As of June 2019, 254 candidates have filed with the Federal Election Commission to run in the Democratic primary. There are many criteria by which to sort the major candidates from the minor—who has previously held public office, who has been included in major polls, whether you want to arbitrarily exclude Mike Gravel just because he’s being puppeteered by a cadre of savvy teens—but the most important indicator has so far been overlooked: candidate merchandise.
In all the competing theories explaining why Trump won the 2016 election, deeply rooted as they’ve been in analysis of class, race, and geography, most pundits have missed the key issue. Donald Trump won because he had the best merch. The “Make America Great Again” cap, with its simple, bold design, is the most instantly iconic piece of presidential merch in decades, easily besting both Jeb Bush’s “My dad is the greatest man I’ve ever known and if you don’t think so we can step outside” t-shirts and Hillary Clinton’s bland H-with-an-arrow-through-it motif. The MAGA cap is so seminal that it burst through the confines of campaign merch to become a universally recognised symbol of racism. The Trump campaign spent more on those hats than on polling, consultants, or television commercials. It’s time the Democrats took notes, and journalists started taking merch as seriously as it deserves.
Some 2019 Democratic candidates have been classed as major by horse-race analysts, but if they’re not selling any merch they can be dismissed out of hand. These include Montana Governor Steve “the Bullock” Bullock, New York City Mayor Bill “cautious politician” De Blasio, and Mayor Wayne “who is Wayne Messam?” Messam of Miramar, Florida. Mike Gravel, the elderly former Alaska senator drafted into the race by the teenagers running his campaign, had been selling Pentagon rolling papers—combining Gravel’s opposition to the War on Drugs with a reference to the time he famously entered the Pentagon Papers into the public record—but the limited supply has sold out. The Gravel teens have confirmed that they plan to sell more merch in the future, but as of the time of this writing, there is none available.* This is especially disappointing as Gravel is running away with the Twitter primary. But if you’re not selling t-shirts, you’re not running to win.
I approached Bullock, Messam, and the Gravel teens for comment, but only the teens responded. I wanted to approach De Blasio but his website doesn’t have a contact page. Someone should probably tell him that, much like being a successful and well-liked mayor of the most populous city in the country, running for president is about being accessible and showing up.
But if we look at the candidates who are selling merch, definite trends emerge. Bolstered by the success of Bernie and Hillary in 2016–and the non-success of, uh, Lincoln Chafee?–a lot of candidates are trying to push being called by their first names, even if it feels unnatural. No one on earth has ever called Cory Booker just “Cory,” including his own mother, and yet all his t-shirts say “Cory 2020.”
But first, a tribute to the fallen. In January, Richard Ojeda resigned from the West Virginia State Senate to focus on his presidential campaign and then dropped out of the race two weeks later, despite having pretty good merch. Godspeed.
*UPDATE: Since the initial publication of this piece, the Mike Gravel campaign has launched a four-pack of buttons, and they’re awesome. Slogans include “Send Henry Kissinger to The Hague” and “Compost the Rich”. Even the one that just says “Gravel 2020” looks metal as hell. Plus they cost $4.20, showing a remarkably enduring commitment to the bit. The product description gets it right: “The perfect gift for button collectors, Gravel fans, or simply people with good taste in accessories.”
Joe Biden is supposedly the frontrunner, but if you’re looking for Biden merch, good luck finding his website. Joe Biden has such terrible SEO that if you Google “Joe Biden campaign website,” one of the first hits is joebiden.info, a parody website about how he’s a creep and a racist, and the rest of the first page usually includes articles about how a parody site has been beating Joe Biden’s official one in search results. I’ve landed on joebiden.info while looking for Joe Biden’s website at least five times. (Joebiden.info is also selling t-shirts featuring Biden creeping on Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden himself, for the record.)
When you get to Joe Biden’s actual site, he mostly sells merch that says Biden or Joe, with or without “2020” attached, but always sans any slogan or witticism. Nothing but Biden. Except, I suppose, that since the “E” in Joe is rendered only with thin, abstract, horizontal stripes—to evoke the flag of either the U.S. or Malaysia, it’s ambiguous—you might think a woman named Jo is running.
Biden has added LGBT-themed merch for Pride month, or, because the “Es” are just skinny rainbow stripes, Prid month. A lot of the candidates are selling Pride-themed merch, which is surely exactly what the rioters at Stonewall meant by gay liberation, but only Biden has the balls to do it while having voted for the Defense of Marriage Act. In a further bold move, instead of following the cliché “[insert name here] for President” formula, the campaign chose to simplify it down to “Biden President,” because keywords, I guess.
