Democrats, stop sending crap! I’ll buy my own campaign swag

All this money-grubbing garbage arrived in just one day via U.S. mail.

All this money-grubbing garbage arrived in just one day via U.S. mail.

Many of us have likely donated to a Democratic candidate or organization at one time or another. For that generosity, we have all become recipients of an endless email stream of solicitations, and solicitations containing expensive—and worthless—Democratic swag through the U.S. mail.

My inbox is flooded daily with requests for donations to the DNC, the DSCC, the DCCC, and more. Democratic candidates I once donated to. Democratic candidates I never donated to (how the hell did they get my email address?), and like-minded organizations, all looking for cold, hard cash, all filled with over-the-top rhetoric spelling gloom and doom if I don’t donate immediately, and all dangling the carrot that “your donation will be triple-matched if you give before midnight!”

Please. We all know campaigns cost money. We all know advertising is expensive, especially in big-city markets. Volunteers are wonderful, but staffers need to be hired and paid (and need to get benefits like health insurance). Every sign that’s printed, every venue that’s rented, every button that gets handed out. Every overpaid consultant who’s probably not worth the cost. We know.

Endless email, while a pain, is at least free and non-polluting. The bigger the email list, the more potential donations and likely voters, and it’s a way to keep getting the message out. We mostly just hit the delete button, but every now and then, we’ll make a donation, so the constant barrage is probably worth it in their eyes, even though it’s an annoyance for those of us on the receiving end. I have “unsubscribed” to many of the candidates and groups I have no interest in.

But spare us the worthless and expensive unsolicited crap you send us through the mail.

I’ve received countless photos of President Obama and other Democratic officials that will never make it into an 8 X 10 frame. Unsolicited bumper stickers that will never make it onto my car. “Official certificates” that go into the recycling pile before I can finish reading them. “Membership cards” with my name in raised letters that never make it into my wallet and go straight to the garbage (non-recyclable). Posters. Stickers. All accompanied by letters begging for money.

But the worst in the latest batch of Democratic swag was a thing so stupid—and so not worth the money it cost—I decided I had had enough. I received an “HONORARY DELEGATE” badge from the Democratic National Committee, with its unimaginative logo of the “D” with a circle around it (remember when we were asked by email to vote on that logo? Who would have voted for that?). A nice, spiffy, plasticized (and thus non-recyclable) badge attached to a clip on a wide, soft, royal blue ribbon. It reads:IMG_0575


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

July 25-28, 2016


“Well!” I thought. “Isn’t that special! I’m being invited to the convention!”

Not so fast. On the back (in small type) is a disclaimer: “This is a document issued by the DNC to commemorate this individual’s leadership role within the Democratic Party, and is not an official credential of the 2016 Democratic Convention and cannot be used to gain admittance.” So—I guess I’m supposed to wear this “Honorary Delegate” credential while I’m breathlessly watching every minute of the convention on TV at home?

I hate to disappoint them, but the total of my donations don’t put me in any “leadership” category. But I guess that’s supposed to make me feel special and give more.

This was not a cheap souvenir to produce. It required extra postage to send. Was this piece of crap worth the DNC’s—and, more important, donors’—money? Not on your life.

But wait! There’s more!

On the same day, I received:

  • A variety of multi-size DNC stickers.
  • A DNC poster.
  • A lovely color print of a painting of the White House.
  • A certificate that the print was “authentic.”
  • Another certificate that the print had been “delivered.” Just in case I wasn’t sure.
  • Solicitations for donations for three different Senate candidates, either from the candidate him- or herself or a surrogate, including two from the same candidate.
  • “Personal” letters from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, President Obama, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, all trying to shake me down for money for the DNC.
  • “Time-sensitive surveys” that I must fill out and return IMMEDIATELY.
  • Solicitations for money from other progressive groups.

The Advertising Specialty Institute ran a recent story from Counselor magazine (described as “the voice of the ad specialty industry”) on the benefits of campaign swag. It gives a total of what the 2016 candidates have spent as of April on promotional materials, and the totals aren’t small.

Real estate mogul Donald Trump was the highest on the Republican side with $3.3 million on promotional spending (nearly 10 percent of total spending), mostly for the signature “Make America Great Again” baseball caps. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders outspent everyone else, with $7.5 million spent on promotional material, or 6 percent of total spending. That’s a lot of Bern being felt.

Two political outsiders – one a successful businessman, the other a long-time independent – run for office. The former’s presence in the race is regarded as an open act of ego stroking and instant fodder for the media circus. The latter is a virtual unknown among large blocks of voters, and someone so lightly regarded that his main opponent won’t even mention his name. And yet, through concerted marketing efforts that include savvy messaging and a heavy investment in promotional products, both wildly surpass expectations. The businessman is the unexpected party front runner. The now-former independent has become a surprisingly formidable opponent.

So how much credit do promotional products deserve for the astonishing election success of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders? More than you might think.

We need to take this premise skeptically, as the group represents an industry that makes specialty items like political swag, so of course, there will be articles claiming how effective these products are. Do Trump supporters like the candidate because of a red hat or because of his xenophobic message? Do Sanders supporters like the Bernie! signs that light up, or are they inspired by the thought of a political revolution?

