Obama Campaign Rewrites Fundraising Rules by Selling Merchandise

By Diane Tucker and Dawn Teo

One under-reported aspect of the Obama campaign's fundraising prowess is its strategy to charge most of its supporters for campaign paraphernalia. The strategy -- both innovative and controversial -- is a boon to the campaign, raising the number of low-dollar donors and motivating supporters to volunteer more often. Just last month the campaign reported a record $150 million in September donations and the New York Times reported Sunday that Obama passed the $640 million fund-raising mark by mid-October.

Campaigns traditionally give away items like t-shirts, lawn signs, and bumper stickers. But as far back as the primaries, the Obama campaign has charged for "chum," its official campaign merchandise. There are occasional exceptions. The campaign appears to have waived its policy in some battleground states. In Pennsylvania -- one of the hardest-fought states -- many field offices handed out Obama merchandise free of charge, according to the candidate's Pennsylvania press secretary Zach Friend.

Because the purchase of a $3 bumper sticker is legally considered a political contribution, each and every purchase is recorded as a donation to the Obama campaign. Visitors to the official online store can buy anything from a $3 bumper sticker to an $80 tote bag designed by fashion guru Isaac Mizrahi. The online store also offers a "round up" option on its check-out page so consumers can opt to add a few dollars more -- or a few hundred dollars more -- to their purchase. Several Obama supporters told OffTheBus that an $8 yard sign frequently is rounded up to a $10 donation. Add to that figure the cost of shipping, and a single yard sign can cost up to $20.

Some items are sold only online, and some items have been marked down. The square "HOPE" bumper sticker is now on sale for $2 online. An Obama op-art poster regularly priced at $60 is now on sale for $40. The campaign has yet to release any definitive numbers regarding chum sales, but it's clear that Obama merchandise is big business.

"I was at the Denver Rally and it felt like a rock concert they were selling so much merchandise-- and it was so well organized," said Obama supporter Brad Evans, who works in Denver.

The popularity of Obama gear drives traffic into the field offices, where buyers can be recruited as volunteers. A source close to the leadership of the Obama campaign told OffTheBus that David Axelrod is the mastermind behind the merchandizing strategy. According to the source, Axelrod believes charging for chum does more than add to the coffers -- he believes it also creates more proactive supporters. Giving away lawn signs for free, he says, is demobilizing because once volunteers set them on their lawns, they think they've done their part for the campaign. Buying chum, on the other hand, makes people feel more invested in the campaign, which leads to more volunteerism.

Social psychologist and expert on volunteerism Robert Cialdini agrees. "Research shows that the more effort or expense people have gone to for an earlier commitment -- for example, purchasing a yard sign -- the more likely they are to come to believe strongly in that commitment and to remain consistent with it."

"We basically charge for everything," says Obama volunteer Ryan Hubbs in the Washington D.C. field office. "We don't have exact numbers on how much merchandise we sell each week, but it's in the area of $1500 to $2000."

Reporting every buyer's name and contact information is an immense challenge due to the sheer volume of Obama's fundraising. Yesterday NPR reported that critics say "the Obama campaign hasn't been as rigorous as it needs to be and that the campaign should release the names of small donors." The Obama campaign responded by saying that those 2 million or more names would overwhelm a normal database -- an assertion challenged this week by Slate.

Although the campaign has yet to release any definitive numbers regarding chum sales, about 50 percent of Obama's funds come from donations of $200 or less, according to both the Campaign Finance Institute and the Center for Responsive Politics. Obama's message of change -- and the appearance of widespread grassroots support -- is central to his campaign strategy. The candidate has every incentive to keep the number of donations up, and the average donation amount down.

Frustrated by occasional chum shortages and the high cost of shipping, some Obama supporters have formed chum collectives to purchase items in bulk to keep the cost down. This merchandise is then "given away" at Obama events, where it's not uncommon to find a bag of buttons or a stack of stickers on a table -- with a request that people leave a dollar for each item they take.

It appears the honor system isn't protecting lawn signs from theft. During this election cycle hundreds -- if not thousands -- of lawn signs have been reported stolen, and some Obama supporters have gone to great lengths to protect their purchases. A woman in Tempe, Ariz., who had four Obama signs stolen in quick succession, set up a surveillance camera that captured the unlikely sight of a middle-aged woman stealing an Obama sign. Another Obama supporter's son set up a webcam overlooking their lawn, and hundreds of Obama supporters nationwide kept watch for any potential lawn sign stealers. Some bloggers who were victims of sign-theft recommended rubbing poison ivy oil over the signs, or wrapping them in barbed wire.

OffTheBus wants to hear your chum stories. Have you been impacted by the sign shortage? Have you had your chum stolen or vandalized? What do you think of the Obama campaign's decision to sell merchandise rather than to give it away? Tell us here.