Shopping for Candidates

Josh Fischel evaluates the presidential hopefuls on what may be the most telling element of their campaigns — their online stores.

If I am still an undecided voter at this point in the election season, I have to imagine that literally anything could make me change my mind about whom to vote for on November 6th.  Maybe I think Romney’s suits are tailored better.  Maybe I prefer the sound of Obama’s laugh.  Maybe the weather was better the last time I saw Romney speak on TV.  Maybe the uncle I find annoying has been rather loudly supporting Obama.

And if my choice could be determined by anything (aside, probably, from actual policy) why not evaluate the candidates’ online stores to see who has the better merch available?

Let’s dispense first with the also-rans.  Dr. Jill Stein, the Green Party nominee, has but three items available in her online store, even though the first link on her website’s toolbar is “Get Stuff” — hardly the message that one imagines when picturing the Stein campaign, flagbearer of a Green Party that’s presumably at least a little uncomfortable with capitalism.  Her yard signs are sold out, but you can buy a t-shirts, vinyl stickers, or buttons.  The Stein/Honkala team’s logo is fairly reminiscent of Rick Santorum’s avian-themed graphic. Eagles haven’t had this much beef about the misappropriation of their brand since Don Henley.

There are a few candidates left in the dust by the primaries who are still hocking their wares.  Michelle Bachmann has changed the orientation of her website from the presidential race to the 6th Congressional District of Minnesota, where she declares on her home page that “the Democrat’s [sic] have a plan to defeat me and are going to spend millions to do so.”  Her store features eight items, including a nod to the NPR bloc: a tote bag.  You can also purchase an autographed copy of her 2011 memoir Core of Conviction.  It’s available on her site for $75, though you can also get it used for $74.99 less on Amazon.

Barack Obama’s website curiously does not currently feature a link to his merchandise store.  I know how to get to it, though, for I have indeed purchased some gear: a beer cozy featuring Joe Biden that says, “Cheers, Champ” and a “Made in the U.S.A.” coffee mug with a copy of Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate on it.  Perhaps they assume that people will find their way through the email solicitations we supporters have been getting (24 in the last week).  The top items featured are yard signs and a collector’s set of “all 44 official campaign buttons.”  These choices say, “We need you to show your support as visibly as possible” and “We’re going to enable your hoarding habits and hope you can dig your way through your garage to your car and get to the polls on Election Day.”

The stuff in Obama’s store is sorted into the following categories: Essentials, Apparel, Accessories, Home & Outdoors, Collections, and Sale.  The collections are probably most reflective of the campaign’s most effective strategy: micro-targeting.  There are seven items in the Women for Obama section, four in the African Americans for Obama area, a robust ten products for both the Hispanic/Latino and the LBGT supporter, a more anemic three items for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and a hopefully-not-too-telling single button for both Jewish Americans for Obama and Environmentalists for Obama.

The most egregious things for sale include gold and silver pins that say “Michelle 2012” in cursive with the help of “over 230 genuine Czech crystal rhinestones”; a rather tone-deaf golf towel (why not just sell a teleprompter too?); and this god-awful shirt from the Runway to Win collection.

When you visit the Romney-Ryan 2012 Official Store, you are greeted by a picture of four elderly white women festooned with “Built by Us” t-shirts and hyperbolic buttons and pins (“I Heart Paul Ryan,” says one).  There is no fire sale going on here like the one at Obama’s store (30% off for all purchases of $10 or more), though there is free shipping — for a limited time.  Surprisingly, there are no binders.  The collections deal less with targeting specific communities, than with campaign themes: “Built by Us,” “Believe in America,” “America’s Comeback Team.”  There is “Ann’s Collection,” which features two gauzy photographs of Ann affixed to buttons and a cursive decal that suggests, “I’m a Mom for Mitt.”

The “GOP Collection” is more aggressively antagonizing than any other venue.  It features a lot of “Nobama” wares that mostly feel cringe-worthy to imagine people buying, never mind displaying or donning.

A few other items would never be caught dead in Obama’s store: a tie pin featuring the stylized R from Romney’s campaign posters, a polo shirt with a GOP elephant in place of the usual Lacoste alligator, and rubber bracelets — in red, white, and blue, natch — that say, “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, America Can’t Lose.”  I guess Peter Berg’s cease and desist letter hasn’t been too successful yet.

The last odd difference between Obama and Romney in this vein is that Romney sells posters and Obama does not.  Much has been made of the Obama posters 20-somethings might still have up in the childhood bedrooms to which they’ve returned, jobless (though still able to be covered by health insurance) and embarrassed.  Thank goodness that Romney has some posters for sale that can cover up past ideological blemishes.  This pin-up can be displayed “in your dorm room or office.”  Posters seem like a misstep for a campaign that knows it is not transformational.  No one is rooting for Romney as an underdog; few are privileged enough to connect to his personal story.  It would be like having a poster of William Randolph Hearst up on my wall that read, “Newspapers.”

So what do these stores aim to tell us?  They don’t expect you to buy everything, but they expect you will peruse.  Obama has the clear advantage in terms of graphic design — always has.  His typeface is clean and original; while Romney’s aims to do the same, the letters are bunchier.  Obama also has a better sense of playfulness.  Romney’s more humorous t-shirts all come off as just mean-spirited (one says, “Government Didn’t Build My Business, I DID”).  Obama offers v-neck t-shirts. (I’m actually a little surprised that there aren’t skinny jeans bedazzled with ‘Obama’ available; maybe they sold out.)  I can’t think of anything, in fact, where Romney’s store has the upper hand.  Does that mean that even my taste for fashion has become partisan?  If undecided voters want to truly assert their independence, maybe it’s best to just go nude.

Josh Fischel lives near Boston with his wife and their dog. He teaches sixth grade humanities, and has been published in The New York Times, The Believer, and Bean Soup.