Democratic contenders are trying to emphasize how many different people they can bring together — and many view merch as a simple way to convey that message.

The Warren campaign sells a collection of T-shirts targeting a diverse group of potential supporters, including African Americans, people with disabilities, black voters, black women, students, Latinos, Latinas, Latinx people, LGBTQ voters, veterans, women, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders.

“Like the grassroots movement that we’re building, our campaign store is large and diverse,” a Warren spokesperson told The Goods. The goal is that no matter who you are, you can wear your identity tee to broadcast your support of the candidate.

Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg also sells products targeted at different communities, though not nearly as many. His campaign site offers shirts and stickers for students and veterans, as well as an “Invest in Black America” and “Juntos with Pete” shirts. (“Juntos” means “together” in Spanish.)

No campaign’s array of identity-focused products is as expansive as Tom Steyer’s. The hedge fund billionaire’s website sells “Climate change cannot wait” signs in nine languages, including Arabic, Korean, Spanish, Tagalog, and Farsi. Steyer’s campaign also sells signs for nearly every permutation of Spanish-speaking voter: Latinos, Latinas, Latinxs, Hispanics, Hispanos, Hispanas, familias, and mamás can all declare that they are for (con) Tom for just $1. (The campaigns for Steyer, Sanders, Yang, Gabbard, and Michael Bennet did not respond to The Goods’ request for comment.)

A “Latinx with Warren” T-shirt from the Elizabeth Warren campaign.

Identity-focused merch existed before 2020. There are the now-infamous “Women for Nixon” buttons and the slew of Obama merch celebrating the first black president, but politicians didn’t sell T-shirts and buttons to help raise funds for their campaigns until relatively recently — in fact, Obama’s 2008 campaign made headlines for selling merch rather than giving it away.

By 2012, though, selling campaign swag was no longer controversial, and both Obama’s and challenger Mitt Romney’s campaigns gave supporters products in exchange for donations. Perhaps surprisingly, Romney sold more identity merch than Obama did: His campaign sold a “Catholics for Romney” button and a “moms drive the economy” T-shirt targeting conservative women. The Obama campaign, meanwhile, focused more on his messages of hope and change.

In some cases, a candidate’s diversity-focused merch is a sign of real support from communities of color. Warren has received endorsements from hundreds of prominent black, Latinx, and Asian American and Pacific Islander activists, artists, and celebrities.

But these products can also signal a desire to court new voters from diverse backgrounds. A late January CNN poll found that Warren was polling third among voters of color, behind Sanders and Biden. Steyer, who is lagging in most polls, is reportedly pouring millions of dollars into campaigning in South Carolina, an early primary state where black Democratic voters are particularly influential. Buttigieg’s lack of support among black voters and other voters of color is well known, even if his campaign paraphernalia suggests otherwise.

Like his Democratic rivals, Trump also sells products aimed at people of color, including “Latinos for Trump” and “Black voices for Trump,” the latter of which several white Trump voters have been photographed wearing. Given the president’s low approval rating among voters of color, it’s safe to say this gear is an attempt at creating an illusion of support where there isn’t much to speak of.

Trump’s reelection campaign — which, lest we forget, he filed the paperwork for immediately after taking office in 2017 — has mastered the art of turning the president’s endless controversies into cash. Trump fans can currently choose from an assortment of impeachment-themed T-shirts; baby onesies that say “I cry less than a Democrat” and “baby lives matter”; Trump-branded plastic straws, “because liberal paper straws don’t work”; and more. The strategy seems to be working: Trump’s campaign raised more than $823,000 from the straws alone, the New York Times reported in September.

While the president’s reelection team focuses on trolling the president’s detractors and raking in cash, the Democratic contenders are using their products to argue why they’re best equipped to take on Trump in 2020.

Tom Steyer’s “Trump is a FRAUD & a FAILURE” button.

Sanders’s campaign sells a “Bernie beats Trump” sticker. Biden sells shirts and stickers declaring that “Joe will beat him like a drum,” as well as a collection of shirts with quotes taken from Biden’s first speech in Iowa, a platitude-heavy rebuke of the president. (The Biden campaign’s merch reflects “Joe’s commitment to public service and the core mission of this campaign: restoring the soul of America, rebuilding an inclusive middle class, and unifying the country,” Jamal Brown, the campaign’s national press secretary, told The Goods.)

Bloomberg sells all kinds of anti-Trump gear, from an illustrated “M-[peach emoji]-[mint emoji]” T-shirt to a slightly subtler one that reads, “The grass is greener when it’s not on fire.” Steyer’s website is also full of anti-Trump products, including a button that reads, “Trump is a fraud and a failure.”

Similar as they seem, the candidates’ anti-Trump campaign swag highlights their different approaches to winning over voters and, ultimately, taking on the president. Sanders thinks focusing on policy — and, more specifically, on winning over disaffected, working-class voters who care more about health care and college costs than they do about what’s happening in Washington — is the best path forward.

Biden, Bloomberg, and Steyer, however, seem to be focusing on Trump’s penchant for lying and general lack of civility. Other 2020 hopefuls, like Warren and Klobuchar, are positioning themselves as the best antidote to Trumpism by not talking about Trump at all — at least when it comes to their merch. Warren’s swag highlights her competence and the diversity of her base; Klobuchar’s is about her pragmatism and down-home personality. While neither candidate mentions Trump, it’s clear they’re both using their merch to convey how unlike him they are.

For the 2020 hopefuls, merch can function as an advertising tool, a fundraising strategy, or both. And for Democrats especially, campaign swag is as good a way as any of standing apart from the pack.

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