Obama souvenir sales in tailspin

Laura Donovan Contributor
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In a downtown D.C. gift shop, a table teems with T-shirts, squared off and neatly folded. On one row: an iconic pop art-inspired image of President Obama, culled from a campaign poster, atop the one-word caption “Hope.” On the next: a smiling, waving George W. Bush, backed by the U.S. flag, behind a caption asking, “Miss Me Yet?”

One nation. Two shirts.

Polls, focus groups and fundraising tallies have their place — but if you really want to take the electorate’s pulse, go souvenir shopping. Money talks, and as the economy limps, our leaders snipe, and the rough beast of our divided government slouches toward next year’s presidential election, the political memorabilia tills have a tale to tell: For the president, it’s a scary one.

Downtown shopkeepers and cart vendors near the Mall said last week that Obama-related sales had significantly slowed — in part because of a traditional August tourism lull, in part due to the president’s sagging approval ratings.

Freddie Vinoya, a manager at Honest Abe’s Souvenirs at 1000 F Street NW, said that customers used to purchase more than three dozen Obama “Hope” T-shirts a week.

“It’s still a best-seller, but not nearly as much,” said Mr. Vinoya, 34, a resident of Accokeek. “Sometimes, they hate Obama now. That’s why they buy the [Bush-themed] ‘Miss Me?’ shirts. We got those in last December.”

As political barometers, souvenir sales are hardly scientific — yet there are those who insist they are uncannily predictive.

“Come in here next year, and I can predict who will win the election,” said Dexter Morse, 45, a manager at the Washington Welcome Center at 1005 E Street NW, a popular destination for tourists and souvenir shoppers. “The last election, we had news crews from around the world, and customers too, all wondering why we had marked down our McCain-Palin stuff in October, before Election Day. The answer was sales. We blew the Obama stuff out. Just from that, we knew he would win.”

Before Mr. Obama’s inauguration, his Gallup poll approval ratings hovered between 60 and 70 percent. The corresponding souvenir market was white-hot — so much so that Jim Warlick, a memorabilia retailer who got his start hawking Ronald Reagan inaugural buttons in 1980, opened a store downtown devoted solely to the incoming president.

Now, that market is as sluggish as the nation’s economy.

Mr. Morse points to a set of shelves housing Obama-themed merchandise. There are books and baseball caps, jigsaw puzzles and bobbleheads. A street sign reads “Democrat Parking Only.” Three rows are stuffed with plush dolls modeled after Bo, the White House dog; an Obama 2012 T-shirt – the first of its kind — has a red, white and blue image of Hawaii and a caption reading, “50th State Birthplace. FACT!!”

“This section was almost sold out when [Osama] Bin Laden was killed,” said Mr. Morse, a District resident who has worked at the Welcome Center for six years. “But now that there’s [economic] turmoil, Obama’s sales are slow.”

Among souvenir peddlers, Mr. Morse’s observations are hardly unique. According to a spokesperson for online retailer CafePress, pre-election sales volume for Bush-themed merchandise in both 2000 and 2004 was “overwhelming,” while Obama outsold McCain by more than 30 percent in the weeks before the 2008 election.

Employees at online retailer Zazzle saw a predictive pro-Obama surge throughout the 2008 campaign.

“McCain and other candidates had their fair share of products, but not like Obama,” said Josh Neuman, Zazzle’s director of acquisitions. “It was pretty easy to see he had a good chance of winning.”

Recent polls find that Congress and GOP legislators in particular are even more unpopular than the president. And souvenirs – like polls – can be equivocal.

Consider the evidence from P&D Souvenirs, located on 10th Street NW across from Ford’s Theater and two doors down from — yes, really — “Lincoln’s Waffle Shop.” Tacked to a display wall amid Elmo products, tea party-themed bumper stickers and postcards starring the First Dog were two T-shirts.

On the right, a shirt featuring a red, white and blue elephant under a slashed circle and the caption “Friends Don’t Let Friends Vote Republican”; on the left, the bizzaro version of the same shirt, sporting a donkey and the word “Democrat.”

An employee was asked which shirt sells more.

“That one,” he said, pointing to the right. “By far.”

A vote, Mr. Neuman explained, is anonymous. But buying a political T-shirt can be as conspicuous — and implicitly confrontational – as wearing a Dallas Cowboys jersey to FedEx Field.

“In some ways, our sales are a stronger indicator of how people feel than almost anything else,” he said. “It takes so much more to want to buy something like a T-shirt and want to show it off.”

John McNulty, a political science professor at Binghamton University, cautioned against using souvenirs as a proxy for public opinion. But vendors maintain that sales sometimes can provide unique insight.

Online retailers CafePress and Zazzle both manufacture T-shirts, bumper stickers, coffee mugs and other products designed by at-home users. The result is a crowd-sourced read on prevailing sentiment, updated in almost real time, covering everything from the debt ceiling debate to the London riots.

Before and after the 2008 election, Zazzle saw an increase in TARP and bailout-related merchandise, followed by a spike in anti-Obama products. Meanwhile, employees noticed that presidential candidate Ron Paul — far from a major national vote-getter — was inspiring strong sales, a robust website community and almost as many submitted designs as Obama.

“Looking back, we were witnessing the birth of the tea party,” Mr. Neuman said. “Ron Paul didn’t have the volume of supporters and voters Obama had, but he had things he was specific and adamant about. His popularity [on our site] spoke to the popularity of those issues.”

When Mr. Obama last month admonished lawmakers to “eat our peas” and negotiate a debt deal, CafePress users created mocking trucker hats, messenger bags and — gulp — thongs within hours. Indeed, the speed and ease of online creation has facilitated the proliferation of negative political souvenirs.

Souvenir World at 1004 F Street NW sells T-shirts reading “NOBAMA: Keep the Change!” Zazzle offers a baby onesie reading, “I only cry when Democrats hold me” and a bumper sticker reading, “Tea Party Sounds Nicer Than Racist Homophobes.”

As of last week, about 42 percent of CafePress’ 1.9 million Obama T-shirts were negative, while 29 percent of the site’s 407,000 Sarah Palin shirts were negative.

“I think a lot of voters out there are more passionately against the other side than for their own side,” said Michal Ann Strahilevitz, a political branding expert and marketing professor at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. “The two parties can’t agree how to save the economy. They can’t seem to tolerate or work together. That is reflected in the paraphernalia being sold.”

Now that the presidential campaign pre-season has officially commenced with the Iowa straw poll, perhaps it’s time to sift the early souvenir returns for clues to the 2012 election.

Here’s what we know: CafePress users want an Obama-Palin matchup, never mind that the former Alaska governor has yet to enter the race. Local cart vendors are lukewarm on the current president — but for now, they’re not even stocking Republican primary contenders.

Back at the Washington Welcome Center, Mr. Morse made a cryptic prediction.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “We get all of our souvenirs from China. And they are investing heavily in Obama stuff for next year.”