Well into Wednesday night's Vice-Presidential debate, Kamala Harris and Mike Pence were joined onstage by a surprise, diminutive guest. The bug remained on Pence's head for an inordinate amount of time, but the internet quickly ensured that the moment would remain salient. And by the end of the night, the Biden campaign was offering what Pence had so desperately needed: a quality flyswatter (though he'd probably prefer his sans the Biden-Harris logo and "Truth Over Flies" pun).
This is not the first time that an American presidential nominee has turned to merch to get a point across—it's not even the first time a campaign's made a flyswatter. During the 1963 race, Barry Goldwater released "Gold Water," sold as "the right drink for the conservative taste"; Lyndon B. Johnson countered with "Johnson Juice," labeled as "a drink for healthcare." Prior to even the 20th century, William McKinley took advantage of gold standard supporters' nickname "gold bugs," creating bug pins (and yes, Democrats made their own version of that too). And in case you thought the dog and cat products available at the Biden campaign's store reflected pets' recent foray into the political sphere, you might want to check out this 1950s dog vest apparently made by a pet food brand, which proclaims its canine wearer to be "freedom's watch-dog."
"I think that this is a little older than we think," Zach McNamara, the merchandise director Joe Biden's campaign, says of political novelty products. What is new, though, is the speed—not only at which products can be mocked up and ordered, but at which they can be seen and purchased. The flyswatter, he says, "really blew up in just a matter of minutes in a way that I don’t think would have been possible before 2008 or so." Indeed, as of Thursday night, the campaign's store was sold out of the "Truth Over Flies" gag gift, having sold nearly 35,000 of them.
And just because it isn't a new concept doesn't mean it's standard or expected, either. The Trump campaign, by contrast, isn't offering any tongue-in-cheek novelty goods; instead, supporters are limited to variations on Trump-Pence shirts and MAGA hats.
The Democratic contenders, on the other hand, are going all in. In recent weeks, McNamara's team has also created T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase "I Paid More In Taxes Than Donald Trump," prompted by the landmark New York Times investigation into the President's finances, and others printed with "Will you shut up, man?" after Biden's exasperated line from the first Presidential debate. When staffers are considering a new product, they try to land on something that's "really resonating internally with people," McNamara explains. He adds, "there’s a Slack channel where we all come together. We throw out a bunch of ideas and usually, like with anything behind the scenes, most things don’t work out, most ideas don’t pan out. But then some of them do."
If the rapid-response concepts are one prong of the campaign's merch strategy, and the standard fare—lawn signs, simple Biden-Harris shirts, stickers—another, more bread-and-butter one, a third is the fashion collaborations. The "Believe in Better" collection boasts a range of apparel and accessories designed by the country's buzziest designers, from Thom Browne and Gabriela Hearst to Victor Glemaud and Proenza Schouler's Jack McCollough. The final item in the range, a baseball cap from Aurora James—the force behind Brother Vellies and the founder of the Fifteen Percent Pledge—just dropped on Wednesday. (McNamara, who praises James as a "rockstar," is "personally in love with" the hat, and it's not hard to see why.)
For her part, James said in a statement that she was "honored" to "stand by Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to restore the soul of our nation." The designer urged voters to see the meaning in the merch: "This is not just a collection of items, it's an offering, a blend of our collective hope, passion, and belief in a world that can look a lot brighter than it is today. This sweatshirt is one small way I can energize people to get out there and vote for this ticket, especially Black women as I feel their impact on this election is going to be felt the most."
The all-star fashion line-up gives the campaign license to release merch that feels genuinely, well, cool. As nice as the standard Biden-Harris logo is, that standard-bearer navy T-shirt probably isn't getting a lot of mileage outside of campaign events or a morning jog. And it also aligns Biden and Harris with creative, young, exciting people—people who, like James, are proud to throw their support behind the Democratic nominees. "It’s really inspiring to see people from every sector of this country, every field, coming together because they know how important this is," McNamara says.
It's also, of course, a valuable source of revenue for the campaign—an astronomically expensive, fundraising-dependent undertaking.
Altogether, the campaign's store is a massive operation, and not always as seamlessly executed as the two-hour-turnaround flyswatter. Some customers have seen delayed orders this year. ("Due to the unprecedented demand for our items in August, ongoing postal delays, and shortages due to COVID-19, we're experiencing extended production and processing times. We are close to being caught up and expect to have outstanding orders older than two weeks shipped by mid-next week," read a recent email sent from the Team Joe Store.) But it's also fulfilling its role as a fundraising source, and some customer service snafus don't change the fact that it's got a monopoly on in-demand products.
If clothing is our primary mode of self-styling, a medium through which we present ourselves to the world, consciously or not, then merch is its logical endpoint—a way to literally wear our allegiances on our sleeves. If you're willing to rep a politician, you're definitely willing to vote for them. And if you're buying their flyswatter? Well, you've bought all the way in.
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