If I ever run for president, the first thing I’m going to do is nail down my button strategy. Because long after my TV ads have stopped running and my web links have all met the business end of a 404 Page, my buttons will live on in overstuffed kitchen drawers and bulletin boards across America as one of the few tangible reminders of my probably ill-advised bid to become the leader of the free world.
I’ve informally studied presidential campaign buttons for much of my life, first as a casual collector of election memorabilia, then as a political journalist at CNN, and now in my current role as a political communications professor at the University of Michigan. I’ve noticed over time that, even as campaigns have gotten more and more sophisticated and high-tech, low-tech buttons remain a messaging staple for most White House hopefuls.
That’s not particularly surprising; the use of buttons and pins as political expression dates back to the founding of the republic. Long before voters liked Ike or went all the way with LBJ, they pinned George Washington’s initials to their frock coats. But while buttons might once have been given away as free trinkets at whistle stops, they're now part of a larger strategy to transform people who might not ordinarily cut a check to a candidate into a (repeat) small-dollar donor.
And because the DNC now requires presidential candidates to meet a set threshold of individual donors in order to participate in televised debates, a robust strategy to move buttons and stickers at $1 to $5 a pop has taken on new urgency.
To evaluate how well the 2020 campaigns leverage their merchandise as a messaging and engagement opportunity, I went on a bit of a button bender. In total, I purchased 61 buttons from 23 presidential campaigns. Most of them sold buttons in bundles, so buying just one button from each was not possible.
Several candidates — Wayne Messam, Joe Sestak, Bill Weld, Joe Walsh, and Mark Sanford — didn't have buttons for sale as of this writing. One former candidate, Mike Gravel, did sell buttons for a brief period over the summer, but according to his manager, most of the orders had yet to be fulfilled as of late September. Bill de Blasio never sold buttons on his website before dropping out. And another candidate, Richard Ojeda, ended his candidacy long before I embarked on this project.
The biggest surprise was that most campaigns handled the sale like a cold, impersonal service transaction rather than as the first step in cultivating a long-term relationship. This is probably the first point of individualized contact a donor has with the campaign, yet there was virtually no personal touch or effort to engage the purchaser in any way.
Only four campaigns — Trump, Castro, Gabbard, Harris — included additional materials with the button shipment to try to forge a connection with the donor and reinforce the campaign’s themes and messages. Both Gabbard and Harris enclosed a photocopy of a hand-written or signed thank-you note from the candidate. Trump included a “Keep America Great” postcard along with a coupon for a future order. Castro enclosed a flier asking the purchaser to post social media photos of the swag using a special hashtag for a chance to win more merchandise.
As for the rest, the transactions had all the personalized flair of buying toothpaste from Amazon.
All of the shipments came in nondescript packaging that could easily have been mistaken for that box of checks you ordered from the bank last month. None incorporated the campaign’s logo or branding of any kind, and in some cases, the name of the campaign didn’t appear in the return address. In Cory Booker’s case, his campaign’s name was misspelled on the label as “Corey2020.” Trump’s shipping label read “TMAGAC,” which political insiders might recognize as “The Make America Great Again Committee,” but to normal Americans it might sound more like the name of the villain from an Avengers movie.
In all cases, buying a button gets you added automatically to the campaign email list, which is comprised mostly of urgent fundraising appeals sometimes disguised as announcements of new merchandise. But all the emails were identical to ones also sent to the broader campaign list and was not tailored in any way to previous buyers.
Placing an order with every campaign also revealed the handful of third-party vendors that dominate the campaign merch market. The Biden, Booker, Bullock, Gillibrand, Williamson, and Yang campaigns all listed their return addresses as that of Coast to Coast Fulfillment, a third-party fulfillment house based in West Greenwich, Rhode Island. At least seven campaigns sourced their merchandise from Bumperactive, a union print shop in Austin, Texas. And almost every 2020 campaign webstore, including the president’s, is powered by one of two eCommerce platforms: Canada-based Shopify or Austin-based BigCommerce, each servicing 10 campaigns.
As for pricing, the campaigns took a wide variety of approaches. The best bargain for shoppers was definitely the Delaney button, which cost only $1 with no shipping fees and no requirement to buy duplicates. Such a strategy could help a lesser-known candidate boost his individual donor count, although Delaney still failed to qualify for the last two debates. On the other end of the bargain spectrum, Sanders had the highest per-button cost, including shipping fees. His lone button offering, a snazzy “flasher” that changes images at different angles, ultimately cost $8.22. Buttigieg sold a bundle of three buttons for just $6, but charged a whopping $7.38 in fees, giving him the worst fee-to-list price ratio of any campaign.
Most campaigns sold their buttons in duplicate pairs, which could be an indirect way of encouraging engagement, assuming the purchaser chooses to give the extra to a friend. But for the most part, while buttons are still a wearable mainstay in presidential campaigns, for most 2020 shops, it’s been a missed messaging opportunity.
Robert Yoon is an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning political journalist and the Howard R. Marsh Visiting Professor of Journalism at the University of Michigan.