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What the 2016 Candidates Are Selling on Their Websites

Joel Stein writes a weekly column for TIME magazine. His book, Man Made: A Stupid Quest For Masculinity, changes people’s lives.

As the witty merch goes, so goes the nation

One of the long-standing problems with the American political system was the lack of shopping. Sure, candidates gave away free buttons and bumper stickers, but if you felt as strongly about Alf Landon as you did about the Green Bay Packers, there was no way to prove it with apparel, home decor and beer koozies.

But democracy has finally matured enough that presidential candidates have added a Shop tab to the top of their websites, right next to Bio, Volunteer and Donate, and nowhere near the nonexistent Positions on Issues. So Bernie Sanders fans can get a $15 Contents May Bern coffee mug, Jeb Bush believers can get a $75 Guacamole Bowl, and Ted Cruz supporters can get a $10 Cruz coloring book, a $30 Straight Outta Congress poster or, oddly, a $10 Cruz mouse pad, for those who have a time machine and want to vote for Ted Cruz in 1996.

These aren’t tote-bag-type pledge gifts tied to donations. Those exist as well, and include the Official Clinton Campaign Thx Box, a monthly delivery of the candidate’s favorite products. No, these are full retail experiences with virtual shopping carts. Mike Huckabee’s even had a 20%-off discount code, and Hillary Clinton’s sells gift cards. Because while everyone now gets in your face about their politics, people can still be a little touchy about sharing their T-shirt size.

Three years ago, Vogue editor Anna Wintour got designers such as Marc Jacobs, Tory Burch and Diane von Furstenberg to create a fashion line for Barack Obama, raising over $40 million. But this time, candidates have gone Walmart in their ambitions. Surprisingly, the most cautious campaigns sell the wackiest merchandise. It’s predictable that Marco Rubio would poke fun at his water sipping during his State of the Union rebuttal with a $30 water great nation water bottle. And Rand Paul pretty much had to have a $100 novelty Hillary’s Hard Drive With Wiping Cloth (now marked down to $60), a $15 laptop-camera-size sticker called an NSA Spy Cam Blocker and a $1,000 autographed copy of his TIME magazine cover. We really need to raise our newsstand price.

But Clinton’s store makes her campaign, against all evidence, seem like fun. Her campaign’s staff design director and senior designer have come up with a $30 pantsuit T-shirt, a $15 Grillary Clinton apron and a $55 throw pillow stitched with A woman’s place is in the White House. In the gay-pride section of the store, there’s a bright yellow Yaaas Hillary T-shirt that features a photo of a young Clinton and a phrase that a Lady Gaga fan uses to express approval. I don’t know what the phrase is that Lady Gaga fans use to express disapproval, but I am pretty sure it will appear next to a picture of Clinton on a shirt in the Rand Paul store.

Unlike most store managers, none of the press secretaries would talk to me about how they develop their merch. One campaign manager told me, “We don’t discuss campaign strategy,” which seemed like pretty elevated terminology for whether to assign genders to your onesies.

One campaign, however, was not afraid to talk about what it’s selling.

“I understand markets and how to sell and what people want. This is a limited run. This isn’t going to be up forever. Not beyond the campaign,” Donald Trump told me about his merchandise, before reconsidering. “Maybe it can.”

The Trump store has no puns, few items and clear messaging: every item is stamped with the all-caps slogan Make America great again! And it’s working. He’s selling his hats as fast as he can have them made great in America. He even sent one to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who keeps it in his locker. Trump knows how to market and brand. “That’s one small reason I’ll be a better President than anyone else,” he says.

Unlike everything else he’s ever made, his campaign merch has no gold on it–with one exception, the lettering of one version of his Make America great again! hat. That’s because despite his reputation, when the people speak, Trump listens. Quickly. Then he goes right back to talking. “People like the white hat with the black. It stands out more,” he says.

But the products aren’t the real difference between him and the other candidates. It’s the far more complicated work involved in getting those items to market. I have no doubt that with quality products like the $8 Make America great again! megaphone and the $12.50 set of Make America great again! pom-poms, Trump’s campaign will continue to do well. When politics becomes a business, a businessperson will win at politics.

This appears in the September 28, 2015 issue of TIME.
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