(CN) – Lena Lange often sports a navy-blue hat embroidered with the word “MATH” while running around Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.
Passersby who assume the financial analyst really likes numbers aren’t wrong, but the letters stand for something else: Make America Think Harder. It’s 2020 presidential hopeful Andrew Yang’s answer to President Donald Trump’s infamous Make America Great Again cap.
A $25 hat couldn’t have won the election alone, but according to Trump’s campaign, MAGA hat sales raised more than $20 million between 2016 and 2018 – covering nearly 800,000 heads. This past May, the campaign announced it would soon sell its 1 millionth hat celebrating with an autographed giveaway.
Since President Barack Obama’s Hope T-shirts went viral in 2008, campaign merchandise has scaled from niche buttons into a multimillion-dollar industry spanning beyond the apparel aisle to pet supplies, kitchenware and debate watch-party kits.
An active Democrat, Lange planted Yang’s sign in her yard, posts support on Facebook, and phone-banks. But the $35 MATH hat isn’t about recruiting new voters.
“You know it if you know it,” Lange said. “It’s a nod to other Yang Gang members.”
While polling data can make politics seem abstract, campaign gear creates a tangible experience and can help unite decentralized actors.
“Political merchandise plays into the way that politics functions as tribal identity as opposed to policy rationalism,” said Dr. Michael Serazio, a communications professor at Boston College.
“Just as a particular team hat or jersey defines you to the public or to your network in a particular way, so too does your devotion and displaying your political allegiance.”
A memorable tee can be worth a thousand words, sending a bold policy message – as with Beto O’Rourke’s “This is f*cked up” T-shirt pushing to end gun violence – or underscoring a candidate’s qualifications, as with the “Warren Has A Plan For That” tee created for Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Since every dollar counts toward campaign contributions, many supporters are willing to spend $25 on items like an official “Cup o’ Joe” mug to support their favorite candidate.
“If someone asks you to pay $35 for a yard sign or $15 for a bumper sticker, you would never pay that, but you would for a political candidate,” said Bentley Hensel, president of 1776 Consulting.
Such sales often convert passive supporters into active donors.
“If you get an email asking for money, out of the blue you’re probably not going to donate the first time even if you like the candidate,” Hensel said. “But if you get an email saying ‘Hey, give me $1 and I’ll send you a $1 bumper sticker,’ they’re not making any money on that, but they’re getting you in the door.”
The Federal Election Commission does not require campaigns to distinguish whether contributions under $200 came from cash or sock sales, nor does it place limitations on what constitutes as “merchandise.” While no campaign contacted by Courthouse News volunteered their numbers, one can calculate a glimpse into the books through disbursements paid to merchandisers.
From January to June 2019, Warren for President disbursed $46,323.11 to e-store Shopify. Shopify charges 2.9% plus 30 cents per transaction; based on that, her supporters likely purchased between $821,000 and $1 million worth of merchandise – 3% to 4% of the total $25.1 million raised by the campaign during that period.
Between Shopify and FII Marketing, Warren for President spent $567,903.85, or 3% of total reported disbursements.
By contrast, Friends of Andrew Yang disbursed $25,607.31 to Shopify, suggesting supporters purchased between $490,000 and $572,000 – 10% to 12% of the $4.6 million raised by his campaign.
Between Shopify and FII Marketing, the Yang campaign spent $509,868.89, or 13% of its total reported disbursements, though those are not the only stores in the market. Beto for America paid Austin-based company Bumperactive $351,736 for merchandising; Harris for the People disbursed $316,168 to Bumperactive.
The dollars add up, but most supporters see it as more than a donation.
“There’s a concern about the triviality of this, and I’m posed to argue against that,” said Dr. Joel Penney, a communications professor at Montclair University and author of “The Citizen Marketer.”
“I never got the sense that this was a meaningless gesture or some kind of lark. These people follow politics, they know who the candidate is that they like, they support them,” Penney said. “They basically want to be an evangelist.”
Besides apparel, Penney sees power in supporter-generated memes and hashtags.
“A hashtag allows you to organize in the Twitter-verse and we needed a way to find each other,” said Katherine Brezler, national digital director of People for Bernie. The grassroots movement rallied support for the Vermont senator through #FeeltheBern.
“We were adamant that if you ‘felt the Bern,’ you were only going to buy merch off the official platform,” Brezler said, stressing the campaign’s use of unionized USA-made products. “At the time Teespring was running thousands of dollars’ worth of ads on Facebook using ‘Feel the Bern,’ and we were really upset. We would go in and comment underneath their ads and tell people not to buy that merchandise.”
While policy-driven Bernie Sanders didn’t personally connect with #FeeltheBern, it was an effective slogan and, as Penney noted, many successful campaigns are being steered by their constituents rather than their marketing directors.
“Campaigns often do better when they pick up on things their fans already want,” Penney said. “It’s this inter-relationship, and that’s what fan culture is often about: the fans sometimes seem like they’re the ones in control of ‘Star Wars’ or Marvel, because they’re pushing what they love, and the producers have to listen to them.”
Amid the so-called spectrum of socialist ideas being tested by Democrats, it’s worth noting the blood of capitalism surging through the heart of healthy campaigns – and that many voters still put their money where their mouth is.