AUSTIN, Texas - It’s as if all voters went on a primary vacation and most brought back T-shirts.
Since the presidential contests began in January, and then spread from Iowa and New Hampshire to 40 other states, they have not just generated record-breaking turnout. They also have produced historic hunger for swag.
The intensity of the campaigns, the importance of each state’s primary and the excitement of new voters means that more supporters are wearing their loyalties on their sleeves. And cups, caps and bumpers. Eight months before the general election, sales for candidate goods are in the multi-millions and poised to eclipse any previous race.
“It’s like any cliche you want to use: phones ringing off the walls, flying off the shelves, hot cakes,” said Tony Baltes, president of Tigereye Promotions in Ohio.
In a business sense, he’s a political double dipper, making most of the merchandise for the Barack Obama team and the overflow for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign when her main contractor is overwhelmed.
From mouse pads to key fobs, from coffee mugs to hoodies, from bracelets to blankets the vendors are in overdrive.
Last year Baltes had 20 workers; now he has 120. “We used to have one shift; now we have three,” he said. “No matter what they say, I don’t think anyone knew this was coming.”
Official T-shirts from the Democrats are selling for $20.08 each, with some of the proceeds going as contributions to the candidates. The Obama camp is the only one that has reported its official sales numbers: $380,000 in December, climbing to $1.5 million in January. February figures are incomplete, but also will hover around $1.5 million, said Tommy Vietor, an Obama spokesman.
The Obama store on his Web site even includes this disclaimer: “Due to our recent overwhelming number of orders, some items might be delayed in shipping by two-three weeks.”
The Clinton organization did not have sales figures or number of customers, but spokeswoman Adrienne Elrod said her “gear is very popular and that popularity has continued to grow throughout the course of the campaign.”
Baltes, who has been producing Democratic political paraphernalia for 30 years, said demand for merchandise usually starts warming up around July or August before an election. But this frenzy has been “steady as a drumbeat” for sometime, he said.
Compared to four years ago, “Our best month with John Kerry would be our worst month with Obama so far,” Baltes said.
But that only counts official gear. Merchants, Web sites and individual entrepreneurs also have been producing and selling their own candidate merchandise.
Pop artist Shepard Fairley produced a 600-print art poster with Obama and the word “hope.” It originally sold for $25, but now is fetching up to 30 times that on Ebay. Fashion designer Marc Jacobs produced a limited edition Clinton T-shirt that collectors are now selling for $50 to $75.
On the Republican side, PC Signs owner Scott Scharfenberger of Ohio said John McCain sales are “going very well,” with more than 25,000 customers since the beginning of the year. But he readily acknowledges, “It’s not moving the way Obama gear is.”
He said that the GOP race has quieted and that Obama’s sales are driven by young supporters, who are more into T-shirts and much more into Web sales. McCain’s current big seller is window decals.
It’s a different market at a different juncture in the campaigns, he said. “I’m sure it will take off,” Scharfenberger said.
Anne Lardner, a spokeswoman for Promotional Products Association International based in Dallas, said presidential campaign swag is different than the pens, shirts and calendars that businesses give away for advertising. First, a supporter has to seek out the campaign and purchase the item, as opposed to just accepting it.
“And then when you put out a yard sign or wear a candidate’s T-shirt, you’re saying this is someone I believe in. It’s a very personal statement,” Lardner said.
She said the candidate Web sites “closely match the demographics of the supporters they attract. They mirror the campaigns themselves. Some skew younger, some skew older.”
The Obama campaign has more than 50 T-shirts to choose from; McCain has five and Clinton’s has a slew of women’s shirts boasting just her “Hillary” signature.
And that’s only the official sites. Hundreds of shops and thousands of supporters turn to alternative Web markets, such as cafepress.com, which has tracked its voluminous sales of campaign-related items: over 2 million so far from the top three contenders.
The site has a running “meter” to clock how each candidate is faring. So far, it’s Obama by quite a bit - nationwide and in Texas, where 65 percent are for Obama gear and 20 percent for Clinton stuff.
Sara Doepke, a spokeswoman for cafepress, said she believes that sales are one of the best indications of how a candidacy is doing. A vote with the wallet is a commitment, she said.
“Obama’s looking very good and he could really win,” Doepke said. “But it’s politics, so I’m not going to bet my mortgage on it.”
A QUIZ ON POLITICAL MERCHANDISE
Test your political merchandise knowledge: Supporters of which Democratic candidates, Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama, have purchased more of the following:
A. Beer steins
B. Men’s T-shirts
C. Men’s boxers
D. Women’s thongs
E. Dog gear
F. Teddy bears
Answers: A. Clinton, B. Clinton, C. Clinton, D. Obama, E. Obama, F. Clinton