From Donald Trump’s money-spinning mug shot on cups and plates to “Joe Biden makes me cry” bibs, 2024 US election candidates are pushing a cornucopia of weird and wonderful merchandise to bankroll their White House dreams.
Selling campaign wares has become a multimillion-dollar cash cow for presidential hopefuls, with electoral success determined as much by the thickness of your wallet as the cut of your jib.
At the head of the bonanza, Team Trump boasted it had raised almost $3 million in just one week after the former president’s August surrender to law enforcement in Atlanta, through sales of products plastered with his arrest photo.
The Republican frontrunner — who is bidding for reelection under the shadow of multiple criminal indictments — has long been a consummate self-marketeer, having made his iconic “Make America Great Again” caps ubiquitous in 2016.
The 2020 election proved the most expensive in US history, and the 2024 election could well surpass it, with T-shirts, hats and buttons turning supporters into walking billboards for their favored campaigns.
Supporters of Biden, the 80-year-old Democrat running for a second term in the Oval Office, can pick up a $32 crop top featuring the “Dark Brandon” meme, an uber-cool, laser-eyed online alter ego embraced by his campaign.
– ‘Silly, hokey stuff’ –
The history of campaign merchandise is inextricably linked to the story of American democracy itself, its creation myth the “GW” pins distributed for the election of America’s founding leader George Washington in 1789.
“It starts out being handmade by supporters. People would make buttons, they would make banners,” said Jon Grinspan of the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington.
“In the 20th century, it gets really connected to the parties and the parties start turning out kind of silly, hokey stuff that is really tied more to the symbols of the parties like the (Republicans’) elephant and a (Democratic) donkey.”
Some campaigns have leaned into the creativity angle.
The 2012 Republican presidential nominee may have fallen short, but Mitt Romney’s supporters around the country can still think of him when they bake with his branded oven mitts.
And speaking of buns in ovens, who could forget the condoms Americans bought in the first two elections of the 21st century to burnish their “anti-Bush” credentials?
– Biden fly swatters –
Campaigning for president is an expensive business but merchandise isn’t all about the money.
In a world where viral memes are the hard currency and catchy slogans are the lingua franca, the perfectly-pitched product can give any candidates an edge that cash doesn’t always provide.
“Politics moves faster now than ever before… It’s so cheap and easy to produce stuff,” Peter Loge, a media and public affairs professor at George Washington University, told AFP.
Nikki Haley, the only woman in the race for the Republican nomination, proved the point with an entire line of T-shirts, stickers and posters produced in a matter of hours after a CNN anchor said the 51-year-old was past “her prime.”
In the 2020 race, then-vice president Mike Pence had the misfortune to have a fly land on his head during a televised debate, and hang around while he continued to speak, oblivious to his stowaway.
The odd vignette was immediately picked up by the Biden campaign, which put out $10 “Truth over Flies” swatters, raising $350,000 in 24 hours.
“This is what Americans do,” laughs Loge. “We come up with goofy ways to monetize just about anything, including the presidency.”