There are two ways to gauge the momentum of presidential candidates in Iowa. Check the results of the Cast Your Kernel poll at the Iowa State Fair. (Fairgoers drop kernels into labeled mason jars to indicate their preferences.) Or consult the sale rack at Raygun, a printing, design, and clothing company based in Des Moines.
"You can see who is still in the race by which candidates are not on sale," says Mike Draper, founder of the business, which had 2019 revenue of $5.5 million. He recalls Kamala Harris's withdrawal in December. Afterward, her Iowa staff gathered at Raygun "for an impromptu get-together," and Harris herself came in to say goodbye. While Draper was sorry to see her go, he was not sentimental. "Harris's stuff went on sale within an hour of her announcing," he says. "It's like, 'Move it to the $7 rack.'"
The 2020 Iowa presidential caucuses, held on February 3, will generate $11.3 million in local economic impact for the state's capital city alone, according to Catch Des Moines, an organization that promotes the region to travelers and meeting planners. Hotels, restaurants, and owners of office and event spaces do particularly well. So do salons (the candidates must look good) and prosaic services like printing.
With the country taking its first official step toward selecting party nominees for the November election, the spotlight on Iowa also pays out for local businesses in marketing value. Since January 2019, flocking journalists have produced more than 2,000 media mentions for Des Moines: a $228 million advertising value equivalency, by Catch Des Moines's reckoning. Raygun, with its cheeky products and 12 years' worth of caucus experience, attracts special attention. "You know it's caucus season when you are doing an interview and you look over your shoulder and see one of your employees doing an interview," Draper says. The business also produces shirts for its media visitors with messages like "Hello. I am a journalist" and "Hi. Didn't I interview you four years ago?"
Raygun, which has five stores--three in Iowa--is perhaps the best-known face of caucus commerce. Draper has been making and selling election-themed products since 2008, when Barack Obama's headquarters opened across the street from his first location. Obama's staff members swarmed the store on their way out of town to buy Des Moines souvenirs, riffing on themes like football and the weather. "If you are a staffer in Des Moines, for 12 to 18 months it is like a school year abroad. You get pretty attached to the place," Draper says.
Draper estimates the caucuses will boost revenue for January and February--typically slow months--by about 25 percent. The company began designing caucus merchandise unusually early this year, spurred by a visit from former Maryland congressman John Delaney, who dropped by the Des Moines store in December 2018. Since then, the business has created five new shirts for journalists, eight shirts with caucus themes, 12 buttons, and 20 stickers. That's on top of the topical merchandise it churns out whenever a candidate spouts something punchy. (Bernie Sanders: "I wrote the damn bill!" Elizabeth Warren: "2 cents! 2 cents!")
"The people who move the most stuff are Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders," Draper says. "We don't have any Biden stuff because he doesn't speak in catch phrases."
A more perfect union (shop)
While the caucus opportunity found Mike Draper, John Bartlett went after the caucuses. Bartlett is the owner of Iowa Workwear & Printing (iW&P), a 10-employee company in Des Moines that does logoed apparel and custom printing, chiefly for business customers. To snag the attention of visiting Dems this year, Bartlett fielded booths at big political events like the Iowa Wing Ding, Progress Iowa Corn Feed, and the Polk County Steak Fry, where national candidates press flesh and flip burgers. "We showed up with politically themed T-shirts and hats and stickers, hoping to make the connection to the campaigns," Bartlett says.
This campaign season Bartlett has landed print jobs--things like signage and flyers--from the campaigns of around 10 candidates, including three of what he calls the "top-tier people" still in the race. Although he won't name those, he mentions a half dozen who have fallen by the wayside, including Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Steve Bullock, and John Hickenlooper. (He's also done work for Andrew Yang, still running.)
Des Moines area caucus-goers, meanwhile, will be awash in iW&P products at their sites, where most of the sign-in sheets, directional signs, informational cards, and other printed materials emerged from Bartlett's business. So did the "Commit to Caucus" silicone wristbands that have proliferated around the city. Such political work has boosted iW&P's January business roughly 200 percent over non-caucus years, says Bartlett, who has hired an additional person and is doling out overtime to keep pace.
One reason iW&P is so popular: It's both a union shop (Communication Workers of America Local 7108) and a supplier to the unions. "I am pretty sure that everyone on the Democratic side is paying close attention to producing with union labor," Bartlett says. (Raygun, which does some work for campaigns, is unionized, as well.) Although he's previously produced some anti-Trump merchandise, in 2020 Bartlett is waxing positive. "It's a good-old turn-Iowa-blue, proudly progressive message," he says.
This is my Iowa caucus cookie
Brittney Haskins is also having an unusually good January thanks to supporters of Buttigieg, Warren, and others who like to see their candidates celebrated in sugar. One Sweet Kitchen, a Des Moines bakery Haskins runs with one employee, will produce between 500 and 1,000 caucus- and candidate-themed cookies for events related to the campaigns.
"Des Moines is pretty politically active. We get a lot of orders for debate-watching parties and for Election Day," Haskins says. "So I knew there would be interest."
Haskins's specialty is sugar cookies, which she decorates with candidates' names for supporters' special orders. She also produces more generic caucus messages for companies like Meredith Corporation, the Des Moines-based media conglomerate that is throwing a post-caucus party for journalists.
Because most of One Sweet Kitchen's work is commercial or catering, it has no retail space to sell its caucus cookies. So Raygun is giving it a pop-up shop in its Des Moines store. For her part, Haskins is reproducing in royal icing some of that company's most popular shirt slogans, including "Iowa! For some reason you have to come here to be President!" "They have a shirt that says, 'This is my Iowa caucus shirt,' so we have a cookie that says 'This is my Iowa caucus cookie,'" Haskins says. Accommodating all that verbiage requires enlarging her usual three-inch treats to five inches. The price will be slightly higher: $5 instead of $4.
Surface area is also a consideration for One Sweet Kitchen's political-party cookies, which are shaped like donkeys and elephants. Haskins--who like all the founders interviewed for this article welcomes clients of diverse political persuasions--baked some GOP-themed product for Raygun, in case Republican customers walk through. The Republican cookies, she imagines, may appeal more to some people regardless of their affiliation. "The elephant cookie cutter is way bigger than the donkey cutter," says Haskins. "So technically the elephant is a better deal."