What can Internet sales of T-shirts, bumper stickers, and other memorabilia tell us about the state of the presidential race?
You've probably heard of retail politics -- the dirty business of hitting the road, shaking hands, meeting as many voters as possible, and wearing out the soles of your shoes, Adlai Stevenson style. It's what helped Rick Santorum win his upset win over Mitt Romney in Iowa and launch the improbable insurgent campaign that ended Tuesday.
But here's another definition: how much merch the candidates are moving. CafePress sent over this infographic. It's admittedly unscientific, although they boast that sales of Barack Obama products predicted the 2008 election (really, though, were even the most rabid John McCain backers likely to sport T-shirts?). Some of the results are fairly intuitive: For example, people on the Internet really like Ron Paul, which explains why he's continued to capture at least a plurality of Republican merchandise sales on CafePress for most of the campaign, even as he has become less and less relevant to the nomination battle. The spikes for Herman Cain and Rick Perry, corresponding to the zeniths of their campaigns, make sense, as does the gradual but inexorable growth of Romney sales.
Check out the second graph, though, for a demonstration of how the primary season has hurt Republicans. You might think that the chance for GOP voters to go to the polls would have them more fired up or that they'd want to show their support in advance of ballots. On the contrary, though, the Republican share of sales starts to tank right around December 1, as the full attention of the political sphere turned to Iowa. So as the candidates became more visible, their voters got less excited; meanwhile, Obama's got more enthused. Think this is mere speculation, a silly linking of shirt sales and polling popularity? Look at this graph, from Talking Points Memo's poll aggregator, via Andrew Sullivan. The trend works in exactly the same way:
And as the third graph shows, the disparity between pro-Obama and anti-Obama gear shrunk over the same period. Life imitates art, but commerce imitates politics.