In a concrete high-rise across the river from the nation’s capital, the Hillary Clinton store is open for business.
There are aluminum ornaments – each adorned with a giant H – for Christmas, champagne flutes engraved with 2016 for New Year’s Eve and long-sleeved I love Hillary T-shirts with red hearts for Valentine’s Day, naturally.
And every day, there are iPhone covers, tote bags, lanyards, even Born Ready for Hillary onesies for the youngest family member. Dog leashes are coming soon.
Ready for Hillary, the political action committee that hopes to lay the groundwork for a second presidential run, already has hawked 25,000 pieces of campaignlike paraphernalia – three years before Election Day – for someone who may not even run.
Kiki McLean, a senior adviser to Clinton’s campaign in 2008 who works for a Washington public relations firm, said the latest generation involved in politics had shown that it wouldn’t wait to be invited to participate. “People are channeling their energy and enthusiasm,” she said.
The so-called Hillary store is tucked on the fifth floor of the group’s offices. White shelves filled with products line the walls, while dozens of shipments ready to be transported to the nearby post office sit on a table. Occasionally, a customer will wander in to try on a shirt or make an exchange, but most purchases are made online.
It’s a little like Amazon, except shipping is always free and, of course, every product promotes Clinton.
Dick Harpootlian, a longtime Democratic activist in South Carolina who’s an ardent supporter of another potential candidate, Vice President Joe Biden, dismissed Ready for Hillary’s efforts, arguing that it’s way too early for organizations such as this, when Clinton hasn’t even decided to run. “Maybe a fan club is appropriate for a boy band but not candidate for president of the United States,” he mocked.
Clinton, 66, says she hasn’t made up her mind about running and expects to decide later this year. But the former first lady, U.S. senator from New York and secretary of state is already the presumed front-runner for her party’s nomination in 2016, dominating the potential field of candidates by huge margins.
Former Clinton advisers formed Ready for Hillary last year – just after she stepped down as the nation’s top diplomat – as a way to recruit volunteers from across the nation for a potential campaign. The group claims to have nearly 2 million supporters lined up.
Ready for Hillary set up the store after witnessing the success of Barack Obama, who was then a rival for the Democratic nomination and the first national candidate to sell merchandise as a way to lure low-dollar donors and attract supporters. The group consulted those who ran the Obama store in 2008.
“There are a lot of great lessons that came out of 2008 and 2012,” said Adam Parkhomenko, a former Clinton campaign staffer who’s the executive director of Ready for Hillary.
Candidates have long handed out bumper stickers and buttons to supporters at rallies to try to create enthusiasm and promote their campaigns. In more recent years, businesses got into the act and began selling knickknacks with candidates’ logos as money-making ventures.
In 2008, Obama’s campaign upended the system, selling its own merchandise as a way to build passion, raise money and recruit volunteers.
“It was a total turnaround,” said Peter Fenn, a professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management who owns a Democratic political firm.
The book “Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime” recalls the exact moment when Clinton realizes that Obama has surpassed her in fundraising in part because of a plethora of low-dollar donors, many of whom bought his merchandise. “Why don’t we have merchandise being sold out back?” Clinton angrily said to her national finance director at a Hamptons fundraiser.
Ready for Hillary took that lesson and expanded on it. Two store employees sell 40 different items that go way beyond your typical T-shirts, posters and mugs: water bottles for $20.16; neon Ready for Hillary Sharpies in yellow, turquoise, pink, lime green and orange; and cocktail napkins imprinted with Clinton quotes. Says one: “I really do hope that we have a woman president in my lifetime.”
The top sellers are simple ones: white H baseball caps and gray I’m Ready for Hillary T-shirts.
Kevin Madden, a Republican consultant who worked for 2012 presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, called opening the store a smart move. “I wish we had done it more,” he lamented.
The Clinton products are created by Julie Wertz, a San Francisco designer who counts the Restoration Hardware home furnishings chain as one of her clients. Wertz, a Clinton supporter who’d only dabbled in politics, said she got involved with the group at the urging of Clinton’s friend Susie Tompkins Buell, the creator of the fashion line Esprit.
Wertz said she attempted to design products that would appeal to a diverse section of the population, including, for example, the nation’s164 million pet owners. The result? Parkhomenko said the store had “snowballed,” exceeding all expectations.
Ready for Hillary said it sold more than $350,000 in merchandise last year, though it didn’t indicate how much of that was profit. Customers are listed as donors of the political action committee on Federal Election Commission reports, but there’s no legal requirement for the group to disclose those who spend less than $200, according to the Sunlight Foundation, which promotes transparency in government.
The group also says it raised more than $4 million from about 33,000 donors last year, with the average contribution $82 and 98 percent of donations at $100 or less.
The demand for free bumper stickers has been so great that the group hired a company to ship them: 300,000 so far.
During the holiday season, the hallways of the Ready for Hillary offices were jammed with merchandise and the group’s 18 employees worked night and day to get shipments ready for Christmas delivery. “We were all doing everything we could,” said Parkhomenko, who weighed packages and printed postage labels.
Next up: St. Patrick’s Day T-shirts complete with a green four-leaf clover – and probably an H or two.