The Hippo


Jul 16, 2019








Dolls of John McCain and Barack Obama at the Institute of Politics. Photo by Ryan Lessard.

Would you like some swag with that campaign?
A look at political merchandise then and now

By Ryan Lessard

Jeb Bush is selling a guacamole bowl, Marco Rubio has a Sigg traveller water bottle, Donald Trump’s website boasts 10 kinds of embroidered hats for $25 each and Hillary Clinton is selling a throw pillow with stitching that reads “A woman’s place is in the White House.” 

Political merchandise is becoming more diverse, funny and distinct in ways it never was before — but then, it’s always been strange.
Take, for example, a pair of slippers on display at the Saint Anselm College Institute of Politics and Political Library. Atop the toes are plastic caricatures of former first ladies Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan tucked beneath an American flag blanket. Beside the slippers are plush dolls of Barack Obama and former Republican nominee Sen. John McCain. 
Other display cases show rattles, hard hats and 1980s dolls with presidential candidates’ heads. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. The institute has thousands more pieces stored at the state library.
Button up
The Institute of Politics also has a collection of hundreds of buttons on display, and even those, a common form of political expression used by presidential campaigns in America for more than 80 years, can find a way to get weird.
Some of them are distributed by campaigns, but not all, according to Saint Anselm politics professor Chris Galdieri.
“If you go to most events, you’re pretty likely to see somebody outside selling buttons. Generally speaking, the busier, less artfully designed a button is, the more likely it was put together by some guy in his basement rather than a campaign that put a lot of time and effort into graphic design and choosing typefaces,” Galdieri said.
At the Millyard Museum in Manchester, Executive Director John Clayton points to a few buttons in the museum’s new exhibit on past primaries in the Queen City, which opened on Dec. 14. 
“They literally go from the ridiculous to the sublime,” Clayton said.
Some of the buttons read “Doctors for Obama,” “Episcopalians for Reagan” or “Gays and Lesbians for Hillary — 2008.” Another odd one reads “Abort Rocky” (a reference to 1976 candidate Nelson Rockefeller and the former Republican vice president’s pro-abortion stance).
“Those are the ones I look for. The ones that kind of break the standard mold,” Clayton said.
The museum is displaying hundreds of buttons in a section of the exhibit, which features mostly old photographs. The buttons were loaned to the museum by retired Memorial High School civics teacher Rick Samara, who has been collecting since 1964. Clayton says Samara has amassed about 2,300 buttons (which feature congressional and gubernatorial candidates as well) and about 700 of them are for presidential candidates. 
A few of them are for candidates that never were, folks supporters tried to draft into running, such as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Oldies but goodies
Among the older items in the collections are a signed letter by Daniel Webster and a William Howard Taft paper hand fan at the Institute of Politics. One particularly rare item at the Millyard Museum is a bronze PT 109 Kennedy tie clip given to only a select few by the John F. Kennedy campaign. The PT 109 was the patrol boat Kennedy served on in World War II. He was later praised for saving the life of his shipmate when a Japanese destroyer cut the smaller boat in half in a collision. 
The museum’s largest item, which has also been on display at the Institute of Politics, is the wooden podium used by Kennedy during his 1960 speech in Manchester’s Victory Park. The tie clip was lent by the family of the police officer who drove Kennedy to the park that day.
While the Millyard Museum and the Institute of Politics have the most impressive displays, there are smaller displays in popular campaign waypoints like Robie’s Country Store in Hooksett or Chez Vachon in Manchester.
The purpose of swag then … 
Political swag has been around since the late 19th century, Galdieri said. He says the advent of handing out branded hats and pins corresponded with a greater enfranchisement of voters, though women and many black people were still excluded.
“There weren’t necessarily huge differences between the parties, so the parties went out of their way to bring people into the process, to make politics a spectacle, something the people can participate in,” Galdieri said. “Buttons, signs … that sort of thing, was one way to do that. To make people feel like they were on a team, in the same way that you would wear your Patriots hat on game day.”
Some items were clever enough to serve a secondary purpose, like the Taft fan, which would have likely come in handy in the days before air conditioning. 
… and now
Nowadays, the exchange of political merchandise has the secondary purpose of data collection.
“Most campaigns at one point or another will do the sort of thing where you go to their website, fill out a form and [they] send you a free bumper sticker,” Galdieri said. “The thinking is, if somebody is motivated enough to click a link and fill out that information, they may be willing to knock on some doors or donate to the campaign.”
But one of the biggest shifts in recent years has been the transformation of these items from throwaway freebies to collectibles sold at a premium. 
“Today, the rise of the Internet has really helped with that, because suddenly there’s all these venues for selling stuff,” Galdieri said. “The stuff doesn’t just promote your campaign, it’s also a fundraiser.”
Clayton waxes nostalgic for the days when it didn’t cost $10 for some buttons.
“The tradition used to be that they would give them away because they wanted you to wear them and show your support. An irony today is that when I was at the Democratic state convention, they were selling them. So the dynamic has changed a little bit,” Clayton said.
While most political commerce is done online, Galdieri says big-ticket events and conventions that draw large crowds are often exploited to sell buttons and stickers for a buck or two. When there are thousands of attendees, a campaign can walk away with a chunk of change.
The oddities like guac bowls and pillows would have been too risky to invest in 15 or 20 years ago, Galdieri says, because there would be no way to gauge potential demand. But on-demand manufacturing has come a long way since then.
And when a campaign goes out of its way to sell items that are ironic, somewhat self-effacing and meta, it seems clear they are targeting a younger crowd.
“There’s a certain element of, people are aware of it, people are in on the joke. … And maybe you can sell something ironic to someone who would never buy something straight up,” Galdieri said. “[It’s] partly because younger voters are more likely to make an impulse purchase.” 

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