At a time when jigsaw puzzles may be harder to come by than toilet paper, the hot new item in the Trump campaign online store is a 200-piece puzzle, featuring a faintly smiling President Trump standing in front of an American flag, giving two thumbs up.
The $35 puzzle is just the latest example of the campaign capitalizing on in-the-moment merchandise.
Interest in puzzles spiked with people spending much more time at home due to the coronavirus and in mid-April, the Trump campaign jumped on the trend.
Buying the Trump puzzle, or a Make America Great Again hat or T-shirt, is actually a campaign contribution. And this merch is an important part of the Trump reelection campaign’s fundraising machine.
And that hasn’t changed with the pandemic. The merchandise effort continued cranking, even as COVID-19 started grinding much of the American economy to a halt.
According to an NPR analysis of campaign finance reports, the Trump campaign and its affiliated committees spent more money in March on vendors that make its merchandise — about $4.7 million — than any other month since September 2016 — right in the heat of the president’s first campaign.
And according to the digital marketing firm Bully Pulpit Interactive, about 10% of the campaign’s overall Facebook ad spending this year has been explicitly to market merchandise. As the extent of the pandemic was becoming apparent at the end of March, that spending bumped up, as it often does at the end of a fundraising period.
“It’s very much an e-commerce approach to political marketing,” said Raquel Breternitz, who was the design director for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign.
She says selling merch enables campaigns to reach people who wouldn’t ordinarily donate. It’s easier to say “Buy this cool hat” than “Please just give me money.”
“It feels different,” Breternitz said of buying campaign merchandise. “And it’s very much a way of virtue signaling, depending on how you define virtue. But it’s very much a way of saying, ‘Here’s what I believe, and I want to wear it on a T-shirt or wear it on a hat.’ ”
“Whether it’s the over one million red MAGA hats sold, plastic straws, or the new Trump-themed puzzle to keep people entertained during quarantine, the campaign merchandise lets supporters be part of this movement with high-quality, made in America Trump gear and products,” Sarah Matthews, the deputy press secretary for the Trump campaign, said in a statement.
Trump’s 2016 campaign was built around the red Make America Great Again hat, and it became an instant icon, a symbol of support for a candidate and much more. According to the campaign, it remains the top-selling item in the Trump campaign store, followed by the Keep America Great hat.
“We’ve sold millions and millions of red hats,” Trump said at a Republican National Committee fundraiser last year. “Now you go to a rally, everybody has the red hat.”
Of course, now no one is going to rallies. But people are still buying Trump gear. And as an added benefit, those shoppers turn over their contact information which can be used later to solicit donations, invite them to volunteer, or to make sure they vote.
The Trump campaign does a lot of what Breternitz calls rapid-response merch, capturing a moment and converting it into a product.
During the lead-up to impeachment, Trump was talking about former Vice President Joe Biden’s son at a rally, asking, “Where’s Hunter?”
In the middle of his riff he said, “Hey fellas, I have an idea for a new T-shirt.”
That night, there was a new $25 shirt in the Trump online store. The president claimed the next day that it was a best seller. It’s not clear how many of the shirts really did sell. Campaigns now get their merchandise made on demand, so it’s not like there are warehouses full of printed shirts and mugs.
The ultimate rapid response item is the Trump straws. Last July campaign manager Brad Parscale tweeted grumpily about a paper straw disintegrating in his beverage.
Just five hours later, plastic Trump straws were available for purchase in the campaign store at a price of 10 for $15.
The campaign had tapped into something many people were annoyed with, fed the outrage, and then converted it to campaign cash.
“Liberal paper straws don’t work. STAND WITH PRESIDENT TRUMP and buy your pack of recyclable straws today,” the item description said.
A campaign official says they’ve now sold more than $1 million worth of the plastic Trump straws.
The Warren campaign also gained notice for its rapid-response merch, including a hugely popular “billionaire tears” coffee mug.
But Breternitz says they worried about reputational risk with each new item, wanting to make sure it fit Warren’s brand and wouldn’t offend or otherwise come back to bite them. With the Trump campaign, she says there is seemingly less worry about being offensive “because that’s his brand and that’s what people look for from him,” Breternitz said. “He can jump on any piece of outrage. He doesn’t have to worry if it’s true or not, and he can sell straws off of it.”
For the Trump campaign, this merch-forward approach is a point of pride, and it has helped fuel its small-dollar fundraising. In the first quarter of 2020, the Trump campaign, combined with the Republican National Committee, raised $212 million. That’s even though Trump’s last big-dollar in-person fundraiser was held on March 9.