As Republican presidential hopeful Rand Paul travels the country asking crowds to help him “defeat the Washington machine,” his campaign’s website is delivering the same message in a decidedly American way: hawking gear and collectibles that allow supporters of the libertarian-leaning candidate to express their political views with a credit card and a mouse click.
For $25, there is the “Don’t Drone Me, Bro” T-shirt, in yellow cotton, stamped with the image of a black unmanned aerial vehicle. “A classic for any Rand Paul supporter,” the site’s online store gushes.
Or you can shell out $100 for the beanbag toss game. “Have fun, make a difference,” the product description says.
There’s even a Hillary Rodham Clinton-inspired computer hard drive, which mocks the recent flap over the former secretary of State’s deleted emails. The limited-edition $99.95 drive is described as a “100% genuine erased clean email server…. Buyer beware, this product has had heavy use and it currently is no longer working.”
Forget old-fashioned buttons and lawn signs. These days, political campaigns are tapping into Americans’ seemingly endless appetite to shop online.
From the “I Hate Tea (Parties)” travel mug ($30) sold by the Democratic National Committee to the Republican National Committee's nostalgic replica of former Vice President Dick Cheney's cowboy hat ($72), the race is on to cash in, commercially and politically, on the 2016 presidential campaign.
Online campaign stores are not necessarily big moneymakers, party officials acknowledge, but they provide a decent revenue stream as well as the email addresses of ardent supporters, which can be helpful for future fundraising appeals.
Perhaps most important, the online shops provide distinctive new ways to market the candidates, attract volunteers and donors and foster alternative forms of civic engagement.
“It is a way to, literally, show your support ... to tell the world — the people who see you on your daily commute, who get behind your car on the freeway — what you believe in,” said Matt Compton, digital director at the DNC, whose website sells $5 bumper stickers reading: “Like this Road? Thank a Democrat.”
Some dismiss the trend toward swag as a form of “slacktivism” — lazy activism that gives Internet users a sense of political participation without the trouble of actually knocking on doors for a candidate or attending a rally.
But according to Compton, buying politically themed merchandise is sometimes the first step toward greater political involvement. “When you take the time to wear a Democratic Party button or carry a Democratic tote bag ... it becomes a natural thing to follow up on that with volunteering on a campaign or giving to a cause you support.”
Political memorabilia has long been a mainstay of American campaigning, with the Teddy Roosevelt “Rough Rider” campaign button, the reelect Eisenhower 1956 potholder and the “I Stand With Rand” flip-flops of today.
When he was a candidate, President Obama’s image, as depicted by artist Shepard Fairey, became an icon of its own, launching a generation of copycats. The Smithsonian houses an entire collection of campaign memorabilia at the National Museum of American History.
But the rise of cyber-shopping has given the candidates a fresh way to compete for new voters and raise a little cash.
“I think that swag might seem more prevalent to us now because social media makes it easier to see, and more sexy,” said Jennifer Lawless, a professor of government at American University in Washington. “These are not the kinds of things that change hearts and minds, but they can occasionally make people smile ¬— or get them to contribute $10.”
Lawless, who said she still keeps a package of Michael Dukakis cigarettes purchased on eBay in her office, said the gear is more likely to pump up interest among political junkies than newcomers, though the particularly creative items could spark debate or draw attention.
Paul's humorous offerings speak to the candidate's renegade spirit, including the top-selling National Security Agency “spy-cam blocker” — which is little more than an adhesive strip that covers the built-in cameras on laptops. “When you wear the Rand Brand, you look good and stand for something bigger than all of us ... liberty,” the site says about the candidate's clothing line.
Not everyone welcomes the “Rand” brand, however. When it was stamped on $150 Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses — touted on the site as the “intersection of politics and cool” — the eyewear company objected and the shades are no longer offered, according to the Hill newspaper.
Other candidates have been slower to embrace the merchandising trend.
Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican senator, was dinged for showing up at campaign events without so much as signs or flags for the crowd to wave, and his recently opened online shop carries mainly standard political fare – shirts, hats, mugs and a bumper sticker that reads, “This vehicle makes right turns only.” The bumper sticker, for $10, is in such demand that the store asks shoppers to “allow extra time for delivery.”
Democratic candidate Clinton is expected to launch an online store by the end of the month. Until then, supporters can receive a free, limited-edition “I [heart] H” bumper sticker only if they’re on her email list.
Sen. Marco Rubio’s team says his online shop also will be ready soon. In the meantime the campaign offered a special one-day-only sale of stickers and T-shirts as a chance for supporters to show they were with him when he announced his campaign last month.
The Florida senator’s political action committee, Reclaim America PAC, until recently sold bottled water at $25 a pop — a self-effacing nod to the senator’s awkward reach for a sip of water as he delivered the official GOP 2013 televised response to the State of the Union speech. The bottles quickly sold out.
Lawless, the government professor, advised campaigns to start selling their gear before opponents step in to fill the void. Paul’s online store, for example, has an entire section devoted to anti-Hillary items.
The DNC recently lampooned Paul’s online store by posting on Twitter some pictures of faux Rand Paul merchandise, including a washing machine, playing off his campaign slogan. The post featuring the front-loader promises to “remove the stains” of his Senate record, and says “votes against the middle class” are “sold separately.”