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Forget polls. Political T-shirt sales might tell it all

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These politically themed mints are sold at E.A.T. Gifts, a gift store on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, N.Y. (Photo by Karsten Moran)

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"Smush Bush" stress balls hang for sale in Alice's Tea Cup, a tea room and gift shop in Manhattan, N.Y. (Photo by Karsten Moran)

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Barack Obama T-shirts, like this one designed by T-Shirt Journal, are bestsellers on CafePress.com. (Courtesy of CafePress.com)

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A Hilary Clinton T-shirt, designed by Bill-for-First-Lady.com, is sold on CafePress.com. (Courtesy of CafePress.com)

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A John McCain T-shirt, designed by Good Guys for Bush, is sold by CafePress.com. (Courtesy of CafePress.com)

If Fred Durham had to predict the winner of the 2008 presidential election, he would call it for Barack Obama.

Durham is not a pollster or a political consultant. He is not a campaign manager or adviser. He is the CEO and co-founder of CafePress, an online store that sells user-generated products, with up to 20 percent of its business coming from sales of political merchandise. He bases his prediction on his company’s own unique poll: how people buy.

On the Web site, T-shirts and bumper stickers in support of Obama, which range from the serious “Yes We Can” slogan to the more humorous “Barack-n-Roll,” have sold more than double Hillary Clinton products like “It Takes a Clinton to Clean Up after a Bush” T-shirt and “Hot for Hillary” magnets.

Web sites selling merchandise are going strong this election year. CafePress alone offers about 2 million different products based on the primary candidates.

And people are buying. As CafePress puts it, they are “voting with their wallets,” perhaps giving some indication of how Americans will vote in the remaining primaries, and in the general election in November.

“We’re using our bodies and extensions of our bodies to create a political identity of who we are,” said Bruce Gronbeck, a professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa. “You hope it becomes psychological confirmation that you picked right, that you backed the winning horse, and you have the T-shirt to prove it.”

Gronbeck said merchandise plays a role in political persuasion, influencing people who are undecided about a candidate. Nancy Snow, an associate professor of communications at California State University at Fullerton, said showing symbolic commitment to a cause by purchasing T-shirts means buyers are more likely to follow through with an action such as voting.

Seeing swarms of people wearing clothing or buttons backing a politician can influence voters, but it can also affect the people whose names and faces are plastered all over those products.

“To see yourself bathed in the people who love and adore you has to be phenomenally energizing,” Gronbeck said.

At CafePress, sales during the primary season have so far reflected the nuances of the race. According to the site’s political sales meter that tracks purchases of merchandise related to each candidate, sales of Obama gear surpassed pro-Clinton products for the first time in mid-January, after his victory in the Iowa primary. Clinton’s sales, however, made a comeback after her turnaround in Texas and Ohio.

On the Republican side, however, John McCain does not generate close to the same volume of purchases as Obama and Clinton. Durham noted that the number of designs based on McCain’s candidacy, such as “McCain is my Homeboy” T-shirts, have tripled, but his sales remained flat until he won the nomination in early March, when Durham says he saw an upturn.

Gronbeck said slow sales might be because McCain appeals to older voters, who are “just not likely to put on a ‘Mac Attack’ button.”

RightWingStuff.com, which sells merchandise on CafePress, has seen McCain gear sell, but not near the same levels as Bush products during the 2004 election.

“He’s not somebody that stirs emotion,” said Jim Gamble, owner of the Web site that launched in 2003. “He doesn’t inspire like George Bush did.”

As a result, say some merchants, Republican voters who are not completely gung-ho about McCain are displaying their position with anti-Democrat T-shirts and buttons that read “The Audacity of Hype” and “Anybody but Hillary.”

“There’s nothing to support, only to oppose,” said Xavier O’Boyle, a self-described conservative who recently bought ConservativeBuys.com.

But Gamble at RightWingStuff.com thinks it’s also an opportunity for Republicans to turn the tables after having to listen to Democrats disparage George Bush since he came into office.

“People want to get in the face of the other side,” Gamble said. “People on the right have had their fill of that and they’re enjoying getting into it.”

CafePress, which launched in 1999, saw Bush sales win out in the last two elections but said anti-Bush sales in the 2004 race were higher than in 2000, when Bush and Al Gore sales were competitive. In 2004, it was more for or against Bush instead of pro-John Kerry. Durham expects the reverse this year.

“More people are going to end up running against the Democratic candidate as opposed to supporting the Republican,” Durham said.

Right now, Clinton leads the negative merchandise category. Only 3 percent of all Obama-related sales at CafePress have been negative, while anti-Clinton sales are nine times that. Part of that, says Snow at Fullerton, stems from race’s role as a “political hot potato.” She said people worry that if they take a negative stance against Obama, they may be viewed as racist.

Gamble believes anti-Clinton gear sells well because she is “the most polarizing person in politics,” he said. “I think I’ll definitely have plenty of material for the next three or four years if she wins.”

Whoever ends up as the winner, there will still be plenty of opportunities for the design-savvy.

“I’m just itching for the nominee to be picked and the vice president to be named,” said Matt Aho, the owner and designer of Veer to the Right, which sells its merchandise on CafePress.

And, as has been made clear by the Bush presidency, political humor doesn’t stop with the election. Plenty of entrepreneurs have emerged, making products ranging from countdown clocks to the end of Bush’s presidency to the “Smush Bush” stress reliever doll.

“There’s always a cottage industry to go after anyone in power,” Snow said. “No one’s neutral about a president. You kind of have to choose sides.”

E-mail: esk2007@columbia.edu