Some of the merch features a photo of Biden, airbrushed and wearing aviator shades, as though he’s trying to look like as big of an asshole as possible. He looks like the authority figure in an ’80s movie who wants to shut down the ski mountain and make sure the ragtag team of underdogs loses the big game. He looks like he’s just used a loophole in a contract to buy your grandmother’s house from under her and is forcing you to fight an unfrozen Viking to win it back, and while you’re busy having a training montage he’s secretly giving the Viking steroids.
Michael Bennet, the guy whose experience of cancer inspired him to launch a single-issue campaign on healthcare but not advocating Medicare for all, has merch that’s almost stunningly bland. His logo is Bennet with a rectangular box around it, with “For America” in red or blue as the bottom edge. Every single thing he’s selling just has his logo printed on it. It’s boring. It looks like a cheap butter brand.
Bennet’s merch proves that he is not a major candidate, and is not running to win.
When I started researching this piece, Cory Booker had some of the worst merch in the game. His t-shirts looked like they were designed with Word Art, his hemlines were all messed up, and he was seemingly charging $10 for a set of three badges.
Since then, Booker has revamped his store. It’s still mostly the same ugly Cory 2020 designs, but the hemlines don’t look as twisted, and he’s added a t-shirt design that says “Justice For All,” enraging the “Justice for Some or None” constituency of the party. There’s a bunch of Pride stuff. He’s got two-packs of vinyl stickers and badges for $5, but for some reason you can only get two of the same one instead of one of each design.
The gendering of Cory Booker’s shirts has gone through a bizarre series of changes. Initially, his old store sold t-shirts in unisex fit, but when his new store launched, it offered shirts in unisex and women’s fit. This seemed so strange to me, because selling non-gendered shirts is a fine idea, and doing that while still wanting a variety of fits is a fine idea, but then half the shirts were still gendered, as if a t-shirt in a traditionally masculine cut is for everyone but cap sleeves are a defining quality of womanhood. I can’t wrap my head around the rationale for it, except a desire to nip any Booker Bro controversies in the bud.
But then, around the time the campaign added its Pride merch, they changed the names of the two fits to “tee” and “fitted.” This makes so much more sense than unisex and women’s that it retroactively makes selling unisex and women’s shirts even more bizarre. This definitely is the number one issue facing Booker’s campaign and more journalists should have the courage to confront him on it.
When I clicked on Pete Buttigieg’s website, I asked myself the same question everyone asks when they visit his site for the first time: Why is Pete Buttigieg starring in a new sitcom coming this fall, only on NBC?
I then went to his online store, and wow, has Mayor Pete got some nice merch! I know nothing about seamstressing, but even I could tell immediately that his stuff is made of high-quality material. His crewneck sweatshirts look incredibly cosy. His t-shirts are nicely fitted, and are offered in navy, sand, and “heather gray” where most candidates stick to white or black. Unlike Booker, the t-shirts seem not to be gendered at all. Even the baseball caps look classy.
But looking closer, I realized that none of Pete’s merch really has much to say. I mean, there’s a lot of effort there, and more than a few attempts to convey personality: In addition to the Pete 2020 stuff—emblazoned on top of an LGBT flag as part of his Pride collection, next to a printed tie for your toddler, on navy, sand, and heather gray—you can get a t-shirt that says “Chasten for First Gentleman” with Pete’s husband’s face on it. You can get “Boot Edge Edge” printed on just about anything. But when it comes to slogans, it’s mush like “Pete’s Got Heart” and “Win the Era.”
On the whole, I’d be more likely to buy Pete’s merch if he took his name off it.
I am generally skeptical of candidates pushing their first names when it doesn’t come naturally—no, I will not call Joe Biden “Joe,” I refuse—but in Julián Castro’s case, it does seem like the smart move. He’s got caps that say “Julían 2020” and t-shirts with “Julían 2020” featuring his face in profile. He’s also got vinyl stickers designed like lotería cards that say “El Presidente,” which are cool, but then he also has that rectangular design smack-bang in the middle of a white t-shirt, and it looks terrible.
Yet maybe he should have embraced being called Julían Castro, full name, because the t-shirts and stickers with his full name are really good. The “u” in Julían and the “s” in Castro are lined up and highlighted in blue, so it reads both as “us” and “US,” and the accent on the “a” is designed like a flame. If Julían Castro committed to appealing to the underrepresented politicians-going-by-their-full-names wing of the party, maybe he’d have a real shot.