In the case of both candidates, their actions and impressive commitment to promotional products have helped to strike a nerve. Each has captured a fervent base of supporters that feel maligned, overlooked and previously unspoken for. Devotees of all candidates won’t hesitate to show their support through apparel and yard signs, but owners of Trump and Sanders gear appear to carry a special badge of pride – an open acknowledgement of their outsider leanings. Promotional products have emboldened them to express their feelings.

Political swag is nothing new. Campaign buttons in this country have been around since the time of George Washington, and they were mostly given out for free as promotional ways to spread the word. Collectors often bought, sold, or traded them at political conventions, although now lots of button business is online. According to a story on, the National Museum of American History has a collection of 100,000-plus campaign-related items (many in storage), from a can of “Gold Water: The Right Drink for the Conservative Taste” to Eisenhower pot holders to chamber pots with the words “Roosevelt for President” etched on the inside (from the 1932 campaign of Herbert Hoover, of course).

The political swag approach to reaching supporters really was mastered during the Obama campaign of 2008, the Counselor story continued. Obama for America sold promotional material online from the campaign website, thus capturing email and physical addresses from their supporters, giving the campaign an automatic way to ask for more donations and solicit more volunteer help. In 2012, OFA paid more than $6.7 million on campaign store merchandise, four times as much as the campaign of GOP nominee Mitt Romney. This approach has now become commonplace. And if it works, it pays off: “All told, sales of promotional merchandise raised nearly $77 million for the Obama campaign — $37 million in 2008 and nearly $40 million four years later,” the story said.

It’s easy to make fun of some of the silly items campaigns offer, such as the plastic Jeb! Bush guacamole bowl for only $75 (!) or the “Grillary Clinton” apron for $20. If you were willing to pony up $1,000, you could buy a copy of the Constitution signed by Rand Paul (“Nothing says ‘freedom’ like a $1,000 copy of the Constitution signed by the Kentucky senator,” said a story about campaign swag on Huffington Post). A $10 bumper sticker promoting Texas Sen. Ted Cruz reads “Right Turns Only.” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio sold a “Marco Polo” (seriously) for $45. A Bobby Jindal T-shirt for $20 proclaimed that the former Louisiana governor was, “Tanned. Tested. Ready.” Almost makes you feel sorry for the guy. Almost.

If you’re willing to go outside the campaign for political swag, your choices increase greatly. Creative entrepreneurs offer “Weekend at Bernie’s 2016” items on Etsy. Facebook ads regularly feature Hillary Clinton T-shirts from Fun Sports Gear proclaiming that “A Woman’s Place is in the White House.”

Outside vendors regularly make the rounds at rallies from primary state to primary state, selling everything from candidate bobblehead dolls to “Bomb the Shit out of ISIS” buttons to Trump fans. A humorous story on Vice media described how business has been booming this year.

The first time Chones, another vendor I spoke with, knew he had struck Trump-ian gold with his candidacy was at the Donald’s first rally, in Phoenix, Arizona. “Everyone asked us, ‘Is this money going to the GOP?’ We said no. They said, ‘Good,’ and bought everything,” he told me. “That line for the event was two blocks long!” …

But for Marty—a retired Republican who makes supplemental income with this business—he reserved one rule: no Bernie.

“If I’m selling something to a Democrat,” he told me, “there’s some nice people. But some say, ‘Do you have anything for free?'”

Several vendors I spoke to repeated a stereotype that Sanders fans are cheap, that they want everything for free, or paid for—a talking point that sounds derived from the Republican criticism toward the candidate’s policies. I encountered some other well-worn bits of trade gossip: Carly Fiorina is known to kick out vendors; Hillary Clinton’s people “want to control her image,” so nothing unofficial gets sold; Trump supporters are “entrepreneurial.”

“Bernie fans get on us for being capitalists at a socialist’s event,” Chones said. “So we have to sell things for less.”

It’s all fun, especially if it makes you feel good about your candidate. If I buy a bumper sticker, a T-shirt, a hat, a button, or whatever from a campaign or elsewhere, that’s one thing. I’ve made a choice to spend my money where my support is and display it in public, whether it’s a #WomanCard or a FeelTheBern coffee mug.

But expensive unsolicited swag from political parties wastes money that could be better spent elsewhere. I called the DNC at the number on the back of my “honorary delegate badge,” 202-863-8000. I wanted to tell them to take me off their mailing list, since I didn’t want all this useless stuff. After multiple calls (during which I left messages), I finally got a live person and asked for someone in fundraising. She asked, “Small or large donation?” (That shows where the priorities are.) I explained that I would be writing about political swag and was shuffled off to a press person, who said I must submit an email request for an interview, which I did, explaining my questions and the gist of the story.

No one from the DNC ever got back to me, so I can’t report on how much promotional material is mailed out, what it costs them, who is goes to, or what the return on their investment is. They might consider that information proprietary, anyway. But I’m a donor. Don’t I deserve an answer?

Will they take me off the mailing list? Doubtful. I also get regular phone solicitations from various Democratic groups. I always tell them that I don’t give money over the phone, just online, so they should take me off the calling list. Yeah, that hasn’t worked, either—they’re still calling., through the Center for Responsive Politics, has a running total of the amounts of cash raised and spent by Democratic and Republican campaign organizations. It also gives totals, obtained through the Federal Election Commission, of how much cash is on hand and how big each group’s debt is.

The highest debts are on the Democratic side. This large amount of expensive, unsolicited swag no doubt contributes to that debt.

Originally published on Daily Kos on May 22, 2016.

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