It’s Black Friday, Clout fans! Let’s go to the mall to talk politics.
The holiday shopping season can be tricky business for an entrepreneur selling T-shirts and other gear in support of President Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection bid.
Mike Domanico has learned a couple of political lessons since he opened his kiosk at Neshaminy Mall in Bensalem in November.
First, mall management companies don’t like controversy. Domanico called several local malls, looking to set up shop selling conservative political merchandise. Only Neshaminy agreed to rent him a kiosk, with the condition that he also sell some gear in support of Democratic candidates.
But Domanico has the same problem as the Democratic Party these days — nobody knows who among the 18 candidates in the race will win the party’s nomination to challenge Trump. So which candidates should he sell T-shirts for?
“There’s so many people in the running right now that it’s hard to have everybody,” he said. “So I chose the three top contenders.”
It makes for a jarring contrast that seemed to surprise some shoppers this week.
T-shirts in support of former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont sit on shelves next to Trump hats, banners, bumper stickers, buttons, coffee mugs, pins, pens, and a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “Border Wall Construction Co. — build the wall, deport them all.”
Domanico said the border wall T-shirt is his best seller. Conversely, in the first nine days of sales, just two customers purchased Democratic gear — a $3 Biden pin and a $20 Sanders shirt.
The mall asked Domanico to take down another prominently displayed T-shirt that declared “Trump 2020 — finally someone with balls.” There have also been some complaints lodged with the management company, he said, and a few shoppers have expressed outrage.
“Just because it’s Trump,” Domanico said. “Trump makes people complain.”
That comes across in some of the merchandise. A $5 oval magnet bore the motto: “Trump 2020, make liberals cry again.”
Domanico started his T-shirt business, Sik-Nastee, in 2017. He spent the last six months traveling around Pennsylvania, selling his gear from a large blue tent emblazoned with the phrase “Trump Headquarters” at festivals, roadside lots, and Trump rallies. He has no business or political connections to the president’s campaign.
And he has no problem with the mall making him sell Democratic gear, especially if it adds to his bottom line.
“It seems fair, because it reduces some of the controversy,” he said. “If this was all Trump stuff, people would tend to go off when they see that.”
Political merchandise is nothing new. But it’s a growth industry. Campaign websites now routinely offer a “shop” or “store” section to hawk shirts, hats, tote bags, and other political ephemera. Warren appeared on stage this week wearing a hoodie marketed by her campaign. And Trump launched his presidential ambitions by selling the now-iconic “Make America Great Again” red baseball cap.
The Federal Election Commission counts campaign sales of merchandise as donations to the candidate. That gives campaigns another opportunity to raise money and collect contact information from supporters.
Todd Belt, director of the political management program at George Washington University, said the jump from campaign sales to politically attuned entrepreneurs reflects the nation’s current “world of hyper-partisanship.”
“We’ve really become the red team vs. the blue team. And people like to show which team they’re on,” Belt said. “It used to be bumper stickers. Now people want to show their allegiances all the time.”
Bruce Newman, a marketing professor at DePaul University and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Political Marketing, said Trump changed the game.
“I think this is just part of the paradigm shift that has come with the Trump branding strategy,” Newman said. “Obviously, it’s part of a populist movement. But it struck a chord. And there is money to be made.”