John Delaney is running for president! No, not the Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs of the Bahamas, 2009–12. No, not the chief executive of the Football Association of Ireland. No, not the politician, postmaster general, and meteorologist from 19th-century Newfoundland. This is John Delaney, the former representative of Maryland’s sixth district, of course!
Not only is John Delaney running for president, he’s been running for president for two years. He filed with the FEC on July 28th, 2017, months before even the eagerest of beavers would follow. So the inevitable question is: why? The answer is clear. It’s a front so he can follow his dream of owning and operating an online store.
Most candidates sell a few t-shirts, baseball caps, buttons, and stickers. Delaney has the courage and vision to realize he could put his name on whatever he set his mind to. There are beer koozies, sold only in pairs (“One for you, one for a friend!”), water bottles, and bottle openers. There are dog collars, golf balls, stress grips, and the Delaney Caucus Cooler Stemless Cup. There’s a pack of playing cards with Trump as the joker.
There’s the memory eraser, which is just a regular eraser, but it promises to help you forget Trump’s entire presidency and “sleep again like it’s 2009.” You can buy it with “John Delaney for President – ‘Memory’ Eraser” printed on it, implying that the memories to be erased are, in fact, those of Delaney’s presidential campaign, or with just “’Memory’ Eraser,” like it’s a generic novelty item. But either way, you must get it with quotation marks around the word “memory.”
The Delaney campaign is selling exactly one t-shirt.
Tulsi Gabbard is selling merch through ActBlue, the donation website, rather than through her campaign website. The merch itself feels mostly incidental, like a cynical box-ticking exercise to qualify for the Current Affairs merch primary.
Tulsi has followed Booker’s lead in selling women’s and unisex t-shirts, which makes me think this is not a bizarre anomaly but a concerted effort by Big Women’s and Unisex T-Shirt. Other than that, her offerings are minimalistic: There’s one t-shirt design, a sticker, a button, and a yard sign, all with identical Tulsi 2020 branding. The yard signs are sold out as of the time of this writing, so either this is an extremely popular item, or she didn’t make enough yard signs. I have no doubt that this important issue will soon be investigated by all the major newspapers.
When I clicked on Kirsten Gillibrand’s website, I asked myself the same question everyone asks when they visit her site for the first time: Why is Kirsten Gillibrand starring in a new stand-up special on Netflix?
When you visit her store, it’s mixed—not average, mixed. On one hand, she has the merch with her logo, which is 2020 written in hot pink and Gillibrand written in white caps underneath. These suck and they’re boring. On the other hand, there’s the illustrated t-shirt designed by Bethany Roberston, and “Brave Wins” design by Louisa Cannell. These are nice shirts! The biggest reason not to buy these shirts is that they say Kirsten Gillibrand on them. Luckily, if anyone asks, you can say you got them from Kirstengilli Brand.
Kamala’s t-shirts need to be ironed. Her big gimmick is “Kamala Harris For The People,” alienating both by-the-people and of-the-people voters. These t-shirts manage to look really busy and be vacuous and inane, which is impressive. Her other designs are “Kamala” or “Fearless,” printed in caps with the letters in different colors. The standard version is yellow, blue, and red, plus rainbow versions for Pride.
It’s all pretty nice stuff, but if you’re not already in the tank for Kamala it’s not going to move the needle. The real question left for the Kamala Harris campaign is whether it would be worth the tactical risk to sell t-shirts that say “Stay in School” (front), “Or I’ll Put Your Mom in Prison” (back).
JAY INSLEE & JOHN HICKENLOOPER
I constantly get Jay Inslee and John Hickenlooper confused even though Jay Inslee is the climate change guy and Hickenlooper drinks fracking water for breakfast. It doesn’t help that they have identical online stores.
Hickenlooper exclusively sells merch with his logo on it, which is a cartoon rendering of some mountains which looks a bit like a Coors can. Inslee almost exclusively sells merch with his logo on it, aka his name printed over half the earth. He does also offer t-shirts and tote bags that read “Our Movement. Our Moment. Climate Action.” Hickenlooper sells a beer koozie, but unlike John Delaney, he doesn’t force you to buy one for a friend. (Hickenlooper assumes if you’re voting for him, you don’t have any friends.) Inslee has not one but two books, which might be why he’s running for president, in addition to his stated goal of drawing attention to climate change. Big Women’s and Unisex T-Shirt has gotten to both of them.
