The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

The Vendors Selling Political Swag Are the Real Winners at the New Hampshire Primary

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are leading in the polls—but more important for unofficial merchandise vendors, they've got the juice to move a lot of hats, buttons, and shirts.

by John Surico
Feb 9 2016, 5:00am

All photos by Jason Bergman

For Hollis McCollie, 26, Donald Trump is "Obama on steroids."

The day before, Hollis told me, he sold $600 worth of merchandise: hats, long-sleeved shirts, scarves, all emblazoned with the candidate's signature slogan, "Make America Great Again," with an asking price of $20 a pop. As he set up shop outside of Trump's town hall on Monday morning in Salem, New Hampshire, a day before the state's primary, the vendor was counting his money already. "If I sell just the shirts," he said, scanning his inventory, "that's $1,000 right there."

"For me, it was either I flew to Denver yesterday for the Super Bowl, to sell merch," Hollis told me. "Or come to New Hampshire for this. But football is unpredictable—Denver could've lost the Super Bowl, and I would've wasted money, and time."

"But here, it's political," he continued. "And you can't win, or lose."

All the New Hampshire regulars I've spoken with over the weekend—the voters, the veteran reporters, and the vendors themselves—told me that the campaigning in the Granite State has exploded over the last few election cycles. And if there is money to be made in politics, this state is a gold mine.

The party machines, fueled by seemingly infinite funds, have boosted the economy in all sorts of odd ways, as the candidates, their teams, the national and international media, and assorted interested parties have brought their cash with them. Of course, local businesses do better than usual as a result, but the circus has also given rise to a cottage industry of unofficial merch pushers, booksellers, and even those looking to promote their new iPhone apps.

Especially if what they're selling has either Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders's face on it.

Keith Thomas, from Atlanta, holds up one of his shirts.

The first time Chones, another vendor I spoke with, knew he had struck Trump-ian gold with his candidacy was at the Donald's first rally, in Phoenix, Arizona. "Everyone asked us, 'Is this money going to the GOP?' We said no. They said, 'Good,' and bought everything," he told me. "That line for the event was two blocks long!"

The appetite for this gear is seemingly bottomless: Trump's colossal rallies are always attended by vendors with "Bomb the Shit Out of ISIS" buttons, "Hillary for Prison 2016" stickers, and other kitschy souvenirs to sell. Some items are handmade; others get theirs from a supplier. "Trump doesn't come after us, because he thinks it's free publicity," Chones said. "We're business people, just like him."

But Chones isn't necessarily a Trump supporter, and neither is Hollis. Nor do they hail from New Hampshire: Chones is from California; Hollis, Ohio. They just go where the money is. Which is why, after Trump's town hall was underway, Chones immediately headed to a Sanders rally in nearby Manchester. Other candidates, they said, were just not as profitable.

Get it?

Outside of a Marco Rubio town hall, in Londonderry, Marty Miller, 74, had a stand with "Benghazi Matters" buttons that he assembled, alongside other vendors, in his hotel room earlier that day. On Sunday, Rubio was his guy, but the next day, it would be someone else; maybe John Kasich, or Chris Christie. None were worthy of continuous coverage.

But for Marty—a retired Republican who makes supplemental income with this business—he reserved one rule: no Bernie.

"If I'm selling something to a Democrat," he told me, "there's some nice people. But some say, 'Do you have anything for free?'"

Several vendors I spoke to repeated a stereotype that Sanders fans are cheap, that they want everything for free, or paid for—a talking point that sounds derived from the Republican criticism toward the candidate's policies. I encountered some other well-worn bits of trade gossip: Carly Fiorina is known to kick out vendors; Hillary Clinton's people "want to control her image," so nothing unofficial gets sold; Trump supporters are "entrepreneurial."

"Bernie fans get on us for being capitalists at a socialist's event," Chones said. "So we have to sell things for less." (The vendor refused to give his last name, he said, out of fear of retribution from Sanders's customers.)

But at a Sanders rally in Portsmouth, there was plenty of money changing hands. A vendor there, Keith Thomas, sold everything for the same price as the Trump gear, and fans of the insurgent Democrat lined up with their debit cards (most vendors have the Square app, and take cash or credit). Most of Keith's merch featured the famous "Feel the Bern" line, with a scribble of the candidate's scruffy hair. Other people strolled in wearing ugly Christmas sweaters, Star Wars–style T-shirts, and other knock-off brands, all with Sanders's face on them—signs of the primary economy at work.

Keith, 53, is a campaign veteran: He looks back at the '08 and '12 election with stars in his eyes. "Nothing," he told me, "was as big as Obama."

The young candidate was a savior—and, according to several vendors, active promoter—of unofficial vendors, with a campaign that made politics cool, and therefore profitable again. T-shirts and hoodies with the HOPE insignia of Shepard Fairey fame sold like hotcakes. And Sanders's campaign, Keith said, is only now even approaching that level of merchandising.

Before New Hampshire, Keith was in Iowa. And, after Tuesday, he'll head to South Carolina, home to the next primary later this month. Keith, a self-declared Bernie supporter, said he plans on riding out the campaign as long as he can. "I don't have a job right now," he explained. "And until I find one, it's money in my pocket."

For Chones and Hollis, their business rides on Trump's momentum. Should he win in New Hampshire, it's off to the South, with more supplies for more rallies. If he fails... well, there's always the next campaign cycle.

"If this whole thing falls apart, we'll jump ship," Chones told me. "And then, we'll just come back in four years."

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