Where Does All the Swag Go After Campaigns Fail? Everywhere
Buttons, shirts and bumper stickers heralding the failed presidential ambitions of Senator Kamala Harris are gathering dust inside a warehouse in Texas.
Among lava lamps and incense sticks, a retailer in Connecticut still offers shirts that cry “Jeb!”
And for years after Mitt Romney’s 2012 quest for the White House ended, fading campaign hats and shirts resurfaced on the streets of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.
For decades, American presidential campaigns have churned out enormous quantities of swag — $5 buttons, $15 mugs, $75 guacamole bowls — to promote candidates, fill campaign coffers and gather sophisticated data about supporters.
Less attention has been paid, however, to what happens to all those things after most of those campaigns end, sometimes abruptly.
Many campaigns do not have a plan for what they leave behind. With the South Carolina primary on Saturday fast approaching, and about a third of all delegates up for grabs on March 3, some of the eight candidates still seeking the Democratic nomination could find themselves confronting that problem soon.
“You literally go from building a multimillion-dollar start-up to being shut down overnight,” said Matt Terrill, the former chief of staff for Senator Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign, which gave many leftover shirts to volunteers. “It’s a lot easier to have people help you when you win to shut down a campaign.”
Surplus items often end up in storage or in the homes of staff members and volunteers. Some are given a second life with a new campaign. Most are thought to be recycled or thrown away.
“If somebody doesn’t deliberately collect them or hold on to them, almost all of it disappears,” said Jon Grinspan, a curator of political history at the National Museum of American History who collects presidential campaign memorabilia for the museum.
The Harris campaign placed a bulk order for merchandise in the summer, said Shelby Cole, who was the digital director of Ms. Harris’s campaign. The plan was to distribute the items to campaign teams nationwide. But before they could, Ms. Harris, a senator from California, dropped out.
“All of our staff was pretty much caught by total surprise,” Ms. Cole said. “I was just thinking, ‘Oh my God, what are we going to do with all these shirts?’”
Ms. Cole said that the vendor the Harris campaign had hired, Bumperactive, offered to store the items in a warehouse and that they had been there for months. The merchandise is not marked with the year 2020, so it could in theory be used for Ms. Harris’s future campaigns, Ms. Cole said.
Ms. Harris’s office said there were plans to recycle the items, but offered no specifics. Kyle Johnson, the owner of Bumperactive, declined to comment.
At times, vendors that print shirts and other items are left with the surplus stock. The retailer in Connecticut, Old Glory, still offers items printed for Jeb Bush, John McCain and other bygone candidates.
“It’s just in our warehouse, sitting on a shelf,” said Austin Braumann, a district manager for the company. “What ends up happening is you either leave it up online and you can sell it, or you can donate it or throw it away.”
Several hundred shirts and hats promoting Mr. Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign wound up in Kenya after a former county campaign director in Tennessee donated the items to a charity run by his aunt.
The former campaign official, Alexander Waters, recalled thinking after the election, “Instead of someone selling them on eBay for $5 down the road, how can we turn this boon into something that can change someone’s life?”
In 2013, Mr. Waters delivered the clothes to his aunt’s charity, the Orbit Village Project, which has been operating in Kenya for more than 20 years. His aunt, Cyndy Waters, said she saw people wearing Romney hats for years.
“Kenyans are very much in tune to what’s going on in American elections, so they knew Romney,” she said. “Interestingly enough, campaign shirts are just becoming popular over here,” she added, referring to local elections.
Jason Worrix, the marketing director for My Campaign Store, a company in Louisville, Ky., that prints items for campaigns, said he advises them to donate leftover goods to local organizations. Signs can be painted over by Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, pens can go to bars and restaurants, clothing to shelters or Goodwill.
Sometimes, campaigns reuse the material, Mr. Worrix said. Small changes can turn a yard sign for a congressional campaign into a yard sign promoting a run for governor or president, he said, and if a T-shirt or mug shows only a candidate’s name, it can be reused every election cycle.
“Politicians, a lot of times they’re lifers,” he said. “Especially for yard signs and things, we print a lot of stickers that say ‘re-elect,’ or cover up positions and years to modify what they’re running for.”
Some campaigns keep their stores open; sales can help pay the bills or generate income to finance a future race. Zach Graumann, the campaign manager for Andrew Yang, the entrepreneur who ended his long-shot bid for president this month, said that Yang merchandise would remain available until whatever was left sold out.
“The good news is, our campaign swag is actually cool, so even after we’re done running, people still want it,” he said. He made a pitch for a camouflage “Math” hat: “Camo is in — I think. Or was in!”
Mr. Graumann said that any unsold hats or T-shirts would be donated.
And at least some campaign merchandise ends up with collectors, both private and public.
The National Museum of American History has about 130,000 items that showcase American political history, most of which came from campaigns. Mr. Grinspan, who has been a curator at the museum for five years, said that snagging items before they got tossed could be a challenge, and that “99 percent” of items were thrown away.
Sometimes, collecting can mean sifting through recycling bins or piles of discarded material. In most cases, volunteers and staff members willingly share campaign merchandise.
Curators gathered a few dozen posters and buttons in New Hampshire while attending political rallies and visiting campaign headquarters, said Claire Jerry, another curator at the museum.
Ms. Jerry said the museum also received older items from people who had packed them away at home and forgotten about them. The museum recently obtained a torch used in Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 presidential campaign that had been sitting in the attic of a small historical society in Milford, N.H., Mr. Grinspan said.
“A lot of these things come from people’s junk drawers,” Ms. Jerry said.
Lori Ferber Collectibles in Scottsdale, Ariz., has been gathering campaign ephemera from elections, administrations, manufacturers and estate sales for over 40 years, said Steve Ferber, the company’s vice president.
The company, which specializes in presidential and presidential campaign memorabilia, recently bought and sold about 160,000 Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan buttons that one manufacturer had sitting in a warehouse since the 1970s and ’80s, Mr. Ferber said.
“It’s amazing what people collect sometimes, and what people hold on to,” he said. Collectibles from losing candidates are sometimes worth more than the winners, he noted: Buttons for Eugene V. Debs’s socialist campaign for president in 1920 can be worth $500 to $1,000.
Lori Ferber is selling items from the 2020 Democratic primary, too. “We have quite a few Beto O’Rourke posters and buttons on our shelves,” Mr. Ferber said, referring to the former Texas congressman who dropped out of the race in November. “It’ll take years, probably, before we sell those.”
But Mr. Ferber said the company had sold everything from Reagan yo-yos to a Nixon pizza box.
“It can get pretty strange,” he said. “But everything sells eventually.”
Matt Stevens contributed reporting.