Last week’s Climate Forum meant Gaston Hall was alive with a rainbow of campaign colors. Due to the sheer number of Democratic candidates (19 at press time, although only 11 Dems participated in the forum) there’s an extra need for presidential hopefuls to stand out with their merchandise. With that in mind, I decided to look at apparel from all 19 remaining Democrats. Here’s how their t-shirts stack up (unrelated to my personal feelings about each candidate) from worst to best.
19-18. Wayne Messam and Joe Sestak do not offer any campaign merchandise on their official websites.
17. Michael Bennet
Much like Senator Bennet himself, there’s not much to see here. His slogan, “Bennet for America,” is about as uninspired as his campaign, and he has a grand total of one t-shirt design on his website, albeit in a variety of colors. While I appreciate the pro-pride message, I don’t think I’ll remember this t-shirt by the time I’m done writing this sentence.
It looks like the t-shirt printer ran out of ink halfway through making this Marianne shirt. Her campaign seems the most tie-dye-adjacent of the Democratic hopefuls, so I was disappointed to see no such shirts on her website. I’m not even sure I’d wear this ironically.
15. Tom Steyer
What is Steyer’s first name again? This shirt is almost as egotistical as thinking you should run for president just because you have a billion dollars. And with that net worth, I’d think he’d be able to afford some better graphic designers.
14. Tim Ryan
I’m getting tired of these generic shirts from generic candidates. At least this one is unique, with the famous skyline of downtown…Youngstown? Google tells me Youngstown is in Ohio, Ryan’s home state, which is nice. It has a population of a cool 67,000 people, which is not so nice, because if I were Ryan I would focus a little more on California and a little less on Mahoning County. Why is this guy running for president again?
13. Tulsi Gabbard
Does the guy sitting behind you in your high school class keep forgetting the Pledge of Allegiance? Boy, do I have the shirt for you. Seriously, the Pledge is pretty jingoistic and religiously exclusionary (what if someone believes in multiple Gods? Or none at all?) so I’m not sure a Dem wants to be marketing off of it. Tulsi may be trying to highlight her military service with this design, but it just doesn’t work.
12. John Delaney
For the sake of consistency, I limited this ranking of merch to t-shirts, but Delaney’s webstore makes a strong case for alternative campaign apparel. From wooden phone rings to stress grips, the former representative’s offerings seem more befitting of a kitschy souvenir shop than a presidential candidate’s official website. He only offers one t-shirt, however, and it’s a boring one.
11. Julián Castro
This reminds me of those ultra-specific t-shirts that Facebook always wants me to buy. Yeah, Julián makes some pretty good points with this design, but who has time to read this whole stump speech while walking by? I would be concerned if someone were staring at my chest for this long. I’d probably forget that I was wearing an entire essay on myself and ask them to stop, thus losing Julián a vote and decreasing his support from .0002 to .0001 percent. Hard pass.
10. Amy Klobuchar
This is a bit of a half-hearted attempt to reach out to Spanish-speaking and LGBTQ+ communities. In Politico’s analysis of candidates’ Spanish websites, Klobuchar received a C, with much of her text pulled directly from Google Translate. Also, how am I supposed to know this is her shirt by looking at the front? Still, I appreciate the fact that Klobuchar (or maybe just her graphic design people) care about intersectional messaging—many candidates just offered one pride shirt and another Spanish-language shirt, ignoring the possibility of someone holding both of these identities.
9. Cory Booker
I’m glad to see a candidate draw attention to trans pride, but this shirt suffers from poor graphic design. For one, the pink-on-gray color scheme makes it pretty tough to see the actual message. On top of that, the shirt lacks any clear signifier in support of the Booker campaign—I’d hope that every Democratic candidate supports justice for all, so this doesn’t make me want to vote for the New Jersey senator any more than I already do. If you really want this shirt, I’d buy it soon—Booker may not be around for long.
Not another confusing pun shirt! I had to ask my roommate to explain this one (maybe it’s not the shirts, it’s me.) Get it, it’s Bull-Lock! Ha! Almost covers up for his complete lack of qualifications to be the President of the United States. Given that Steve is from Montana, a state where I can only assume some bulls live, this shirt is fitting. Not going to lie, I’d wear this ironically.
Full disclosure: I own this t-shirt, and it’s really comfortable. I like how Bernie lays out some policy points, but not so many to the point where it becomes tough to read while walking by. It still pales in comparison to this $32 fanny pack from his webstore, which features an illustration of Bernie sporting a headband around his iconic uncombed hair like he’s Rafa Nadal. If this is how fanny packs become fashionable again, then so be it.
6. Joe Biden
The former Vice President has been loathe to take any risks politically, refusing to endorse both Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. His merch team is a little more adventurous though, embracing Biden’s signature glasses for a classy red, white, and blue design. His style, much like his politics, are very 1980s, but I’d be damned if he can’t rock a pair of aviators. The shirt also features the Joe 2020 logo, which is embarrassingly bad for a frontrunner—if I didn’t know better, I would think his name is Jo.
This one took me a little longer to understand than I’d care to admit (it’s the phonetic spelling of Buttigieg’s name, Boot-Edge-Edge, which I’ve apparently been pronouncing wrong this entire time). While it’s certainly stylish, I’m not sure how many people would appreciate the reference. The shirt does a good job at highlighting Pete’s Southern roots, which is somehow not even a top-3 fun fact about him—did you know he’s 37 and speaks eight languages?
4. Andrew Yang
This is a cool shirt. Almost too cool. It looks more like some underground punk band’s merch than an item from a candidate’s webstore. The photo is Yang as a high school senior, which is making me retroactively self-conscious about my lack of fashion sense. All in all, this doesn’t really tell us much about Yang the candidate, besides the fact that he looked pretty badass back in the day.
Finally, a shirt that I can’t wear in front of my grandparents! After a shooting that left eight dead in his home state of Texas, O’Rourke reacted viscerally. “So yes, this is fucked up,” he said. It’s in these moments of authenticity that he shines as a candidate, though his campaign has mostly faltered so far. While running for Senate in 2018, he embraced his image as a skater and punk rock fan, though he eventually narrowly lost to Ted Cruz. This shirt seems like an attempt to recapture that enthusiasm among young people, who have been gravitating more toward Sanders and Warren than O’Rourke thus far.
It was pretty tough to choose just one design to represent Warren’s webstore. Where most candidates settle on a few shirts, the senator from Massachusetts has a wide range of apparel with different slogans and logos, most featuring her distinctive “liberty green” color palette. In the end, I went with her most famous piece of merchandise. This shirt proves that candidates need not reinvent the wheel with their products—a memorable catchphrase is sometimes all it takes.
This is a powerful shirt. Emblazoned with a picture of a determined-looking young Kamala, the design references a memorable moment from the June Democratic debates when she pushed Biden on his opposition to an intra-city school busing system, drawing from her own experience growing up in California. However, the shirt, titled “That Little Girl Was Me,” may be less poignant to an observer who doesn’t know the full context behind it, especially if they don’t see the Kamala logo on the back. The shirt is still evocative of a different age, though—a reminder that the era the current president invokes in his “Make America Great Again” slogan was far from great for so many forgotten groups. The design both honors the past and looks to the future, setting Kamala apart from the rest of the Democratic field’s bland and unimaginative apparel.