Considering Hickenlooper and Inslee’s failure to distinguish themselves from each other, they have also failed to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack. Not serious contenders.
Amy Klobuchar is selling t-shirts, hats, stickers, and buttons that say “Amy for America,” and also a book called The Senator Next Door. She’s got a pretty nice color scheme—green, navy, white, and blue—but she hasn’t ironed the t-shirts. There was a section dedicated to tote bags without any tote bags in it, but you can find a single tote in there now.
Highly recommended if your name is Amy, or if you have a friend called Amy and want to get them a present. Otherwise, feel free to pass.
Whoever Seth Moulton is, he’s running for president. According to his merch, his name is Seth Moulton, and he’s running for president. He’s in the pocket of Big Women’s and Unisex T-Shirt, but tries to cover it up by selling them as ladies and unisex.
Most of his merch is bland, with the exception of his stickers, which are refreshingly bizarre and confusing. They say “We know who’s the chicken and who’s the hawk,” with faceless silhouettes of Trump (the chicken) and national security advisor John Bolton (the hawk). Initially I didn’t register that the hawk was Bolton, because it’s a less iconic silhouette and I foolishly assumed a sticker Seth Moulton is selling to promote his campaign would have something to do with Seth Moulton. The text positions chicken and hawk as oppositional—as if one of them might be good—and the issues section on Moulton’s website is all about how we’ve got to murder Arabs smarter not harder by buying more drones or whatever, so it was reasonable to mistakenly assume he was referring to himself as the hawk. But does he actually mean Trump and Bolton are a team of chicken hawks? Does the chicken-ness counteract the hawkishness at all? What kind of bird is Seth Moulton?
On one hand, the chicken hawk sticker is by far the most interesting thing about Seth Moulton. On the other hand, it turns out there is nothing interesting about Seth Moulton.
Everyone’s favourite neoliberal shill with a skateboard over one shoulder asking “How do you do, fellow kids?”, Beto O’Rourke has been steadily losing ground in the like-Obama-but-white primary. On one side, he’s been overtaken by Mayor Pete’s “scrappy underdog who will nonetheless cosy up to Wall Street” schtick, and on the other by Biden’s “here is a photo of me standing next to President Obama” bona fides. Hell, he’s not even pulling ahead in the could-win-Texas primary.
But Beto’s still got one trick up his sleeve: He’s punk rock. Beto was in a punk band when he was younger, and he talks about it, like, a lot. He even claims he’s running a punk campaign. The original punks wanted to break down the separation between performance and audience, smashing barriers to participation by valuing rawness and honesty over technical skill. But Beto means, uh, meeting people in small venues?
Regardless, Beto’s punk pretensions have trickled into his online store, which largely embraces a minimalist black-and-white aesthetic. Most importantly, he’s selling an iron-on patch! It looks like the logo for 1990s WCW wrestling stable New World Order, which is definitely either punk rock or a coded shout-out to the Illuminati.
“Hello. My name is Tim Ryan. I am addicted to chicken wings and ice cream. Ask anyone. My wife, my friends, my acquaintances. Oh yeah. We could finish a huge meal and a half hour later I’ll crave a handful of buffalo chicken wings just to wrap up the night.
“One night out in the round with my brother Al and some friends, I had an incident. Al was already asleep in the hotel room we were sharing, having gone up to bed not long after dinner. I came in, and, you guessed it, I ordered some chicken wings and a side of ice cream from room service. While I waited for my food I turned on the TV, took off my shirt, and stretched out on the bed. As I flipped through the channels I found the old, original Batman TV show. You know, the one with Adam West where Batman and Robin almost die at the end of every episode. Eventually the chicken wings and ice cream arrived. I immediately started eating the wings, piling the bones on a plate next to me on the bed.
“Then as I began to put a scoop of ice cream in my mouth something terrible happened.”
To cut this long story from Tim Ryan’s book The Real Food Revolution short, his brother woke up and caught him eating chicken wings. Nothing in Ryan’s merch is as interesting as this story.
Bernie doesn’t iron his shirts either, but in his case it’s on-brand since Bernie clearly doesn’t own an iron. A lot of his stuff features the “classic” Bernie logo from 2016, which is either good because Bernie’s so consistent and loves recycling, or bad because Bernie is so rigid and stuck in the past. He’s also selling a “Feel the Bern” car magnet, forgoing the risk of remixing it to “Keep on Bernin’” or “Bern Again” or “Feel the Bern 2: Electric Boogaloo.”
