Two years ago, my parents gave me a fancy insulated cooler for my birthday. I had dreams about filling it up and dragging it along to cookouts, beach days, and camping trips.
Then that cooler sat in my basement — unopened and almost untouched — for all of 2020.
This year, though, has been different. We packed it full of groceries for a weekend at a cabin in the woods this winter. We filled it up with seltzer and juice boxes to celebrate our son’s fourth birthday this spring. We loaded it with wine and beer to host a dinner party on our back porch two weeks ago.
But that cooler didn’t actually feel like it was fully mine until this past weekend. It started when I found a bunch of old campaign bumper stickers in a desk drawer and decided they were just what this thing needed. Then I dug up a sticker with the Tar Heel logo, another with the red cormorant for Liverpool Football Club, and the US Soccer crest. I added the anchor and sparrow logo from Jason Isbell’s band, a pennant for The Highwomen, and a sticker I brought back from Ryman Auditorium on a visit to Nashville. Finally, I applied one of the Compton Farm bumper stickers we made for my dad this past Father’s Day.
It’s a little weird that making a cooler reflect parts of my personality can make me so happy. But it’s not strange at all that campaign swag is one of the ways that I project my identity to the world.
The market for merch has changed. Activists are increasingly looking to buy t-shirts, tote bags, ball caps, and bumper stickers from the candidates and causes they support. And those tangible expressions of support matter on multiple levels.
They have the potential to be huge drivers of revenue. Back in 2019, Brad Parscale claimed that the Trump campaign had raised $45 million off of MAGA hats alone. At one point during last year’s primary, the New Jersey-based factory making gear for Bernie Sanders, Mike Bloomberg, Andrew Yang and others was producing somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 hats a day. And the trend isn’t letting up. In the first six months of this year, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign paid $1.4 million to FII Marketing for merchandise production and distribution.
Selling sweatshirts and coffee mugs can help drive donations from supporters who aren’t ready to make a standalone gift. Swag can work as a valuable incentive to motivate an occasional contributor to become a sustainer. More than once, I’ve organized bumper sticker give away programs that are wildly profitable because we use the daisy chain to ask supporters to make a contribution in order to keep the sticker distribution free for others. If you’re not building these kinds of regular merchandise offers into your fundraising program, you’re probably leaving money on the table. You’re missing out on an opportunity to deepen engagement and build a connection with your supporters.
But there’s an essential cultural element that we have to acknowledge, too.
There is a range of research about how social identity is a key driver of political choices. The way we see ourselves defines how we step out into the world and participate in our communities. And what we signal as individuals can build collective understanding as well. There is political science showing that the presence of yard signs can increase vote share. Which means that bumper stickers, pinback buttons, and t-shirts can help supporters find each other and recognize a shared point of commonality.
That one “Tax The Rich” hoodie you see on the street by itself has meaning. But thousands of them getting purchased all over the country is helping to build equity in an idea that needs public support. And the Biden-Harris sticker on my cooler is a regular reminder to myself and my friends that we cannot disengage from the things about which we care even though the election is over.
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