Aside from the classics, Bernie’s embraced “for all” as a motif. One of his t-shirts reads, “College for all, Medicare for all, jobs for all, justice for all,” and you can also get mugs, t-shirts, and stickers with “College for all” or “Medicare for all” specifically, usually with an emphasis on “all.” This is either good, because of Bernie’s unwatered-down commitment to the policies he’s spent his whole life advocating for, or bad because his policies can be clearly conveyed on a t-shirt and everyone knows good policies must be completely opaque and incomprehensible to everyone but five D.C. wonks.
Eric Swalwell is a single-issue candidate advocating for gun control with the endorsement of the Parkland kids. Perhaps he should have—like Mike Gravel—allowed the kids to run the campaign, because his merch is, in the main, whatever.
Swalwell’s logo is his name and some stripes, in tribute to the flag of Malaysia, and all his merch is mostly just his logo. His slogan is “Go Big. Be Bold. Do Good.” but you can barely see it, as it’s buried under the giant Eric Swalwell Malaysian flag. Swalwell’s one saving grace is that he’s the only candidate selling shoelaces. They’ve got #SWALWELLING printed on them over and over in blue and red, and I have no idea who they are aimed at or what the pitch was on selling them. Please buy me a pair.
Elizabeth Warren has the most extensive and well-put-together merch collection of any candidate. You want it? She’s got it: There are t-shirts that just say Warren across the chest; there are t-shirts that don’t say Warren at all (except in the URL for her website). There’s every possible avenue through which to reclaim “Nevertheless, she persisted,” Mitch McConnell’s infamous defense of the Senate’s vote to silence Warren’s objections to Jeff Sessions’ confirmation, which was co-opted by the #resistance and corporations trying to profit from the feminist movement. There’s “Warren Has A Plan For That” and “The Best President Money Can’t Buy.”
Where John Delaney’s dog collars just say “Dogs for Delaney,” Warren’s say “Consumer Watchdog,” which is incredibly charming and policy-driven. Where other candidates sell mugs that just say their names, Warren sells mugs that say “I Like My Coffee Like I Like My American Unions: Strong.” None of the other candidates are even selling aprons, but if they did, I doubt any of them could beat Liz’s “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.” She’s killing it.
If anything, the Warren campaign might need to pull back on merch a little, and remember they also need resources for the other primaries. One example is the height primary, where Clinton’s 2016 campaign ultimately came unstuck when it was revealed that she was significantly shorter than her official 5 foot 7.
Marianne Williamson might not have ever held public office, but she’s got some quality merch. The overcrowded text of her “We the People” shirts is like what Cory Booker tried and failed to do in Word Art. She uses fun fonts that fill in the counters (internal gaps in letters). The artistic rendering of her face on her t-shirts and badges make her look like Debbie Harry. It’s all very cool.
Marianne is a born saleslady, and a big part of that is offering a quality product. My only real critique is that her collection is quite small.
Andrew Yang might have the support of an unfortunate number of white supremacists; he might want to start a universal basic income but also make raising the amount dependent on a constitutional amendment, meaning inflation would render it worthless; he might—worst of all—be an entrepreneur. But you cannot deny that his merch has personality.
Yang sells baseball caps that say “MATH” in all caps and enamel pins with a cartoon of his head wearing a baseball cap that says “MATH” in all caps. “Celebrating numbers and facts an [sic] essential part of our campaign,” the product description for the MATH hat assures us. His tote bags say “Secure the bag.” His bumper stickers say “Humanity First,” a bizarre taunt to non-human voters, both animal and alien. All his t-shirts are pictured on hangers and you get a 15 percent discount if you buy six.
It’s clear that Andrew Yang is focusing his attention on winning the meme primary, but he’s nonetheless come into the merch primary with a fighting chance, almost through the side door. If his merch is at times too densely, almost impenetrably meme-ish, it’s impossible to say whether that might backfire.
WINNER: Elizabeth Warren. On every metric—originality, design, variety, messaging—she’s leading the pack. (Editors’ note: No, this is not an official Current Affairs endorsement of Elizabeth Warren, please do not angrily or approvingly tweet at us)
RUNNING MATE: John Delaney. By rights it should probably be Marianne Williamson, but it’s important to balance the ticket to capture the all-important novelty eraser-buying demographic.
MERCH HEAD OF THE EPA: Jay Inslee.
*MERCH SECRETARY OF STATE: Although Mike Gravel and his teens launched their buttons too late to make it onto the ticket, cabinet appointments are beholden to no such rules.
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